World Novel 1900 to the Present – Juan Carlos Onetti

Michael D. Sollars de Southern Texas University es el editor de World Novel 1900 to the Present dentro de la colección Facts on File Library World Literature.  Sollars solicitó mi colaboración sobre Juan Carlos Onetti que aquí podéis leer en inglés por supuesto, y con un número limitado de palabras para poder ser incluido. Como resumen sobre Onetti puede ser de interés.

Onetti, Juan Carlos (1909 – 1994). One of the best novelists in the Spanish language in the last century, Onetti advocated for a new Latin American literature so far back as the 1930s from the pages of Marcha, the prestigious Uruguayan weekly magazine he edited. He felt that the regionalism and social realism existent those years lacked originality and he urged for a new breath of air. His preaching went further and materialized in 1939 when he published in Montevideo his first novel called El Pozo (The Pit, 1991) and which brought to life his first solitary character, a forty-year-old writer, who frees himself from his existential anguish by writing a dream: the dream of the log cabin This novel already hid the germ of what would later become some of Onetti’s best literary oeuvre. For the first time in Uruguayan – and we could adventure Latin American – literature the micro-cosmos of “a small and timid man” becomes universal. It is within La Vida Breve, 1950 (A Brief Life, 1976), however, that Onetti creates his personal universe, another possible world (to borrow Leibniz’ term) in much the same way William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha, and which enables him and his characters to live in a place at a time both imaginary and real. Santa María is not just an imaginary city but a condensed geography, a syncretic enclave and filtrated social milieu representing the rioplatense.

The 1st of July, 1909, Juan Carlos Onetti Borges was born in Montevideo (Uruguay). Little we know about his first twenty years of life. Onetti never said much about his youth because, as he once explained, to narrate your own childhood is like trying to tell your dreams. He had an older brother (Raúl) and a younger sister (Raquel) He said about his parents they had been in love and he recalls being, as a child, a great liar; he practised oral literature with his friends and invented fantastic characters he would swear were real. He inherited from his earlier years a sensation that never left him: the distress of discovering people inevitably had to die. He never completed his secondary studies and had to work in a number of odd-jobs until, like many of his fellow countrymen, decided to cross the River Plate and settle in Buenos Aires for two long intervals (1930-1939 and 1941-1955) hoping to meet better opportunities. He married four times and had two children: Jorge by his first wife María Amalia Onetti – also his cousin – and Isabel María by his third wife Elizabeth M. Pekelharing.  Jorge, himself a writer, carries the burden of the family’s surnames: Onetti (twice) and Borges. In 1955 he marries his fourth wife Dorotea Muhr, a Uruguayan girl of German origin. She will live with him in Montevideo and Madrid until his death.

It was while working as a journalist in Buenos Aires during the second period that he became homesick for Montevideo (he could not return because of Peron’s government) and felt the need to create Santa María, a place where he could escape to and find some kind of communication and understanding.  Juan María Brausen – another desperate and lonely character – invents in La Vida Breve the city and its first inhabitant as the storyline for a film that would never be shot – Onetti had himself been a film reviewer while in Buenos Aires. The novel is in Onetti’s opinion his most interesting one, as it starts the Santa María saga and pretends to go deeper into the human essence than any other of his novels. The protagonist undergoes two parallel transformations. On the one hand he invents an alter ego named Arce who will transcend his own room and dull life to intrude into the room next door owned by a prostitute and, like a perfect Mr Hyde, become another. As Arce he could assume to be first just an occasional lover and finally the prostitute’s pimp. On the other hand, Brausen/ God will little by little build Santa María up and model it into a universe capable of becoming so much his own that he ends up absorbing the personality of Diaz Grey, the protagonist of his story. Brausen beautifully interpolates his creation into the novel’s ‘reality’ in a play of embedded dreams. Both for his characters and for Onetti the salvation through writing will be the only destiny capable of rescuing them from disenchantment.

Santa María, though imaginary, can be located somewhere in the Uruguayan coast of the River Plate by a Swiss settlement and a small town called Rosario – places which actually exist on both margins of the river as if duplicated – at more or less the same distance from Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Many of the Sanmarians are Swiss origin, other are Spanish, German or English. They are a mixture: half old continent and half new world but with a tiresome existence or anguished desperation which estranges them from their fellow citizens; probably the product of a new urban society which had very soon grown old. The stereotype could be traced among many Uruguayans who persisted in preserving a progressivism which the country’s economy could no longer support and hence their frustration.

El Astillero, 1961 (The Shipyard, 1968) and Juntacadáveres, 1964 (The Body snatcher, 1968) are considered to be his best novels. Several scholars have found in them a satirical and metafictional aspect that anticipates the later emergence of metafictional or fantastic literature in South America. One must not forget his exceptional short stories or his nouvelle Los Adioses, 1954 (Goodbyes and Other Stories, 1990) where he excels in the techniques of point of view and ambiguity honouring the best Henry James.

Much of what Onetti published in Marcha was under pseudonym as were some of his hard-boiled short stories. Despite being frequently second or third in literary contests, quite a number of intellectuals and writers, among them Roberto Arlt, very soon read his work and praised it broadly. He was influenced mainly by North American and European literature; he acknowledged his debt to Hemmingway, Faulkner and Henry James and to playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Saul Beckett but we can definitely identify the influence of Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his harsh, naked prose and marked criticism of society. He has been considered extremely sceptical and pessimistic but he always managed to highlight – by contrast – some kind of subtle tenderness in most of his characters.

His acclaimed success came first with his country’s National Literary Award in 1960 and finally with the Spanish Cervantes Award in 1980. He was also honoured with many other less prestigious prizes but it was the Cervantes the one to enhance the re-edition of all of his works and make him known worldwide. He missed, as many good writers have, the Nobel Prize despite he was nominated for it.

He had exiled to Madrid in 1974 the same way Brausen had settled in his Santa María, looking for a place where he could be freed from inanity. Onetti had been imprisoned by the military government in Uruguay because of his sound criticism though with the excuse of awarding, as member of a literary jury, first prize to a story they considered pornographic. This persecution made him leave Montevideo but did not affect his literary credo: his only commitment was with himself, he wrote for the sole enjoyment of the work well done. Writing was his pleasure but also his fate. He died in Madrid on May 30th, 1994 without ever returning to Montevideo.

Las páginas originales en la enciclopedia:

pg. 587

Pg. 588

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