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Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994)


Uruguayan novelist and short-story writer, a master in fusing fantasy and realism. Onetti was awarded Uruguay's national literature prize in 1963 and Spain's prestigious Cervantes Prize in 1980. In La vida breve (1950) Onetti created the fictional port town of Santa María, which also is the setting of his later works. Onetti wrote with a mixture of comedy and sadness about the loneliness of life, absurd values, the futility of religion, and the breakdown of modern town life. Although the tone was often pessimistic, his stories were rich in imagination.

"I don't know, exactly, when I decided irremediably to accept human stupidity, Santa María, Lavanda, and the rest of the world that I would always be unacquainted with. To keep myself from contradicting. I don't know when I learned to savor in silence my total enmity toward males and females. But my meeting up with Quinteros-Osuna, with his powerful mindlessness, with his incredible talent for making money, brought about an inner self-abandonment, forced me to accept with enthusiasm that form of imbecility which he recognized in me, with exaggerated, almost envious paeans of praise. So I said yes to everything and added details, improvements." (in Let the Wind Speak, 1979)

Juan Carlos Onetti was born in Montevideo of Uruguayan, Brazilian, and possibly Irish background. Little is known about his youth. He had an older brother, Raúl and a younger sister, Raquel. Onetti once remarked that he was a great liar as a child and he invented fantastic characters he felt were real. His father, Carlos Onetti, was a customs official, and his mother, Honoria Borges, came from a wealthy land owning family. Onetti never completed his secondary education and spent his first twenty years in his native Uruguay, working in odd jobs. He then moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he worked as a journalist and began publishing short stories in the early 1930s.

While in Montevideo Onetti was the editor of the highly regarded weekly journal Marcha from 1939 to 1942. During these years he promoted a radical transformation of literature and emphasized devotion to art. He attacked the tendency to focus on the Nature, and gauchos were for him old-fashioned literary types. Onetti saw that writers should develop stories about the cities. He admired William Faulkner - Santa Maria, a combination of Argentine and Uruguayan coastal towns, developed into Onetti's Yoknapatawpha. Another source of inspiration was the French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline, with his intense use of language.  

Onetti's first novella, El pozo (1939) has been hailed by many critics as the first truly modern Spanish American novel, and a precursor to the Magic Realism. The Spanish language edition comprised sixty-one pages. Onetti used modernist narrative technique, and brought on the scene a character familiar from the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The protagonist, Eladio Linacero, resembles Knut Hamsun's hero in Hunger (1890). He leads his aimless life in a city, where he is unable to communicate with others - they don't understand him and he don't understand them. He is separated from his wife and has only occasional contact with prostitutes. "The few people that I know are unworthy of having the sun touch their faces," he thinks. "Behind us, there is nothing. One gaucho, two gauchos, thirty-three gauchos." In his nightly self-torture, Linscero recalls his rape of a girl and moral degradation.

Tierra de nadie (1941) was set in Buenos Aires and consisted of brief scenes and conversations. In the end Aránzuru, the author sits by the river, meditating the aimless life in the city: "Invisible, behind his back, was the city with its dirty air, its high buildings with the coming and going of people, greetings, deaths, hands and faces, games. It was already night and the city buzzed below the lights, with its men, its hats, boys, handkerchiefs, shopwindows, footsteps, footsteps like blood, like hail, footsteps like a current without a destination."

The three-volume cycle of novels and stories, often called the 'Santa María Sagas,' appeared in the 1950s. La vida breve was written in Buenos Aires, where he stayed  because Perón's government viewed him as a dissident. The narrator is Juan María Bransen, an employee in a publicity firm and a writer, who invents a fantasy existence for himself as Dr. Díaz Grey, the protagonist of a screenplay he is writing. Grey is usually a neutral observer, as grey as his name implies.  Los adioses (1954) had  a beginning, middle, and end, but also an unrealiable narrator, typical for Onetti fiction. In La cara de la desgracia (1960) a guilt-ridden nameless narrator accepts responsibility for the deaths of his brother and a deaf girl, whom he met at a seaside resort. The narrator is accused of her murder. 'El álbum' (1953), later collected in Para una tumba sin nombre, tells of Jorge Malabia, the son of a prominent Santa María family. Towards the end of the story he visits a brothel, but he is not the central character in his own tale: the prologues to his  sexual initiation occupy the greater part of the narrative. Díaz Grey, the listener of Jorge's confessions, claims that he is a bad storyteller, he is too slow.

El astillero (1961), also set in Santa María, focused on the life of Larsen (alias The Bodysnatcher), the ex-owner of the illfated brothel, who works in a rusting shipyard. He plans to marry the daughter of its owner, but the shipyard becomes a symbolic landscape of his own ruin: "Erect, exaggeratedly strutting, he avoided pieces of hanging iron with shapes and names which rested imprisoned on a confusion of wires and penetrated into the shade, into the distant cold, into the reticence of the shed. He reviewed the desks, the threads of rain, the nets of dust and spider webs, the reddish-black machines which continued simulating dignity." Larsen appeared first time in Onetti's second novel, Tierra de nadie (1941). Juntacádaveres (1965) took Larsen back to a time when he was called to set up the whorehouse. Despite official support by the town councillor, the project is defeated by public opinion. The brothel is a threat to the values of Santa María and Larsen and the girls are expelled from the town. Noteworthy, Larsen is not the protagonist, Díaz Grey and Jorge Malabia are more important characters.

Onetti was editor for Reuters News Agency, first in Montevideo (1941-43), and then in Buenos Aires (1943-46).  From 1946 to 1955 he edited in Buenos Aires the Vea y Lea. Before being appointed in 1957 director of Municipal Libraries in Montevideo, Onetti worked as manager of an advertising company. 

As a writer he attracted little critical attention outside Uruguay until the mid-1960s. "Latin American literature has few secrets to divulge to the English speaking world; but one of them is the Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti," Gerald Martin said in The Guardian. Onetti's international reputation, and the fact that he was considered the most distinguished Uruguayan author, did not prevent his imprisonment in 1974 by the military dictatorship. He had been a member of the jury, that awarded a literary prize to a short story by Nelson Marra, which the authorities considered to be pornographic and offensive. Onetti was briefly incarcerated in a mental institution. After being released Onetti moved to Madrid and in 1975 he became Spanish citizen. He refused to go back to his country even when democracy was restored. In his new home country Onetti worked at a number of odd-jobs including a waiter, salesman, and doorman in a nightclub. Reflecting his growing pessimism, Onetti had Santa María devoured by fire in Dejemos hablas al viento (1979, Let the Wind Speak), his first novel written in Spain. Larsen reappears as a ghost.

"Onetti's uneven, troubled career has resolved itself into a large body of critically admired prose that, finally, hews to a single driving artistic impulse: the necessary predominance of writing process. Onetti's anguished, detached narrators, creators of public words and private torments, brought Latin American fiction out of its provincial stasis at a time when talent, opportunity, and attention were poised to grant it greatness, and the Latin American novel from the 1940s onward stands as the heir to Onetti's artistic, self-examining vision." (Bart L. Lewis in Contemporary World Writers, edited by Tracy Chevalier, 1993)

Onetti received several awards, including National Literature Prize (1962), William Faulkner Foundation Ibero-American Award (1963), Casa de las Américas Prize (1965), Italian-Latin American Institute Prize (1972), Miguel de Cervantes Prize (1980). In 1985, the new president of Uruguay travelled to Spain to present Onetti with the National Literary award. Onetti was married four times, first with his cousin María Amalia Onetti (1930-1933); they had one son. His second wife was his cousin María Julia Onetti. After divorce, Onetti married Elizabeth María  Pekelharing in 1945, a fellow worker in Reuters; they had one daughter. Onetti's fourth wife from 1980 was Dorothea Muhr, a violinist; they had lived together for 25 years. Onetti died in Madrid, on May 30, 1994.

For further reading: An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature by Jean Franco (1966); The Formal Expression of Meaning in Juan Carlos Onetti's Narrative Art by Y.P. Jones (1969): Entorno a Juan Carlos Onetti, ed. by L. Gómez Mango (1970); Las trampas de Onetti by Fernando Aínsa (1970); Onetti by J. Ruffinelli (1973); Homenaje a Juan Carlos Onetti, ed.  H.F. Giacomán (1974); Three Authors of Alienation: Bombal, Onetti, Carpenties by Ian M. Adams (1975); Juan Carlos Onetti by D. Kader (1977); Onetti: obra y calculado infortunio by Fernando Curiel (1980); Onetti by Hugo J. Verani (1981); Reading Onetti by Mark Millington (1985); Juan Carlos Onetti, ed.  Hugo J. Verani (1987); La Figura en el tapiz: Teoria y practica narrativa en Juan Carlos Onetti by Sonia Mattalia (1990); The Landscapes of Alienation: Ideological Subversion in Kafka, Celine, and Onetti by Jack Murray (1991); Onetti and Others: Comparative Essays on a Major Figure in Latin American Literature, ed. by Gustavo San Roman (1999); Da Faulkner a Onetti: uno studio comparativo dei cronotopi letterari fra Yoknapatawpha e Santa María by Erminio Corti (2004); Juan Carlos Onetti, Manuel Puig and Luisa Valenzuela: Marginality and Gender by Linda Craig (2005); El viaje a la ficción: el mundo de Juan Carlos Onetti by Mario Vargas Llosa (2008); The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael Sollars (2008)   

Selected works:

  • El pozo, 1939
    - The Pit (translated by Peter Bush, 1991)
  • Tierra de nadie, 1941
    - No Man's Land (translated by Peter Bush, 1994)
  • Para esta noche, 1943
    - Tonight (translated by Peter Bush, 1991)
  • La vida breve, 1950
    - A Brief Life (translated by Hortense Carpentier, 1976)
  • Un sueño realizado y otros cuentos, 1951
    - TV film: Un Sueño realizado, 2001, dir. by Graciela Maglie
  • Los adioses, 1954
    - Goodbyes and Stories (translated byDaniel Balderston, 1990) / Farewells (translated by Peter Bush, 1992)
  • Una tumba sin nombre, 1959 (retitled Para una tumba sin nombre)
    - A Grave with No Name (translated by Peter Bush, 1992)
  • La cara de la desgracia, 1960
    - Film: La Suerte está echada, 1989, dir.  by Pedro Stocki 
  • El astillero, 1961
    - The Shipyard (translated by Rachel Caffyn, 1968; Nick Caistor, 1992)
    - Film: El astillero, 2000, dir.  David Lipszyc, starring Ricardo Bartis, Mía Maestro, Ingrid Pelicori, Norman Briski
  • El infierno tan temido, 1962
    - Films: El infierno tan temido, 1975, dir.  Rafael Montero, starring Martin LaSalle, Julieta Egurrola, Marta Zamora, Manuel Gonzalez Casanova; El infierno tan temido, 1980, dir.  Raúl de la Torre, starring Graciela Borges, Alberto de Mendoza, Arturo García Buhr
  • Tan triste como ella, 1963
  • Juntacadáveres, 1964
    - The Body Snatcher (translated by Alfred MacAdams, 1991)
  • Jacob y el otro, y otros cuentos, 1965
    - Film: Mal día para pescar, 2009, based on the short story Jacob y el otro, dir.  Alvaro Brechner, starring Gary Piquer, Jouko Ahola, Antonella Costa, Cesar Troncoso, Bruno Aldecosea
  • Tres novelas, 1967
  • Cuentos completos, 1967
  • Los rostros del amor, 1968
  • La novia robada, y otros cuentos, 1968
  • Novelas y cuentos cortos completos, 1968 (2 vols.)
  • Obras completas, 1970
  • La muerte y la niña, 1973
  • Cuentos completos, 1974
  • Tiempo de abrazar, 1974
  • Réquiem por Faulkner, 1975
  • Tan triste como ella y otros cuentos, 1976
  • Dejemos hablar al viento, 1979
    - Let the Wind Speak (translated by Helen Lane, 1996)
  • Cuentos secretos, 1986
  • Presencia y otros cuentos, 1986
  • Cuando entonces, 1987
    - Sitten kun (suomentanut Inkeri Tuomikoski, 1991)
  • Goodbyes and Other Stories, 1990 (translated by Daniel Balderson)
  • Cuando ya no importe, 1993
    - Past Caring? (translated by Peter Bush, 1995)
  • Rumores de mar, 2000 (edited by Viviana Paletta and Javier Sáez de Ibarra)
  • Novellas I: 1939-1954, 2006

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