Archive for the ‘Juan Carlos Onetti’ Category

Lost Books – Farewells & A Grave with No Name

July 21, 2017

As the titles suggest – Farewells (1954) and A Grave with No Name (1959) – death is ever-present in this volume of two long stories by Juan Carlos Onetti translated by Peter Bush in 1992. In the first a young basketball player retreats to a remote village to die of tuberculosis; in the second a woman is buried as her goat looks on. But mortality is not Onetti’s main concern – above all, these tales are about the impenetrable darkness of other lives, with narrators who strain their eyes to understand the movements in the shadows but see only so much.

The narrator of Farewells is the local shopkeeper who looks at the hands of new arrivals and decides whether they will live or die. In the case of the basketball player, death is not inevitable, but he believes he won’t be cured:

“…he wasn’t going to be cured because he wasn’t bothered about being cured; the nurse and I had known a lot of people like that.”

The basketball player refuses to stay in the sanatorium, living in a hotel instead, sitting in the lobby two or three hours a day, “pretending he believed he had turned incredulousness into an habitual and unambiguous ally, that a studied drama of withdrawal was enough to keep him attached to all that existed before the date of a diagnosis.” The narrator notices that in the letters he receives there are two particular types of envelope which matter to him, and assumes these are from women. One day one of the women appears and moves into the hotel with him. According to the nurse:

“The fellow needed that woman. You can see he can’t stand living apart from her. He’s another man now…”

However, a few weeks later, after she has left, another, younger, woman arrives, and this time he moves with her into a house he has rented nearby, the Portuguese sisters’ chalet. It is immediately assumed the new woman is his mistress:

“And frankly he’s not doing right by her; he’s not very gentlemanly, he shouldn’t have taken her to the hotel where everybody saw him living with the other woman.”

Of course, the story’s conclusion reveals that their suppositions have not been entirely accurate, but this twist is almost incidental. Onetti’s primary concern is the basketball player as observed from outside, not only by the narrator but by the nurse, the maid at the hotel, and the two women. Much of the story is told as the narrator sees it, but he also imagines a number of scenes, interpreting events as a writer would. Onetti gives the impression he distrusts his own craft, placing distance between himself and his characters to suggest we can only know so much for certain.

The same process occurs in A Grave with No Name, the narrator being only tangentially attached to the story, though pursuing the ‘truth’ with greater intent. The story opens with Jorge Malabia, the son of a rich family, organising the burial of a poor woman. Even more bizarrely he follows the funeral carriage with a goat:

“Lame, slavering down its beard, one leg in a splint, the goat had reached the cemetery gate; it was rubbing its nose against the short grass in the ditch but not managing to eat. The Malabias’ lad kept his arms crossed, didn’t let go of the rope, put up with the pulling…”

The narrator determines to discover who the woman is and why Malabia is burying her. The story is told in conversations with Malabia and other characters, but also in chapters composed by the narrator – as he says ate one point, “I started guessing things and wrote them down.” The woman, Rita, is a family servant whom Malabia comes across in more difficult times. But Onetti makes us question whether the woman he buried was Rita or not. Malabia tells him:

“It wasn’t Rita… She was a relative, a cousin… Another woman and practically another story.”

Onetti seems to be teasing us with the unattainable nature of truth, placing even this fact just beyond our reach. The narrator’s final comments sum up Onetti’s approach:

“And this is more or less all I had left after the holidays. Nothing really; hopeless confusion, a narrative without a possible conclusion, full of doubtful meanings, belied by the very elements that I had to give it shape. I had personal knowledge only of the last chapter, the hot afternoon in the cemetery. I didn’t know the significance of what I’d seen, I was repelled by finding out and being sure.”

Having 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 entirely out of print.

No Man’s Land

July 4, 2016

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.