Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
A Brief Life presents the inner conflict of a man who, after suffering a traumatizing experience, feels lost and seeks an identity. He splits into two selves, and, at the same time, he finds refuge in his own fantasy.
Juan María Brausen is about to be fired from his job. His wife, Gertrudis, has undergone surgery on her left breast, and her scarred body is so repulsive to him that it has become an obsession. He begins to realize that he is not the same person he thought he was and suffers a crisis of identity: “I understood that I had been aware for weeks that I, Juan María Brausen and my life were nothing but empty molds, pure representations of an old meaning kept out of indolence, of a being dragging himself among the people, the streets, and the time of the city, routine acts.”
Through the wall of his apartment, Brausen can listen to the incidents that take place in the world of Queca, a prostitute. He decides to enter this adjacent world as an alternative to his tortured existence. In his imagination, Brausen becomes Juan María Arce, a new man who will exist simultaneously but apart from Brausen. Arce will live “a brief life in which time could not be enough to engage him, to make him repent, or grow older.”
The agency for which Brausen works has ordered him to write a screenplay. For that purpose, he has invented the imaginary world of Santa María at the shores of the Río de la Plata. There, an imaginary alter ego, the mediocre forty-year-old Dr. Díaz Grey, spends his life selling morphine to Elena Salas, the woman with whom he is in love. Brausen repeatedly escapes to this world and projects himself into the doctor.
These “brief lives” exist primarily in Brausen’s consciousness, rather than in the real world. The conclusion of the novel completes the image of failure presented at the beginning: Brausen has been fired from his job and has been abandoned by his wife. Queca has been killed, and Elena Salas also has died. The novel ends with Brausen walking along the streets of Santa María, integrated into his own fantasy.
Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Adams, Michael I. Three Authors of Alienation: Bombal, Onetti, Carpentier. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975. Adams presents a sociopsychological critical interpretation of three Latin American authors whose works share similar themes. Includes a chapter focusing on Onetti’s view of spiritual disillusionment as inevitable in the urban setting.
Ainsa, Fernando. “Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994): An Existential Allegory of Contemporary Man.” World Literature Today 68 (Summer, 1994): 501-504. A tribute to and biographic profile of Onetti as well as an analysis and evaluation of his work.
Kadir, Djelal. Juan Carlos Onetti. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Kadir provides a critical and interpretive study of Onetti with a close reading of his major works, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.
Lewis, Bart L. “Realizing the Textual Space: Metonymic Metafiction in Juan Carlos Onetti.” Hispanic Review 64 (Autumn, 1996): 491-506. Lewis compares Onetti’s style to that of Boris Pasternak. Lewis asserts that through his works, Onetti reveals that there are many openings to be filled in the fictional scheme because fictional characters live in a web of words.
Verani, Hugo J. “Juan Carlos Onetti.” In Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos A. Solé and Maria I. Abreau. Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989. An essay on the life and career of Onetti. Includes analysis of his works and a bibliography.