Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
On the fiction of Juan Carlos Onetti

Discussed in this essay:

A Dream Come True: The Collected Stories of Juan Carlos Onetti, by Juan Carlos Onetti. Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. Archipelago Books. 547 pages. $26.

Hombre con Sombrero (Man with Hat), by Joaquín Torres-García © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images

Hombre con Sombrero (Man with Hat), by Joaquín Torres-García © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images

All the men in Juan Carlos Onetti’s fiction wear hats: not caps, but proper Borsalinos, wide-brimmed and pinched and cocked at the top into Jean Arp sculptures, gray or black with a subtle silk band—no feathers—initials stamped in gold along the unseen interior sweatband. For today’s watchers of late-night films, such hats signal detectives and gang bosses, lonely romantic heroes and rich guys out on the town. As a kid growing up in the 1940s, I can remember my father instructing me to remove my hat when entering someone’s house—but not a public building, except in the elevator, where one unbonneted out of deference to the women present (the hat stayed on in an all-male car). Holding the brim between the thumb and the ring and middle fingers, one tipped one’s hat to acquaintances, male and female, encountered on the street. Embarrassment was dramatized by twirling the hat nervously in both hands at stomach level. The shadows obscuring the face under a hat made it abstract and emblematic, partially disguised, mature but of no specific age.

I suppose the hats worn by male characters in Onetti’s made-up port of Santa María lend them a sort of tattered dignity. We see that tattered dignity in the Uruguayan writer’s best-known novel, A Brief Life (1950), in which a journalist is unsuccessfully trying to put together enough money to have his wife’s breast cancer treated, and in The Shipyard (1961), when an enigmatic pimp, Larsen, back in Santa María after a five-year exile, accepts the position of directing a bankrupt shipyard. A contemptuous boy says to him: “ ‘What are you hoping for from here? It’s been a long time, and nothing you wanted has happened. Or so it seems to me.’ ‘Ah!’ Larsen said, rubbing his hands together.” That almost could be a passage out of Beckett, though there is too much narrative and too little humor. The last lines of The Shipyard—part of a page-long parenthetical that concludes the book—are like Malone Dies seen through the lens of realism:

( . . . He sniffed at the air, licking his split lip as the speeding boat made its way up-river. He died of pneumonia in Rosario before the week was out. His real name appears in full on the hospital register.)

Silence and solitude are recurring elements in the work of Onetti (1909–94), who developed, over the course of the twentieth century, an increasingly innovative and idiosyncratic literary style often described as some combination of Dashiell Hammett, William Faulkner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. His fiction has been called a forerunner of the magical realism of the Latin-American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s, and a great inspiration for writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. After many years of neglect in the English-speaking world, most of Onetti’s novels have since been translated, but until now there has been no complete edition of his stories in English. These have recently been assembled, in chronological order, by Archipelago Books and translated by Katherine Silver, who has managed admirably to preserve the oddness of the original.

In Onetti’s stories, we listen to the sound of moss growing; the color of the air is charged with quiet; a revolver is placed on the table, “quite still, incomprehensible, perhaps trying to communicate by a quivering of its wings that was out of the range of human hearing.” Someone on the edge of old age tries

to understand that moment in his life and in the world: the dark, twisted trees with their fresh leaves; the light glinting off the horse’s bronze haunches; the stillness, the patient secrecy of a provincial afternoon.

Most writers, encouraged to be “vivid” or “precise,” tend to punch up anything they describe, but Onetti does the opposite. People are often bored; the usual weather is cold rain; the buildings are shabby; faced with a moral choice, characters usually take the wrong path; women are fat; men are weak; people run out of things to say; priests are manipulative; everyone is horny but never romantic. His characters are conscious of living in a backwater, far from glamorous Buenos Aires, which is very far from a far more glamorous Paris or Madrid. Some people are rich but miserly; most people are lazy and in debt. Neighborhoods are derelict. Drunks are unfriendly, friendships lukewarm. If Balzac unrealistically lent all his characters his own dynamism, Onetti’s seem as gloomy and torpid—or ornery—as he himself was. When in a short story from 1970 a Uruguayan sailor places the first transatlantic phone call between Hamburg and his village in South America, his fiancée, on the other end, says, quite simply, “Why don’t you go fuck your mother, you shitfaced asshole?”

Every once in a while a character is seized by the sheer ecstasy of being. Not by the beauty of the world or the thrill of intimacy, not by a moment of understanding or a sweet memory, but simply by knowing that one is present, that one exists. One character thinks that the only thing that matters is to be alive. Another realizes “how happy he was to be sweating, a little drunk and in a trance, how happy he was to be watched and awaited.” A man smiles to reassure a woman that living is the only happiness possible. There’s the doctor Diaz Grey, who “was left listening only to the sea, his eyes closed, tenaciously repeating to himself that he was alive in a month in autumn.” A woman, studying herself in a mirror, smiles and thinks, “It’s me, it’s me. The person there with white, naked arms, it’s me, with my breasts cupped and my body drenched in perfume.”

It’s become a commonplace to characterize Onetti’s stories and novels as dreams. They are, of course, dreamlike, one intense episode melting into another, the atmosphere highly charged with inexplicable emotion, the events terrifying and somehow symbolic. In A Dog’s Night (1943), for instance, a man who is certain he is about to die is led by a familiar voice out of a ballroom into a private dining room. There he discovers someone he knows, dead and laid out on the floor, accompanied by two prostitutes—one short and one tall—who are chattering inconsequentially. In the distance is the muffled sound of artillery.

In a novel about a pimp, Body Snatcher (1964), a young woman, Julita, has been driven mad by the death of her husband. The scene of her bedroom-cage is served up instantaneously and indelibly. She has sex late at night with a handsome teenage boy; we see her fat thighs, her tangled hair, her vacant, sweating face. Eventually, the pimp takes the teenage boy to live in a blue bordello by the sea. Characters dissolve from one setting into another. They are seen weeping in bed or standing in the moonlight by a door or walking slowly from the train station through town. The connective tissue between scenes is missing and the reader must reconstruct the narrative.

In that way, Onetti reads a bit like Faulkner, his hero. Both writers invented a place and, in novel after novel, peopled it with the same characters. Both wrote novels that the reader is meant to have already read: that is, the books don’t gradually unfold in a clear, rational way, but rather the plot elements must be reassembled retrospectively. Both Faulkner and Onetti get the metaphysical chills; they are equally astonished by the mere habit of being alive. Similarly, both writers’ characters are almost caricatures, woodcuts rather than watercolors.

Onetti may have been a pessimist, but the very beauty and startling unpredictability of his prose attest to his devotion to something—possibly art alone. In an interview he said, “Literature is an end in itself, not a means for anything.” Earlier in that same interview he had said, “When I write I don’t have a specific purpose in mind. Writing means tackling the theme that has occurred to me.” His joy in writing is obvious from his painterly eye: “I reconstructed the solitude of the street lamps in the plaza and along the promenade, the perpendicular threads of rain without wind.” Proust once said that writers always reveal their favorite moment; if Stendhal’s is viewing a sunstruck plain from a very high place, then Onetti’s, we might say, is looking at a bleak provincial town in the cold rain. Onetti, who refused to indulge in Nobel Prize–worthy platitudes about fiction, said that he almost always started with a room. He admitted he had no discipline and wrote only when he was inspired—in that way writing for him was like making love. And, like Faulkner, he was a drinker.

Onetti had a strange if mostly uneventful life. He was born in Uruguay, his father of Irish descent (O’Nety), his mother from the Brazilian aristocracy. After a happy childhood, he held a number of odd jobs—eventually working as a journalist for Reuters in Buenos Aires—and married four times (the first two times to sisters, who were his cousins). Though he published his first novel, The Pit, in 1939—a bleak affair in which a man, on the eve of his fortieth birthday, sequesters himself in his room to write his life story—Onetti’s first critical success didn’t come until 1950 with the publication of A Brief Life, which made his reputation. In a sad irony, Onetti—whose fiction was largely apolitical—was jailed for three months by the Uruguayan dictator Juan María Bordaberry for serving on a jury that awarded a literary prize to the wrong author, and he fled to Spain the following year. By 1980, Onetti had won Spain’s highest literary award, the Cervantes Prize, and for the last years of his life he lived in bed (according to one interview, he preferred to lie on a big white bedspread with a black cat), drinking heavily, surrounded by the books he was reading and writing.

Though he is often called the father of the Latin-American Boom, in many ways Onetti more closely resembled his Latin-American contemporaries, such as José Agustín Cajar Escala, except that they, unlike him, usually had a left-wing political message. They also lacked his oneiric tone. But the early twentieth-century Latin-American novel was often a multigenerational saga, as many of Onetti’s books are, and it frequently indulged in pleonasms, which appear often in Onetti’s fiction. His work is also closely related to the Cuban neo-Baroque writers José Lezama Lima and Alejo Carpentier, both of whom are mindful of the continent’s strange, even surreal, landscape and its mysterious history. While Borges is often credited with cleaning up Spanish diction in Latin-American fiction (a later book such as One Hundred Years of Solitude can be seen as a condensed saga written in the chastened style of a Borges), Onetti, by contrast, is addicted, like more traditional Spanish-language novelists, to Góngorismo.

Luis de Góngora was a Spanish Baroque poet of the seventeenth century known for the complexities and indirection of his diction; “spun snow” was his way of describing linen tablecloths. Onetti’s way, especially in his later stories, is to indicate something such as a girl’s first menstrual periodby writing, “You say the child was twelve? And unable to foresee the horror that awaits her of blood in her panties as she’s serving water tea and biscuits to her dolls.”

Onetti’s style, which can create such lovely scenes of phantasmagoria, can be obscure in other ways. A logical list can degenerate into absurdity: “others who tolerated without difficulty the inheritance taxes, the taxes on the unconscious use of air, on the right to walk through the streets.” In another instance, there’s a Gogolian simile run amok that provokes the reader but fails to illuminate: “He loved money, as long as there was plenty of it, the way other men feel attracted to tall and fat women and put up with their age without caring.” In still another instance, there’s a poetically correct but literally false description: “she continued walking until she was able to plunge into the extravagant moon that continued to grow.” Or we read a highly detailed but surreal sentence:

I left the car at the top of the hill and saw them almost immediately, like in a small painting, the kind with wide gilded frames, motionless and surprising as I walked down toward them.

The stories collected in this volume are sometimes slight but more often long and strikingly original, especially in the way time contracts and dilates and the plot veers off in unexpected directions. They are also more daring than the novels. In one story, a Danish woman in Uruguay keeps imagining her native country so vividly in bedtime conversations with her husband that he finally steals money to buy her a ticket home. In perhaps my favorite story, “The Album,” a man encounters a woman on the street and, as they grow closer, is gradually mesmerized by her descriptions of the far-flung exotic places she has visited. The story shares the exoticism of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and the writing throughout is mysterious and exquisite: “ . . . night on the prairie that spreads, punctual and indomitable, only allows us to encounter ourselves, lucid and in the present tense.” In another story, a female dwarf and her handsome fellow adventurer, having finally run out of options, befriend the richest woman in town; after they attend to her every need for years, she dies and they discover she’s left her fortune to her dog. In yet another unforgettable story, a man—a good Catholic—is passionately attracted to his own wife, who, if she becomes pregnant again, will surely die.

These stories indicate the broad trajectory of Onetti’s career. He was a clear-cut fabulist who turned into a cloudy mythmaker, but who stayed true to his primary vision of a provincial town in the winter rain. He is too difficult ever to be popular, but every writer will admire his distinctive tone and originality of invention.

 is the author of nearly thirty books. Next summer Bloomsbury will publish his new novel, A Saint from Texas.

More from

| View All Issues |

May 1977

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now