Onetti presents in A Brief Life an interesting, three-dimensional protagonist. By splitting the character’s personality, the author is able to make a more profound study of human identity.
Onetti concentrates on Brausen’s psychological problems, fears, and fantasies, rather than on a narrative description of his life. For this reason, Brausen’s internal life, depicted through his reflections and through passages of stream of consciousness, predominates over action in the book.
Juan María Brausen, like many of Onetti’s protagonists, is an imaginative man who refuses to develop the practical qualities that his world demands of him. Brausen is an alienated, existentially tortured man, an outsider. He knows that the world in which he lives is full of falsehood, but he does not fight it. He adopts a skeptical and resigned attitude. He invents new lies, new identities. Brausen creates other selves through which he evades his anxiety, taking refuge in his fantasy as a self-defense mechanism, but he does not undergo change in the course of the novel. His life has changed with his wife’s surgery and the consequent trauma, but Brausen has the same wandering attitude from the beginning to the end. He is consistently a failure.
The noises and voices to which Brausen listens through the wall of his room invite him to enter the world of sex, a world from which his wife’s scars have separated him. Brausen transformed into...
Juan María Brausen (BROW-sehn), the protagonist, who is suffering an existential crisis at a time when both his vacuous job as a Buenos Aires adman and his marriage are dissolving. Outwardly conventional, cautious, and repressed, he considers his life to be a form of death. Inwardly, though, he lives an artist’s fantasy life. To save himself from the outer void, he takes on two new identities: an impersonation that he assumes so as to enter the life of the prostitute who lives in the apartment adjacent to his own, and his fictional surrogate, the protagonist of a film scenario that he is alternately writing and imagining over the course of the novel. All three levels of his identity merge ambiguously at the end of his story. He flees with the young man who has independently carried out the murder of Arce’s prostitute and ends up in the imaginary town of Santa María, the setting of the film scenario.
Juan María Arce
Juan María Arce (AHR-seh), the name under which Brausen moves in with Queca, the prostitute, who is unaware that he lives next door as Brausen. He virtually becomes a kept man. A channel for Brausen’s repressed violent instincts, he develops a sadistic relationship with Queca and plans to kill her, essentially as a gratuitous act but also because she taunts him as a perpetual cuckold. When Ernesto murders her for his own reasons on the same night that Arce planned to do the job, Arce adopts a protective, paternal attitude toward the younger man, recognizing that Ernesto is in effect a more active part of himself.
Dr. Díaz Grey
Dr. Díaz Grey (DEE-ahs), Brausen’s fictional alter ego, a slim provincial physician with thinning blond hair. Díaz Grey, like Brausen, is middle-aged and repressed. He is a bachelor but is awakened to love by the appearance of Elena Sala in his life. He faithfully accompanies Elena on her quest for a young man whom she wishes to save from desperation. Quite corruptible, Díaz Grey supplies Elena with regular injections of morphine and, after her death, accompanies her husband to Buenos Aires to procure drugs for illicit trade, without questioning the wisdom of such an endeavor. At the end of the novel, he is newly devoted to Annie Glaeson, a young violinist, and on the verge of being apprehended with Lagos by the police. Díaz Grey is last seen in Buenos Aires, having left behind his fictional habitat, Santa María, and effectively changed places with his creator, Brausen.
Gertrudis (hehr-TREW-dees), Brausen’s wife, originally from Montevideo, Uruguay, as he is. She has grown corpulent in her maturity and had a mastectomy just prior to the action of the novel. She is saddened by both her mutilation and the loss of love between herself and her husband. Brausen is put off by her new physical state and also by the routine of marriage that Gertrudis represents. She leaves Brausen and goes to live with her mother in a Buenos Aires suburb. He derives his more seductive fictional character, Elena Sala, from Gertrudis.
Raquel, Gertrudis’ younger sister, who is twenty years old and...