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.