Juan Carlos Onetti Essay - Onetti, Juan Carlos (Short Story Criticism)

Onetti, Juan Carlos (Short Story Criticism)


Onetti, Juan Carlos 1909-1994

Uruguayan novelist, short story and novella writer, editor, journalist, and translator.

Onetti is widely considered to be among the finest and most innovative novelists and short fiction writers of Latin America. Commenting on the alienation and dissatisfaction of modern life, his works feature such novelties as selfreferentiality, nonlinear representation of events, emphasis on subjectivity, multiple narrative layers, characters invented by other characters, and the creation of a fictional milieu called Santa María. Onetti achieved international distinction with the publication of La vida breve (A Brief Life), hailed as one of the most original novels of the 1950s to emerge from South America. Nevertheless, he remains, as James Polk of the New York Times noted, "probably the least-known giant among modern Latin American writers."

Biographical Information

Onetti was born in Montevideo. His education was interrupted frequently as a result of numerous relocations by his family, and he eventually dropped out of high school to pursue a bohemian lifestyle, supporting himself with a variety of jobs. Though his formal studies were ended, Onetti was an avid reader, favoring particularly the works of Knut Hamsun. In 1931 he completed El pozo (The Pit), though this novella wasn't published until 1939, after having been reworked. An early publication of his won a prize from the journal Prensa in 1933, and Onetti was subsquently encouraged by the appearance of the stories "El obstáculo" and "El posible Baldi" in the Nación in 1935 and 1936, respectively. He served as the managing editor of the influential weekly magazine Marcha from its inception in 1939 until 1941. The magazine lasted as an important voice within the Uruguayan cultural world for more than three decades, with Onetti as a notable contributor of essays and articles. In 1941 he became an editor for Reuters news in Montevideo and continued his duties for Reuters in Buenos Aires until 1954. During this period he also worked for the Nación, which printed the stories "Un sueño realizado" ("A Dream Come True") in 1942 and "Bienvenido, Bob" ("Welcome, Bob") in 1944. With La vida breve, published in 1950, Onetti became one of the originators of the contemporary Spanish-American novel and garnered recognition as a writer worthy of note in the international literary world. His first collection of short stories, Un sueño realizado y otros cuentos, appeared in 1951 and was followed three years later by the novella Los adioses. Around 1954 Onetti returned to Montevideo, where he concentrated on journalism, working for the newspaper Acción. Somewhat later he undertook the role of director of municipal libraries in Montevideo. With the success of the novels El astillero (The Shipyard) and Juntacadáveres (Junta, the Bodysnatcher), Onetti became a more prominent literary figure and in 1962 was awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura by the Uruguayan government for his body of writing. In the following years, his schedule included the travels and conferences typical of an internationally renowned author. However, in 1974 he suffered imprisonment by the government for three months for having served on the jury of a contest that honored a work of fiction deemed subversive. Frustrated by the country's dictatorship, Onetti abandoned Uruguay for Europe the following year, settling in Spain. In 1980 he received a nomination for the Nobel Prize in Literature from the Latin American PEN Club and was awarded the Premio Miguel de Cervantes Prize by the Spanish Ministerio de Cultura y Información. Onetti remained in Madrid until his death in 1994.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Creating an atmosphere of moral, physical, and psychological decay, Onetti wrote about characters—typically outsiders—who are isolated, disenchanted, and lonely. They mourn squandered opportunities, live in fear of death, or seek to escape the monotonous routine of their daily lives. These people are often pushed to the edge by society and live in a nightmare world of ruin and corruption that they try to escape through their imagination or the creation of dream worlds. Seldom given proper names by Onetti, these characters are identified by their occupation, psychological characteristics, or a particular aspect of their appearance. Usually little action occurs in Onetti's fiction. Plots tend to center on an event or decision, followed by testimonials from various characters whose observations relate to the preceding anecdote and simultaneously elucidate and muddle the story. Most of Onetti's fiction is openended: he offers no neat conclusions and some mysteries remain. Santa María serves as the setting of "Jacob y el otro" ("Jacob and the Other"), which is about a wrestler who takes on any opponent for a cash prize. One man—prodded by his pregnant fiancée, who wants money for their wedding—challenges the wrestler. The story is divided into parts that present narration from distinct characters' points of view. Each narrator relates the events in a different sequence, resulting in a puzzle that the reader must piece together in order to have a clear understanding of the actual chronological sequence of incidents and of the possible cause-effect relationships. The novella El pozo is the story of a man alone on the night of his fortieth birthday, writing his memoirs. He recollects his rape of a girl, his moral degradation, and tortuous nightly self-analysis. This confession signals the potential for choosing a different way of life, but at the close of the narrative the man's direction remains unknown. Onetti's dramatization of the protagonist's internal, subjective state in El pozo is regarded as the beginning of existential fiction in Latin America.

Critical Reception

Praised for their imaginativeness and originality, Onetti's works have been described as fundamentally ambiguous, fragmented, and complex. John Deredita has found that "melodrama . . . occasionally damages Onetti's shorter works," and notes that "critics reproach Onetti's thematic insistence, the lapses into rhetoric, the minute descriptive style that serves as the imitative form of boredom and that sometimes reproduces it in the reader." Furthermore, critics have accused Onetti of misogyny because his fictional women are almost always presented in an unflattering light, often as prostitutes or unfaithful wives. Despite these defects, Onetti's works have been favorably compared to those of Jean-Paul Sartre, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and especially William Faulkner, whose interest in layered narratives and imaginary settings was shared by Onetti. Referring to the arrival of modern society in the twentieth century, Carlos Fuentes has stated: "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."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

El pozo [The Pit] (novella) 1931

Un sueño realizado y otros cuentos (short stories) 1951

Los adioses [Goodbyes] (novella) 1954; translated in Goodbyes, and Other Stories, 1990

*Una tumba sin nombre [A Nameless Tomb] (novella) 1959

La cara de la desgracia [The Face of Misfortune] (novella) 1960

El infierno tan temido [Dreaded Hell] (short stories) 1962

Jacob y el otro; Un sueño realizado y otros cuentos [Jacob and the Other; A Dream Come True, and Other Stories] (short stories) 1965

La novia robada y otros cuentos [The Stolen Bride] (short stories) 1968

Tiempo de abrazar [Time to Embrace] (novella) 1974

Tan triste como ella y otros cuentos [As Sad as She Is, and Other Stories] (novella and short stories) 1976

*Also published as Para una tumba sin nombre.

Other Major Works

Tierra de nadie [No Man's Land] (novel) 1941

Para esta noche [Tonight] (novel) 1943

La vida breve [A Brief Life] (novel) 1950

El astillero [The Shipyard] (novel) 1961

Juntacadáveres [Junta, the Bodysnatcher] (novel) 1964

La muerte y la niña [Death and the Girl] (novel) 1973

Réquiem por Faulkner y otros artículos [Requiem for Faulkner, and Other Articles] (essays) 1975

Dejemos hablar al viento (novel) 1979

Cuando entonces [When Then] (novel) 1987


Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Juan Carlos Onetti, or the Shadows on the Wall," in Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers, Harper & Row, 1967, pp. 173-205.

[Harss is a Chilean-born novelist, journalist, and critic. In the following excerpt from a study originally published by Harss in 1966 as Los Nuestros and subsequently translated with Dohmann, the critics survey Onetti's short fiction and, observing the miserable state of all his characters, note that "his pessimism seems to have become almost generic. "]

Onetti, an ardent Arltian [i.e. strongly influenced by the writer Roberto Arlt], belongs to a "lost" generation that came of age around 1940, when the...

(The entire section is 5158 words.)

John F. Deredita (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Shorter Works of Juan Carlos Onetti," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 112-22.

[In the following essay, Deredita discusses major motifs in Onetti's novellas and short stories.]

For some twenty years after he published his first work, El pozo (The Well, 1939), Juan Carlos Onetti's reputation was confined to his native Uruguay and to Argentina. Born in 1909, he lived in Buenos Aires during most of the thirties, forties and early fifties, met the literary establishment there and published with major houses; but his books sold poorly, and he received scant critical attention. Except for a few critics and the...

(The entire section is 4712 words.)

Joel C. Hancock (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Psychopathic Point of View: Juan Carlos Onetti's Los adioses," in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. II, No. 3, Fall-Winter, 1973, pp. 19-29.

[In the following essay, Hancock assesses the mental state of the narrator of Los adioses in order to determine the reliability of his account]

In the now classic article "Point of View in Fiction" [PMLA 70 (1955)], Norman Friedman codifies four basic questions in his attempt to define the various modes a narrator has for transmitting his story to the reader: 1) who talks to the reader; 2) from what position regarding the story does he tell it; 3) what channels of information does the narrator use...

(The entire section is 5638 words.)

M. Ian Adams (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Juan Carlos Onetti: Alienation and the Fragmented Image," in Three Authors of Alienation: Bombai, Onetti, Carpentier, University of Texas Press, 1975, pp. 38-80.

[In the following excerpt, Adams studies El pozo with the intention of illustrating "how Onetti's artistic manipulation of the schizophrenic experience (or the experience of extreme alienation) produces a unique imagery and an unusual sensation for the reader of participation in an alienated world. " ]

In addition to writing novels, Onetti has been a productive short-story writer. Un sueño realizado y otros cuentos was published in 1951. Another collection, El infierno tan temido y...

(The entire section is 6797 words.)

Jack Murray (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Plot and Space in Juan Carlos Onetti's Tan Triste Como Ella,'" in Symposium, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 68-83.

[In the following excerpt, Murray aims to demonstrate that the meaning usually found in a story's plot has been transferred to the physical surroundings and space occupied by the main characters in "Tan triste como ella. "]

It has often been observed that Juan Carlos Onetti's unhappy lot is to represent trends before their time. He was writing fantastic stories before the fashion for the fantastic, New Novels before the New Novelists came along. While Onetti's penchant for setting yet-to-be vogues has doubtless created difficulties for him,...

(The entire section is 7009 words.)

Eugene A. Maio (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Onetti's Los adioses: A Cubist Reconstruction of Reality," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 173-81.

[In the following excerpt, Maio maintains that the challenges that Los adioses poses to readers are similar to those that a cubist work of art presents to viewers. ]

A careful reading of Juan Carlos Onetti's Los adioses (1954) reveals unmistakable affinities between the aesthetic goals and structures of cubism and the narrative structure of his fiction. The bond that unites Onetti's prose to modern painting is not based on a narrative prose style that constructs visual images through intricate word patterns....

(The entire section is 3235 words.)

George R. McMurray (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Goodbyes and Stories, in Híspanla, Vol. LXXIV, No. 2, May, 1991, pp. 335-36.

[McMurray is an American educator and Critic who has published book-length studies of Jorge Luis Borges, Jose Donoso, and Gabriel García Márquez. In the following excerpt, McMurray offers a favorable review of Goodbyes and Stories.]

Juan Carlos Onetti (1909) is Uruguay's best-known and most admired writer of fiction. Although he owes his reputation primarily to his novels, he is also the creator of some fine short stories. . . . [The translations in Goodbyes and Stories] succeed admirably in capturing the monotony and pessimism pervading the Uruguayan's...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

Further Reading


Ainsa, Fernando. "Juan Carlos Onetti: An Existential Allegory of Contemporary Man." World Literature Today LXVIII, No. 3 (Summer 1994): 501-04.

Reflects on Onetti's career, concluding: "Herein lies the true meaning of Onetti's work: to arrive at the crux of the individual's intimate solitude, at the metaphysical sadness of the human condition, through the progressive awareness of the uselessness of most human action and through the stripping away of all the trappings that surround us and create for us false dependencies on our surrounding reality."

Jones, Yvonne Perier. The Formal Expression of Meaning in Juan Carlos Onetti's Narrative...

(The entire section is 400 words.)