Juan Carlos Onetti was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, on July 1, 1909. His father, Carlos Onetti, whom Onetti characterized as a “gentleman,” was a functionary of Montevideo’s customs office. On more than one occasion, Onetti noted that the family name was O’Netty before being corrupted to its present form, a suggestion that would point to early Irish ancestry. Onetti was always cryptic about his ancestors, however, intimating only that his great-grandfather was the personal secretary of General Fructuoso Rivera, who fought in the nineteenth century against Juan Manuel de Rosas and the Argentine dictator’s territorial pretensions in Uruguay. His mother, Honoria Borges, was of Brazilian stock, and Onetti says only that she was a “slaveholding lady from the south of Brazil.”
Onetti was the second of three children; he had an older brother, Raul, and a younger sister, Raquel. He remembered his childhood as a happy one, during which the family moved often, at least four times in his early school days. Onetti was a high school dropout—in part, he said, because he could not receive a passing grade in drawing. As an adolescent, he worked at a number of odd jobs—doorman, automobile-tire salesman, waiter, ticket taker at a stadium, and watchman at a grain elevator.
At the age of fourteen, Onetti discovered the works of Knut Hamsun, which he read avidly and tried, with adolescent fervor, to emulate. Onetti’s first known venture into literature and publishing came in 1928. He was nineteen then and living in Villa Colón, not far from Montevideo. With two friends, Juan Andrés Carril and Luis Antonio Urta, he founded a journal, La tijera de Colón. Seven issues of the journal were published between March, 1928, and February, 1929, including Onetti’s first five short stories. In 1929, Onetti tried, unsuccessfully, to travel to the Soviet Union “to witness a Socialist system in the making.” A year later, he was married for the first time, to a cousin, María Amalia, and moved with her to Buenos Aires. He remained there for four years, during which he worked for a while as an adding-machine salesman—he did not sell a single machine. His son, Jorge, who also became a novelist, was born in 1931.
Onetti wrote the first version of The Pit in 1932, a version that was lost. The following year, he published what was once believed to have been his first short story, “Avenida de Mayo—Diagonal—Avenida de Mayo” in the Buenos Aires daily La...
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