Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Onetti belongs to a group of writers, born in Uruguay and Argentina, who reached maturity during the politically tumultuous 1930’s and who became known as “the lost generation.” They share a nihilist vision of the world, expressed through the solitary, alienated characters they create. These writers practice a kind of existentialism; their conflict with society is reflected in the deliberately fragmentary quality of their fiction. A good example of such fragmentation can be seen in Onetti’s A Brief Life.

A Brief Life is considered to be a pivotal work in Onetti’s career. His previous works—El pozo (1939), Tierra de nadie (1941), and Para esta noche (1943)—sketch the psychological conflicts that are fully developed in A Brief Life. Many of the works that follow—Los adioses (1954), Para una tumba sin nombre (1959), Juntacádaveres (1964), and La muerte y la niña (1973)—base their plots on the inventions created in Juan María Brausen’s mind.

Indeed, the world of Santa María, first introduced in A Brief Life, appears as a constant in Onetti’s following works. Santa María, like Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s books, becomes a mythical place. Onetti succeeds in transporting the reader to his character’s fantasy world, because, although nonexistent, it seems perfectly real.

A Brief Life explores man’s search for an answer to his existence. “People believe they are condemned to one life until death. But they are only condemned to one soul, to one identity. One can live many times, many lives, shorter or longer.” By creating an imaginary world, and imaginary selves, Brausen can enjoy several lives, although he remains the same person, the same soul.