No Man’s Land

no mans land

Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti is probably the least known of the great Latin American writers of the twentieth century. Mario Vargas Llosa credited him with writing the first modern Latin American novel, a sentiment echoed by Carlos Fuentes who said, on the same topic of modernity:

“That civilization, far from providing happiness or a sense of identity or the discovery of common values, was a new alienation, a more profound fragmentation, a more troublesome loneliness. No one came to see this better or sooner than the great Uruguayan novelist, Juan Carlos Onetti.”

No Man’s Land is Onetti’s second novel, originally published in 1941, and not translated into English (by Peter Bush, Onetti’s main translator) until 1994. The novel begins dramatically with a sudden knocking, and a gun:

“Once more the anguish of wakefulness and all because of three measured knocks on the door. He sat there, shaking his head in the dark. The knocks went bang, bang, bang. His hand felt for the gun butt on the counterpane.”

The weapon in Oscar’s hand is unnecessary: the man knocking at the door, Larsen, is a friend, as far as friendship means anything in Onetti’s world. He comes with a warning: “You know they were out looking for you last night,” offering him a lawyer’s card and the advice he should give himself up. Oscar calls the lawyer, but the phone rings unanswered.

The ringing phone, rather than the gun, is the key prop in both this scene, and in the discounted society Onetti will portray over the course of the novel. The gun, whatever Chekhov says, will soon be forgotten – this is a novel of inaction rather than action. The unanswered phone – which features in short scene of its own revealing that it is within hand’s reach of someone – illustrates the inability of the novel’s characters to communicate, and also something of the effect the novel has on the reader. Onetti may borrow his style – the short, staccato sentences – from hard-boiled pulp fiction, but the tension which they build is never released. Larson, Oscar and Aranzuru (the lawyer) will reappear, part of the novel’s rotating cast of characters, but the plotline which has seemingly been set in motion will simply ring out.

Though Larsen will reappear in later Onetti’s novels (The Shipyard and Body Snatcher), Aranzuru is the closest we have to a main character in No Man’s Land. Like so many of Onetti’s characters, he drifts through life, unshackled but aimless (The onset of the Second World War in the background, and the Hitler-Stalin Pact in particular, add further to the sense of life’s meaninglessness):

“He felt that man’s friendship with the earth was at an end. What were they to him, the colours in the sky, the stunted city trees, the shadowy crowds and odd solitary window lit up in the night? What were they to him, the things that make up life, thousands of them creating life itself, like words shaping into a sentence?”

He dreams of escape – to an island “not on the maps…Not a single white man, it’s the only one left.” It’s a dream, however, which he circles round, never daring to approach until the near the end. Typically, when given money that would allow him to change his life, he soon finds excuses to give it, in turn, to someone else. It’s not surprising that Onetti has frequently been linked with existentialism, Michael Wood once commenting:

“He was an existentialist before he read Sartre, but everybody else had read Sartre before they read Onetti.”

Focusing on Aranzura, however, does not truthfully represent the experience of reading the novel which, I think it’s fair to say, can be a frustrating one. Onetti introduces at least ten characters in the first chapter, identified only by name, with little indication of existing relationships. Explanatory narrative is non-existent, and, like a badly edited film, chapters do not begin from any point we have previously paused at. There are some piercing moments (a one page chapter on an abortion, for example) but the overall sensation is of entering the disconnected, meaningless world of the characters.

Persistence pays off, however, as you reach the final third of the novel and the cumulative effect begins to tell on the reader; when the trigger is finally, pointlessly, pulled it is almost a relief. The final pages feature trams, train stations and docks, but, unsurprisingly, Aranzura remains “becalmed,

”…alone at the centre of the huge circle closed by the horizon.”

Onetti is not a writer to turn to for light relief, or indeed any kind of relief, but his portrait of a fractured, dislocated society still feels modern today.

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17 Responses to “No Man’s Land”

  1. MarinaSofia Says:

    I’m not sure I could cope with the short sentences and staccato style if it doesn’t ultimately build up the tension to something resembling a climax, but I love the way you describe this as a novel of inaction rather than action.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks. Yes, that can be rather irritating – it really plays on your expectations. Can’t really be described as anti-climax either, just no climax!

  2. winstonsdad Says:

    I have to try him the book our library had didn’t.appear so is lost maybe look on amazon for a cheap edition he is one of early Latin I’ve not read

    • 1streading Says:

      The only reason I’ve read him is that Alan Warner, when he had only published Morvern Callar, mentioned Onetti as an influence, which made me read a couple of his books years ago (but nothing more until now).

  3. bookbii Says:

    This sounds like a fascinating read, if a little bit stressful to read. Reminds me of Beckett, to a degree. I quite like the idea of inaction, the novel centring around not doing rather than doing, though I suspect the idea might be more fun that the reality.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s a good way of putting it! There are similarities with Beckett, but without the wit and dark humour (though that may be partly that I’m reading in translation).

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    I haven’t tried Onetti, but I recall seeing a review of another of his novels (possibly The Shipyard) which suggested a similar shadowy world with a strong sense of disconnection. I’m probably with Marina on this – the hard-boiled nature of the prose style appeals, but I think I’d be looking for some kind of denouement of sorts. Sounds like a very fair review, Grant.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, Onetti is certainly an acquired taste – possibly why he took so long to be translated and why his work has rather faded from view since despite his importance to Latin American literature.

      • JacquiWine Says:

        How do you think he compares to someone like Juan Gabriel Vasquez? (I guess I’m thinking of The Sound of Things Falling, which I loved.) Vasquez strikes me as being more accessible than Onetti, but I was wondering if you can see any similarities in their themes?

      • 1streading Says:

        That’s an interesting question – Vasquez is certainly a more conventional author. Though there are thematic links, Vasquez’s novels include traditional elements like plot and character development which makes it difficult to compare. Onetti’s themes are very much part of his style and vice versa.

  5. BookerTalk Says:

    I’ve not had a great deal of success in finding authors I enjoy from this part of the world. Too much magical realism for my taste so good to see something vastly different.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, this certainly could not be described as magical realism, though that label has been used to cover a number of varied authors. Who have you tried?

  6. Richard Says:

    One of my all-time favorite novelists and short story writers and yet a rare Onetti novel I haven’t yet read (I’ve been working through his later stuff chronologically). People who are looking for a break from magical realism will certainly get that from Onetti, but I’m quite certain his fondness for pulp fiction bluntness and Faulkner will turn many people off who wrongly think Latin American lit is all about magical realism. In any event, I look forward to reading this one day, Grant–thanks for the warning, he he!

    • 1streading Says:

      Other than this I’ve read The Shipyard and A Brief Life – but that was many years ago. Have now ordered another, however, as I was slowly won over by his style.

  7. Séamus Duggan Says:

    This sounds like one I have to read. I, too, led by Richard, have become a little besotted with Mr Onetti. I’ve read three, A Brief Life, The Shipyard and Body Snatcher. Characters becalmed seems to be one of his central tropes and this sounds like a must read. Existential pulp. I’ve written on Brief Life and The Shipyard and hope to get around to Body Snatcher.

    • 1streading Says:

      Two great reviews – I particularly liked the phrase ‘rampant entropy’! I’ve actually read both books, though many years ago now – you make me want to dig them out for a re-read.

  8. Lost Books – Farewells & A Grave with No Name | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] read No Man’s Land last year, it is clear Onetti is a difficult but rewarding writer; it is such a pity he is now […]

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