Juan Carlos Onetti (oh-NEHT-tee) was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1909, the second of three children. He grew up in a stable, middle-class family, and he remembered his childhood as a happy one. His father, Carlos Onetti, was a customs official, and his mother, Borges de Onetti, was a descendant of wealthy Brazilian landowners. In 1930, he married his cousin, María Amalia Onetti, and left for Buenos Aires, Argentina. His first job in Buenos Aires was that of a salesman for a firm selling calculators. In 1933, he published his first short story, “Avenida de Mayo-Diagonal-Avenida de Mayo” (“May Avenue-Diagonal-May Avenue”) in La Prensa of Buenos Aires. While he was making some headway in his literary career, however, his personal life was not going well. After the breakup of his first marriage, he returned to Montevideo. He remarried; his second wife was María Julia Onetti, the sister of his first wife.
In 1939 he helped to found and became chief editor of Marcha, which went on to become one of the most prestigious cultural weeklies in Latin America. Under the enlightened direction of luminaries such as Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Angel Rama, and Jorge Ruffinelli, its cultural section established Uruguay as a cultural center in the Third World. In December, 1939, Onetti published The Pit. This novella constituted a break with the previous conventions of the genre. It is narrated by a middle-aged man who is disillusioned with life. He lives in squalor and loneliness, separated from his wife, and his isolation is made all the worse by his sense that his country, Uruguay, lacks a cultural tradition able to sustain the individual spiritually. The novel offers a jaundiced view of the fragmentation of life in a modern urban environment; it may well be seen as a projection of Onetti’s own experience of city life. In 1941, Onetti moved back to Buenos Aires (where he was to remain until 1954) and began working for the British news agency Reuters. He subsequently went on to become editor of various periodicals. In 1941, his novel Tierra de nadie (no man’s land) was published by the prestigious publishing house Losada of Buenos Aires. Like his previous work, this novel focuses on the disjointed, and ultimately aimless, lives of people struggling to find some dignity for themselves in a hostile urban environment.
Onetti’s second marriage also broke up, and in 1945, he was married for the third time, this time to Elizabeth María Pekelhering. In 1950, he published his masterpiece, A Brief Life, which won him international fame. Like most of his fiction, it expresses in poignant fashion the spiritual anguish of life in the modern city. The following year, his wife gave birth to a daughter, Isabel María. In 1953,...
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