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."
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.
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."