"I am animated by the idea that you can stop reading me when you wish," explains Juan María Brausen in A Brief Life, a 1950 novel by Juan Carlos Onetti. Brausen’s remark appears in a letter to a friend: Brausen has recently left town, and he doesn’t want his friend to follow him. Reading Onetti’s fiction, you can’t help feeling superfluous yourself, encouraged to slink away, to give up the pursuit. It’s nothing personal. As the protagonist of Onetti’s novella The Pit (1939) says of his writing, more with indifference than piquancy, "I don’t know whether it’s interesting but that doesn’t bother me." Onetti’s characters need to be alone, and whether they are writers or not, they take especial pains to harvest their solitude. In this they resemble their author, who was never quite reclusive but rather willfully self-contained. His fiction appears, maybe more than for most writers, to have been a necessary, perhaps even hermetic, personal instrument; writing only for his characters, as he once professed, he could contain and give shape to the self so that he might, momentarily, forget that he existed. "My oeuvre," Onetti wrote to Octavio Paz in the frosty and uncharacteristically public exchange that ensued after Paz was awarded the prestigious Premio Cervantes in 1981, "is nothing more than a combination of fictional works in which the only thing that mattered to me was my own self, confronting and maybe conjoined with the perspectives of many characters that life has forced on me or that I have perhaps imagined." Onetti immerses himself in reality just long enough to fashion an escape. This is his peculiar gift.
Words appear in odd and unlikely combinations with Onetti, always courting possibilities while reducing certainty. His fictions and correspondence attest to his insurmountable remoteness. In interviews he was much the same, speaking slowly, punctuating remarks with long pauses, taking interminable drags on a cigarette in midsentence, trailing off in a bemused monotone. As the Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina once said, recalling a 1977 televised interview with the writer in Madrid, where Onetti lived for nineteen years in political, then self-imposed, exile: "I had never heard anyone speak about literature with such a lack of emphasis."
Born in 1909 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Onetti was one of the most idiosyncratic and virtuosic Latin American writers of the twentieth century. His readers in Spanish know this. In his later decades, after years of writing in relative obscurity, he earned a reputation as a quirky, cosmopolitan Modernist–a South American Faulkner who also enjoyed an aesthetic kinship with Borges and Céline (an unlikely pairing that only Onetti could provoke). In 1980 Onetti won the Premio Cervantes. He also became known as a writer’s writer. Mario Vargas Llosa, Roberto Bolaño, Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar and Antonio Muñoz Molina are among his admirers, all of them better-known (and very different) masters who have acknowledged, always in intensely personal terms, the debt they owe Onetti. Bolaño, who attempted to interview Onetti in Mexico in 1975, once joked that he was himself a terrible writer by comparison. Vargas Llosa, for his part, said no other modern writer has grasped the human need for fiction "with more force or originality" than Onetti.
Onetti’s treatment–and recognition–in the English-speaking world is slight. What exists is the vague impression, fainter than a watermark, left by the writer and his enthusiasts: sporadic and somewhat haphazard translations of his novels and stories, some mild academic interest in his fiction and a crumb trail of biographical sketches or commentary. (All but two of his eleven novels have been translated into English, though only a single and regrettably abridged volume of his short stories exists in English; his two books of critical and journalistic writings remain untranslated.) During 2009, the year of his centenary, there was, predictably, a flurry of articles, readings and international tributes in the Spanish literary world (including a well-attended conference in Madrid headlined by Muñoz Molina and Vargas Llosa). But there wasn’t a word in the English-language press. This silence was all the more conspicuous alongside the persistent din about Bolaño. The scant attention may have had to do with the fact that most of Onetti’s work was translated in the 1990s, more than a decade after he received the Premio Cervantes and around the time of his death, in 1994. Whatever the case, Onetti in translation remains distant from his readers, a perversely fitting situation given the peculiarities of his work and its marginal place in literary accounts of Latin American fiction in English. But that’s no reason the distance should remain so great.