A Reign Not of This World

A Reign Not of This World

Juan Carlos Onetti immerses himself in reality just long enough to fashion an escape. This is his peculiar gift.


"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.

The Pit is a microcosm of Onetti’s future work, in terms of both substance and reception. It is, in essence, the disjointed rant of a shattered recluse, a drama entirely without action or sustained description; it is a self-portrait conceived and sketched by Eladio Linacero, the novella’s only character, though he finds companionship in the imagined company of a girl from his childhood, two whores, a writer acquaintance and a communist roommate who never actually appears or has occasion to speak. On the eve of his fortieth birthday Linacero has decided to write the story of his life–at 40 everyone should do so, he reflects. But like the typical Onetti character, Linacero sidles up to the world of memory only to shrink away from it and instead narrate the half-truths of memories dissolved in dreams.

When the 30-year-old Onetti completed The Pit, Carlos Quijano, founder of the Montevideo-based magazine Marcha (where Onetti worked as an editor), was incredulous that Onetti planned to publish it. As it turned out, Onetti published The Pit himself after it was rejected by the distinguished Argentine literary magazine Sur; the novel had an initial print run of 500 copies, most of which went unsold. The episode would presage many more years of obscurity for Onetti, as well as a long history of rejections and second-place finishes in literary contests, a litany of near misses. Cobbling together his life from some of the better accounts, I counted seven or eight consecutive honorable mentions and partial recognitions, beginning with The Pit, all without a single definitive win. (With his usual fumbling charm, Onetti called himself un permanente segundón in his acceptance speech for the Premio Cervantes.) Onetti elevates obscurity into a kind of art form, perhaps because he has his characters share in it; slightness and bemusement–being absent or elsewhere–are the twin motifs of his life and fiction. What Onetti lacked in discipline in his writing, publishing sporadically and sometimes going for long stretches without writing, his characters more than match in the ferocity of their inaction.

The reek of malaise and the bitter unease of passive aggression are not unique to The Pit. The narrator of the short story "Bienvenido, Bob" says of a younger man, the titular Bob, whom he has always envied, "Nobody has ever loved a woman as much as I love his ruin, the unmistakable fact that he is stuck in the filthy life of men." In his early stories and novels, this jaded tone predominates. When Linacero’s resentments bubble articulately to the surface, for instance, he spews pure invective. ("If you marry a girl and one day wake up next to a woman, it’s possible you’ll understand, without being disgusted, the hearts of men who rape girls and the slobbering affections of old men hovering on street-corners outside schools, chocolates in hand.") In Onetti’s work from the 1950s onward, the tone grows somewhat more tempered and less bracing and rhetorical, and capable of conveying an ambient gloom. Still, an incessant, pulsating self-consciousness remains. In A Brief Life (1950), Brausen eyes himself with Samsa-like suspicion, contemplating "this person, me in the taxicab, nonexistent, a mere incarnation of the idea of [my name]." The sharpness of tone, the existential unease, the throbbing restlessness–nothing quite of this sort had appeared before, at least not in Latin American fiction.

Lost in critical accounts of Onetti in English–and this because publishers were so slow to commission English translations of his work–is the extent to which he was a major influence on a generation of writers who would come of age in the 1960s and ’70s, the years of El boom. To hear Vargas Llosa’s account, The Pit as well as A Brief Life helped unshackle the Latin American novel from the regionalist fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which tended to be provincial, plot-driven and often overtly nationalistic. By contrast, here was fiction whose drama sprang entirely from the heads of its characters. In The Pit Linacero says, a "stupid idea became an obsession," and the remark applies to much of Onetti’s work, which invariably begins with a single idea–a doubt, a frustration, a tic–blossoming into a steady fixation. In A Brief Life Juan María Brausen dreams up multiple counterlives before finally constructing, and populating, the imaginary city of Santa María. "I was destined to support Arce," he says, speaking about one of his half-real creations, "in the same way that, after death, my decomposition would feed a plant." Larsen, a character in Brausen’s imagined city and a ubiquitous figure in Onetti’s subsequent novels, imagines creating the perfect brothel. In the eponymous novel of 1964, he goes by the name Body Snatcher, a pimp who collects prostitutes and peddles them as corpses. As material reality crumbles away, Larsen–like Linacero, Brausen and, ultimately, Onetti–nourishes his obsession.

When not treated with utter disinterest or disregard, Onetti’s literary output was–and still is, you might say–beset by critical misunderstandings. The latest example comes from the admiring Vargas Llosa, whose as yet untranslated book on Onetti, El viaje a la ficción, appeared in 2008. Even though Onetti liberated Latin American fiction from parochial literary traditions, Vargas Llosa argues, he nevertheless represents a Latin America of "failure and underdevelopment," a world whose exigencies breed an author almost congenitally inclined to stage fantasies and flights from reality. Vargas Llosa casts Onetti’s work as the inevitable product of a universal Latin American experience that forces its literary denizens into the counterfactual and heady realm of fiction. Such an appraisal, though, doesn’t clarify the Uruguayan’s work. In one sense, Vargas Llosa is clearly trying to affix Onetti to the Latin American literary firmament, where there is already a richly ennobling tradition of masterly fantasizing and defiance of realism. And yet, in another way, Vargas Llosa propounds an ill-fitting essentialism, something that obscures rather than illuminates the particularities of Onetti’s visions, which have at least as much in common with Sartre and Camus as with his towering Latin American counterparts.

Critics often find in the relentless obsessions and fantasies of Linacero, Brausen and Larsen signs of some political eventuality. This is uncertain at best. Onetti was as close to being an apolitical figure as there may have been in the decades when he wrote. With the exception of an early novel, politics was a topic he pointedly refused to take up in his fiction. And when he did, as in Tonight (1942), inspired by the Spanish Civil War, it was with his usual elusiveness. The novel’s epigraph suggests a solipsism at odds with devotion to political causes:

All over the world in 1942 people were defending with their bodies various of the author’s convictions when this novel was being written. The idea that only those people were living a life true to destiny was humiliating and difficult to accept. This book was written from the need–satisfied in a petty, non-compromising way–to participate in the pain, anguish, and heroism of others. It is, then, a cynical attempt at liberation.

There would be occasional intimations of political-mindedness, but his fiction, for its part, leaves few clues as to its author’s political inclinations.

Uruguay had grown increasingly unstable by the late 1960s, and politics managed to vandalize the life of even the aloof and politically inactive Onetti. By the end of the decade, Uruguay’s ailing economy had the second-lowest growth rate in the hemisphere (Haiti’s was the lowest), and its social safety net had unraveled. Elements of the left, grown increasingly radicalized, were in turn marginalized and excluded from the government, where a burgeoning conservative culture had taken root. By 1967, when the arch-conservative Jorge Pacheco assumed the presidency, violent clashes had broken out between the government and the militant guerrilla organization Tupamaros; Pacheco declared a state of emergency under the Constitution, shutting down leftist newspapers and criminalizing membership in anarchist and leftist groups as well as the state Socialist Party. His successor, Juan María Bordaberry–the beneficiary of a 1971 election rife with fraud–proved even more repressive, and was strong-armed after a military coup by a cadre of generals intent on a nationwide crackdown of an altogether unprecedented reach. At the military’s order, Bordaberry dissolved Parliament, outlawed dissent and unleashed the police on suspected leftist sympathizers. In this environment, the most happenstance and inconsequential associations were routinely grounds for detention and torture by the police. The National Security Council, as the generals in Bordaberry’s circle called themselves, was particularly sensitive to criticisms of the state security forces.

In 1974 Onetti was imprisoned after a fruitless interrogation for having sat on a jury that awarded a prize to a short story depicting a local police chief as a sadist and torturer. (The story ran in Marcha, which the government subsequently closed by decree for more than two months.) According to one account of the police roundup–which included not just Onetti but Carlos Quijano, film critic Hugo Alfaro, poet Mercedes Rein and the story’s author, Nelson Marra–Onetti’s interrogators grilled him on his political sympathies until he finally conceded, in a sarcastic capitulation, that he was perhaps an anarchist, the only charge that could be levied against a writer who lacked obviously incriminating political convictions.

By locking up a writer like Onetti, the Bordaberry regime succeeded in offering the perfect portrait of political incoherence. Onetti’s imprisonment became a cause célèbre. Writers from all over Latin America as well as translators and critics in the United States and Europe all called for his release, which came three months later. In the aftermath of the ordeal, before he moved permanently to Madrid in 1975, Onetti received invitations to speak at international conferences; he won awards, and studies of his work began to appear in journals. Despite the welcome recognition, the tumult of his imprisonment and relocation left Onetti in a dry spell of sorts. The ordeal was hard on the writer. He had always suffered from depression, and was so roiled by his captivity that he threatened suicide and eventually had to be transferred to a psychiatric hospital. With the exception of a couple of stories–among them, the chilling "Presencia" (published in 1978 and still untranslated), about the region’s desaparecidos–Onetti had particular trouble writing, and did not publish another novel until 1979, when Let the Wind Speak came out.

His output by then had grown uneven anyway. Between 1964 and 1974 he published only the odd story. He was quiet during the Boom years when younger writers like García Márquez and Vargas Llosa (with the aid of the ingenious Spanish publisher Carlos Barral and agent Carmen Balcells) produced wildly successful novels that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and catapulted a generation into the global literary spotlight. The Boom was due at least as much to marketing and advocacy by and for the writers themselves as to the quality of their books. Onetti, by contrast, kept almost entirely to himself during the years before his imprisonment. He offered occasional interviews and wrote at his own pace; he was uninterested in giving prominent seminars, engaging in self-advocacy or signing on to political causes. He was a pessimist, largely apolitical, existentially ill at ease, a cosmopolitan but of the unlikeliest elements (the bordellos and stories of dissipation and urban cruelty inherited from Faulkner, Céline and the Argentine novelist Roberto Arlt). No one else sounded like Onetti at the time, and then, before long, English readers were beguiled by the virtuosity of García Márquez and Vargas Llosa, the worldliness of Cortázar. Onetti’s decision to relocate to Madrid, not Barcelona, the hub of the Boom years, confirms his essential remove.

Is Onetti’s singularity his curse? All his fiction tends toward fantasy but avoids magical realism. Instead there is an agonizing and almost methodical justification of the turn to the unreal, forged out of the smoldering remains of human failures, dashed expectations, missed opportunities, decay and the onset of senility. As such, his fiction resists ready classification, which has frustrated even enthusiastic critics.

In 1968, when Onetti’s seventh novel, The Shipyard (1961), was translated into English by Rachel Caffyn, the British critic David Gallagher extolled the novel in a review for the New York Times as "a graphic, ominous symbol of Uruguayan decay." Onetti was disappointed by the review, complaining that he had written a novel not of airy symbolism but instead about the failures of a particular man. The protagonist of the novel is Larsen, returned to Santa María many years after the foundering of his perfect brothel. He is the melancholic manager of a decaying shipyard starved for ships and cargo. Gallagher’s interpretation is impressively charitable considering how little he had to go on. The book that preceded The Shipyard in the Santa María cycle, A Brief Life, was published in 1950 but not translated into English until 1976. (Serpent’s Tail has just rereleased the original translation by Hortense Carpentier.) Gallagher reviewed The Shipyard presumably without reading, or even appearing to know about, the cycle’s inaugural title. Nor is it likely he read the third novel in the cycle, the then-untranslated Body Snatcher, from 1964.

Taken together, the novels and stories set in Santa María reveal an astonishing coherence. The city and its personages become Onetti’s sustaining literary subject; characters are forever reappearing, alluding to prior events and past conversations, partaking of small-town gossip. In A Grave With No Name (1959), for instance, there is talk of an event that had occurred in the then-distant past but that is narrated in a novel released two years later. The final pages of A Brief Life and Body Snatcher describe a conversation that coincides nearly word for word, even though the characters are fully named in the 1964 novel and only partially identified in the novel from 1950. In his stories, the most microscopic details about any of Onetti’s great Santa María figures–the police chief Medina, the journalist Jorge Malabia and doctor Díaz Grey–are consistent and carefully interwoven over the span of decades of writing.

These sometimes esoteric intricacies have made translating Onetti a particularly fraught endeavor. He has been mishandled in English–and not by any one translator necessarily (although that’s been a problem too) but by the order in which the translations have been published. The Shipyard was first to appear and was probably picked because of Onetti’s growing reputation in the late 1960s. Though originally written earlier, A Brief Life appeared in English eight years later. Then, nothing until the 1990s. This order–utterly random and scattered–is one of the great injustices done to Onetti in English. (And, one might add, to the books of his more successful peers. Bolaño’s first novel, The Skating Rink, from 1993, was translated into English only in 2009, one year after the publication in English of 2666, the novel Bolaño left uncompleted when he died in 2003.) The jumbled sequence of Onetti translations has obscured continuities among books and made an already hermetic writer even harder to grasp.

There is also the more obviously confounding question of what to make of Onetti in the original Spanish. His sentences unfold without regard for chronology or space and are thickly layered; their heaped-up details forever recede back into themselves. In the arresting novella Farewells (1954), the narrator’s description of the gaze of a sanatorium patient also doubles as a lucid description of Onetti’s sentences: "In a gentle, tried and tested manner working hard both to convince and corrupt what he was looking at, so that everything was touched by the sense of slight desperation."

Despite their obvious stylistic differences, Onetti shares with Borges a penchant for creating elaborate alternate realities–and for showing how these realities have come to pass. Onetti’s admirers like to call him "Borgesian," which the Argentine, who never particularly liked Onetti, would at least have appreciated. In "Kafka and his Precursors," Borges says that the writer creates his own precursors and thus defies chronology. Such appears to be the partial fate of Juan Carlos Onetti, only in reverse–a buried influence, an unsuspecting casualty of literary history.

In June of last year, a previously unpublished short story by Onetti surfaced in Montevideo and promptly appeared in Turia, a Spanish literary magazine. "El último viernes" is spare, only several pages long, and consists in its entirety of a conversation between a police chief and a journalist. They share coarse reminiscences and coarser projections. Onetti had written the story on the already filled pages of his daughter’s childhood notebook. It’s a telling image–Onetti writing over his daughter’s words only, finally, to be written over himself. Time and circumstance, and the particular bend of prevailing literary history, have all but buried Onetti’s fiction in English. And if left unaccounted for, his work–to his readers in translation anyway–is perhaps in danger of being worn away. Onetti himself once admitted that his reign was not of this world; at the time, he hadn’t intended that to be a warning.


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