Juan Carlos Onetti Onetti, Juan Carlos (Vol. 7) - Essay

Onetti, Juan Carlos (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Onetti, Juan Carlos 1909–

Onetti, "the lone wolf of Uruguayan letters," is a novelist and short story writer. He is the author of some of Latin America's earliest innovative novels.

Meditating on the world of solitary inner lives he has created out of what might pass for superfluous materials in the age of industrial waste, Onetti, a man who has never bargained, said in an interview in 1961, without immodesty: "All I want to express is the adventure of man." (pp. 177-78)

His immersion in his work is so extreme that it acquires terrifying proportions in his mind. He is afraid to "abandon" himself to his writing. Remembering his books afterwards seems to affect him in the same way. He has left them behind, forgetting them as he has forgotten his own life—they are so much a part of it. "I am not a writer except when I write," he says. Like Proust or Faulkner—especially the latter, with whom he identifies in more ways than one; we think of Faulkner's legendary shyness—he inhabits a world of his own, outside literary currents. When he is done with his books, they tend to get scattered or lost, he never knows exactly how or why. (p. 179)

A somewhat painful subject must be brought up in relation to Onetti: his style. Over the years it has gone through subtle but steady changes that throw considerable light on Onetti's intentions. In El Pozo the language was careless, straightforward, almost journalistic, in the Arltian manner—decidedly antiliterary. In La Vida Breve it had become more elliptical, but without taking on any added syntactical complications, retaining its aura of artlessness. In Un Sueño Realizado—as in Tierra de Nadie and, increasingly, in Para Esta Noche—there is more artifice. Onetti is echoing a master who has had an enormous influence on him: Faulkner. The influence is conscious and deliberate, and Onetti sees no reason to apologize for it. But it is sometimes embarrassing to the reader. Un Sueño Realizado is made of tortuously long and graceful Faulknerian sentences that contribute to the cloistered atmosphere of the book but, because of an excess of imitated mannerisms—intricate modifiers, pleonastic subclauses, redundant adjectival expanses—sometimes seem affected. Onetti loves the circular and static, perfectly suitable devices in a world of fates settled in advance, where every life is a sentence served backward, predestined and therefore in some sense tautological. The reiterative style is an integral part of the manic-depressive atmosphere. But in strong doses it can begin to seem like a noisy contrivance, more hysterical than inherent…. [Onetti] points out the obvious difference between his and Faulkner's conceptions of the world. Faulkner is a tragedian; Onetti, if one can coin a term, is a pathetician. He shares with Faulkner the use of a fictional site as his setting, a preoccupation for inner architectures with metaphysical overtones. Otherwise—above all, temperamentally—they have little in common. Their respective frames of reference are entirely different. And perhaps that is where the trouble lies. Faulkner's characters live outside him, in time and history; they are endowed with independent means of action and individual consciences. Onetti's characters are at once more intimate and more abstract. Living at such close quarters with their creator, they have become disembodied. The more said about them, the less real they seem. (pp. 193-94)

Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, "Juan Carlos Onetti, or the Shadows on the Wall," in their Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers (copyright © 1967 by Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1967, pp. 173-205.

It is obvious that in A Brief Life Onetti has wanted to explore literary creation from two simultaneous and even inseparable points of view: the theoretical and the practical. His novel analyzes literary creation while he is creating it. Onetti certainly does not do this in the purely critical form which Cortázar will use in Hopscotch (1963) which reflected the influence of European writers such as André Gide (in the Faux-monnayeurs and the Journal des Fauxmonnayeurs) or Aldous Huxley in Point Counterpoint. What Onetti does is to show his protagonist inventing first a double and then a parallel world into which he and his double will enter. From this decision comes the necessary distinction between an author (Onetti) and a narrator (Brausen) and a second distinction between the narrator and the other characters who are purely novelistic creatures. With this complex but fair device, Onetti attains a greater depth. He also succeeds in divesting the traditional theme of the double of all abstraction and intellectualism by approaching it from a passionately existential point of view.

Moreover, he manages to give a deeper content to the novel's obvious message. It is true that the liberation from routine and from the soul's devaluation occurs when we find the truth about ourselves, when we strip ourselves of inhibitions and compromises, when we dispel misunderstandings …; but that liberation may also occur through creation, through the forces which the creator unleashes when he remakes the world, when he discovers with amazement his own power and the richness of life….

Brausen, in some symbolic way, has also been metamorphosed into his creator, into Juan Carlos Onetti. The character, the narrator and the author end by being one and by sharing the existential reality of this intense, strange, complex novel.

Read in 1950, A Brief Life seemed to be above all a bold experiment, a work unlike any other in the Latin American novel of that time in spite of the works already published by Borges, Arlt, Marechal, Agustín Yáñez, Carpentier and Miguel Angel Asturias. But read today, next to books such as Hopscotch, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Three Trapped Tigers, A Change of Skin, Cobra, or Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, Onetti's novel runs the risk of seeming too traditional. This is not the case, however. Because of its precision in establishing the boundaries between the various imaginary worlds, because of its subtle presentation and exploration of the problem of the double personality (a theme which Hopscotch would also take up), because of its own stylistic tension, A Brief Life is the most important forerunner of the new Latin American novel, the work from which nearly all the others (whether they know it or not) originate. (p. 12)

Emir Rodriguez Monegal, "Liberation through Creation" (1970; originally published as part of his prologue to Obras Completas, by Onetti), translated by Gregory Kolovakos, in Review 75 (copyright © 1975 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1975, pp. 9-12.

One of the richest and most complex novelistic expressions in Spanish-American fiction, A Brief Life is the culmination and synthesis of Onetti's narrative art. In this novel, the principle which gives artistic continuity to the rest of Onetti's narrative work is most evident; that is, the conception of literature as an undertaking of the imagination, as an act of inventing one's own verbal universe.

As is well known, this affirmation of faith in the creative powers of language is one of the innovations that distinguishes the contemporary Latin American novel. Octavio Paz, among others, points out that the most important works in contemporary Spanish-American literature are essentially imaginative works in which the writer attempts the invention or foundation of a world. (p. 13)

A Brief Life reflects a conception of existence as a network of brief episodes or stages. For Brausen, life is a series of "little suicides," of "deaths and resurrections," a world in which the transitory quality of life precludes any attempt at human communication, or any possibility of establishing an affective bond. For him, then, invention is the only way to self-realization, the only chance to give meaning to his life or to justify his existence…. Brausen's need to invent his own world, to impose his own concept of reality, is the essential theme of A Brief Life. It is also one of the most significant tendencies of the contemporary novel. In the words of Robbe-Grillet: "What constitutes the novelist's strength is precisely that he invents, that he invents quite freely, without a model. The remarkable thing about modern fiction is that it asserts this characteristic quite deliberately, to such a degree that invention and imagination become, at the limit, the very subject of the book."

The world appears as a continuous invention of possible existences, which, once accepted, must be continued until exhausted, until the end of the imagined life is reached and a new variation begins, a new brief life. The characters are aware that they are playing a part and, having accepted the convention, they are obliged to live by its rules. This is one [of] the essential tenets of Onetti's narrative: that life is a farce, a lie, a never-ending game. This is an idea that is sketched by Onetti in his early short stories and which, some thirty years later, emerges as the guiding motif of The Shipyard (1961). (pp. 14-15)

The inexhaustible game of creation persists throughout the novel and culminates in self-creation. Brausen projects the image of his creator, and through the emergence of the latter as a character in his own novel, we perceive the root of all existence as an act of spiritual creation, an act of love. Brausen himself gave life to other characters and satisfied his creative urge by incorporating his own creator into the fiction. It is a way of declaring his freedom and of affirming the "real" existence of his imagined world, of postulating the independent destiny of his own creative effort.

Brausen's two imaginary projections of himself superimpose themselves upon one another simultaneously—in time as well as in space, and finally, in the last two chapters, by removing the principal narrator and shaping another order of reality. But the parallel in the temporal development of the stories is not merely a literary artifice; it reaches more profound dimensions. The characters in all the stories are projections of the original triad: Brausen, Gertrudis, and Stein. These projections, which are direct at the beginning, gradually obtain autonomy and become independent of their creator. The constellation of three characters remains unaltered, and each new scene repeats the same basic, past situations. In his unceasing attempt to transcend immediate reality and his own limitations, Brausen discovers a multiple world that repeats his image perpetually, accumulating a series of brief lives, an infinite number of possibilities, reinforced by the open form of the novel, and leaving the reader with an unmistakable impression of hopelessness.

A Brief Life has no narrative thread, in the traditional sense of the term; instead, it introduces a series of cyclical mutations of a single image. Onetti does not emphasize the mimetic quality of narrative. The aim of his fiction is not to reflect an existent reality, a factual order, but, on the contrary, to create an essentially fabulated reality invested with mythic significance….

Onetti himself affirms that A Brief Life is "an open book" and, certainly, this novel is a forerunner of Hopscotch and Three Trapped Tigers—the two most representative open novels in Spanish-American literature—and shares with them the tendency toward openness that proliferates in contemporary literature. Thematic tensions are left unresolved, since a definite anecdotal resolution is not forthcoming, and internal relationships remain potent, open to new stimuli. (p. 16)

Onetti's narrative art is a response to the necessity of justifying existence, of overcoming the limitations of the human condition. Far from being a gratuitous esthetic game, his work draws its only narrative material from the empirical world and, above all, from subjective experiences. But, the narrative universe of Onetti—and A Brief Life is probably his most representative novel—arises as a fictitious entity distinguished by the projection of his own inner search to the sphere of the imaginary, to the sphere of pure invention. "A novel should be integral," says Onetti, and the dominant aspect of his work is, indeed, the masterly integration of narrative strata—the intimate fusion of content and form—a synthesis that is essential to all art, because it conjoins the inquiry into man's destiny ("I only want to express man's adventure, the senselessness of life"), and the need to create that dominates Onetti's entire work: "I believe that literature is art, a sacred thing. Accordingly, never a means but always an end in itself." (p. 18)

Hugo J. Verani, "The Novel as Self-Creation," in Review 75 (copyright © 1975 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1975, pp. 13-18.

Linear narration plays its part in the overall development of A Brief Life since the basic narrator, Brausen, tells his retrospective story in a generally diachronic succession. For example, the titles of several chapters identify key moments of the symbolic spring, summer and fall that lead Brausen from the dissolution of his marriage through the death of the prostitute La Queca, and these titles under-score temporal indications in the text…. Besides lending clarity to the several narrative tracks, this linear axis of the narrative supports the existential theme of personal disintegration in time.

The defining gesture of A Brief Life, however, is posed against diachrony. The novel exhaustively tests the power of fantasy and fictional imagination as a counter to the flow of time, which is intolerable for the Onettian subjectivity. (p. 19)

The play of fantasy … works against the linear time of aging and of the subject's failed careers in bourgeois institutions: marriage and advertising. The operations of fantasy are present not only in the large structure of the novel but also in the specific details of the discourse. For example, critics have pointed out the remarkable frequency of the verbs "imagine," "invent," "imitate," "mimic," which become a code over and above the immediate context of their use, a code underscoring the thematics of dream, art and the transformation of personality….

The poetic arabesques of Onetti's discourse subordinate outward incidents and determine a characteristically slow tempo. The episodic flow of many chapters is diverted as fantasies engender other fantasies. (p. 20)

The title A Brief Life of course defines itself in relation to time. It connotes both mortality and the anti-temporal aspect of fantasy and art….

The title further refers to the way this novel (and novels in general) press time into the compass of a text, discontinuously from the temporal flow of the writer's and reader's existences. The critic Guido Castillo has remarked that the distinctive process of A Brief Life is the spatialization of time, the positing of a space where different moments "besides being successive are also, and above all, simultaneous, because all those moments are at the same time in the novel and not merely one after the other."… A Brief Life in fact makes a significant approximation to spatial form, in correlation to the victory over time that is the aim and the vaunted accomplishment of Brausen-Arce-Díaz Grey's fantasies. Existential time is contrasted with the timeless adumbrations of the artistic mind depicted; narrative time is spatialized in the ways already mentioned and in several other ways.

Defining spatial form in [The Widening Gyre], Joseph Frank described a poetics of fiction that unified "disparate ideas and emotions into a complex presented spatially in an instant of time." The juxtaposition of disparate elements in the syntagmatic arrangement of the narrative yields the simultaneous perception of relationships between elements. The result, described by Frank (in Joyce, Proust and others), is the literary conversion of the time world of history into the timeless world of myth. Such a purpose is as visible in A Brief Life as it is in Proust's novel. (p. 21)

Frank's idea of simultaneity and mutually potentiating references within the work helps to reconstruct the spatial design of A Brief Life, as does the notion of the "architectonic structure" of many modern works of fiction…. (pp. 21-2)

John Deredita, "Dream and Spatial Form," in Review 75 (copyright © 1975 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1975, pp. 19-23.

[In A Brief Life] Onetti's narrative does not postulate an ideology or an intellectual analysis of the ontological. Instead, the existential projection of the "I" is shown as a revelation within the literary experience as Onetti struggles with the signs imposed on him by literary tradition considered as ritual, not as reconciliation.

For its time, Onetti's writing signifies a radical change, a new narrative mode: the disintegration of language as the producer of text. In opposition to the Cartesian rational order of discourse, Onetti discovers the discontinuity of the fragment as a unit expressing the irrational. His écriture manifests this discontinuity in the linguistic structure of an "I" reincarnating and dispersing in its attempt to transcend the other. The alternation of fragment with narrative jump, of textual narrative with disjunctive shift, is imposed as a kind of montage, creating the space of this particular writing—a space where imagination and fantasy must work to integrate the dissimilar elements. Onetti's writing tends toward that void of the "I" which is similar to the infinite space Maurice Blanchot speaks of in L'espace littéraire. As in Sartre's transcendence of the ego or as in Rimbaud's objectification in the famous phrase Je est un autre, so in Onetti's work the other, as object, is constituted by the dispersal and impersonality of the "I." (p. 24)

The interception of the fragmentary motifs is created by montage, and the consequent fragmentation of the text into a disintegrative whole is characteristic of both the minimal units and the total structure of the novel. The fragment imposes itself here as both écriture and as semantic. Specifically, Onetti's narrative operates through fragmented figures, especially the synecdoche—a part used to signify the whole—which implies a definite, elliptical fixation, but points to a broader meaning….

Synecdoche is a rhetorical figure expressing contiguity, but Onetti's abrupt combination of synecdoches serves both to fragment and integrate the text: thus, the inner space created between the part's synecdochial meaning and the whole's connotation brings to the surface of the text a semantic jump that in a single stroke disrupts the linear discourse. (p. 25)

The meaning of the "I" and its fragmentary projection in the other is supported by the narrative point of view…. In A Brief Life the narrator is also the protagonist, but the two are not always on the same narrative plane. There is a double focalization of the first person. On the one hand, the external focalization of the narrator-witness who does not capture his own thoughts or internal monologues; on the other hand, the character who speaks for himself—no longer as narrator—in an internal focalization accentuated by the visual signs of writings, such as parentheses and quotation marks.

Onetti ably manipulates focalization of the first person—"I"-narrator, "I"-character—which is also a fragmentation of the "I" as well as a third person, "I"-he; that is, the projections of Brausen's doubles, in which the first and third persons intersect through their impersonalness—what Benveniste would call the "non-person." Thus, the field of focalization is amplified in exploring the world of the other and a verbal game is created in opposition to the discourse of classical realism…. The fragmentary oscillation of first and third person is a constant of the narrative game that embodies the transfer of the "I" to the object, and demonstrates it textually in both the écriture and in the discourse rather than in any intellectual logic. (pp. 28-9)

If Brausen's attitude has its starting point in Sartre's sense of the existential condition—eradication and solitude; existence and not essence; liberty as desperation; an empty conception of the "I" and its projection onto the other—the gradation to the ultimate meaning of the novel conveys a transcendence of Sartre's conflict since Onetti's protagonist knows that there is something beyond his imprisonment. This search for hope is paradigmatic for the unique existential attitude in South American narrative, especially in the Río de la Plata region. In his existential conflict, the character perceives a hidden meaning of things as a capturing of the super-realistic. From the chaos of his frustration, beyond the walls of his enclosure, he detects a world that does not belong to him but that attracts him like a rite or a mystery, offering him the possibility of a brief, fragmentary opening.

The meaning of the novel is thus realized in the body of its écriture, in the fragment, a unit of disintegration implying the impossibility of permanent integration within the totality of the cosmos. The end of the novel is undetermined, but it is, undoubtedly, the affirmation of fantasy as reality in a limitless space of brief life: in the carnival dawn Díaz Grey and the woman violinist depart together in an instant of calm happiness….

A Brief Life is the jump in hopscotch before Hopscotch—a fragment, a vertigo of what is attained and lost in the moment of attainment, an instant that disintegrates but whose particles remain vibrating in the air, repeated in the rite of the seasons, in the imperturbable rhythm of time. (p. 30)

Zunilda Gertel, "The Fragment as Disintegrated Unit," in Review 75, translated by Andrée Conrad (copyright © 1975 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1975, pp. 24-30.

A Brief Life is a book astonishingly rich in the anguish of the ordinary and in Chinese boxes of illusion. It contains almost three novels-worth of elaborations of these paradoxes—narratives that move in and out of each other, every one thick with particularities of life and decay. It is at once an exhaustingly intellectual novel, full of speculations about language and illusion and dreams of freedom, and an old-fashioned, heartbreakingly realistic rendering of loss and pain and isolation. It is both a naturalistic novel dwelling remorselessly on a slow descent into total loss and failure …, and a Beckett-like record of nothing happening. Part of the illusion is that we are made to feel that something is happening, but it is always and only Brausen's mind struggling to enact itself in action or in words. (p. 31)

A Brief Life is, at last, an overwhelming and very beautiful book. It … knows how to love objects, how to feel loss and pain, how to confront the damaging limitations of mere personality. It is a drama of the creation of the unattainable sentence that Flaubert began writing a century before, that Faulkner (one of Onetti's favorites) could never quite finish. The disgust with the real which Flaubert had to overcome in order to exorcise his romantic self is transformed into a passionate acceptance of the ordinary and of the impossibility of writing it. The real, more intensely present, is perhaps less real than Flaubert dreamed the knew. (p. 33)

George Levine, "Anguish of the Ordinary," in Review 75 (copyright © 1975 by the Center for Inter-American Relations, Inc.), Winter, 1975, pp. 30-3.

When it was first published in Argentina, in 1951, ["A Brief Life"] had no impact whatsoever. But for a few faithful readers on the other bank of the River Plate (Uruguayans, like the author), it might have gone unpublished. It took some 25 years and two more novels, two novellas and several volumes of short stories to convince the skeptics that Onetti was a major writer. He lived and wrote in Buenos Aires for the best part of 15 years, but he was as invisible as Blake had been in Romantic London. Only when Latin American fiction was discovered in Europe in the middle 1960's and a boom of some proportions began was Onetti accepted as one of its major forces.

When everybody in Argentina believed that Eduardo Mallea was the greatest novelist of the time, Onetti disclosed an unfashionable preference for Roberto Arlt; he also believed that Borges was the only Latin American prose writer worth studying. Years later, when readers on both sides of the Atlantic were delighted by Julio Cortázar's "Hopscotch" and by Mario Vargas Llosa's "The Green House," and critics talked only about hidden structures and significances that led to other significances, Onetti was angrily denouncing every new writer for being too complex. In his old age, he chose to play the part of the country bumpkin.

But he is not terribly well-suited to the part. His best fiction—"A Brief Life," "The Shipyard" (translated into English in 1968 and ignored by the American critics) and "Junta, the Body Snatcher" (which ought to be translated)—was rooted not only in the best narrative style so far produced in the River Plate area but showed kinship with Céline's "Journey to the End of Night" and Faulkner's novels. Onetti shared with these two masters a dark, grotesque, apocalyptic vision of man and society—which suited perfectly the Argentine's mood at that time. (pp. 6-7)

In both ["The Shipyard" and "A Brief Life"], a grotesque, deadpan humor permeates a complex narrative that moves the action back and forth.

In "A Brief Life," Onetti's love for Faulknerian narrative is already evident. The point of view is never static. It is somewhere in between Brausen's thoughts and dreams, but there are hints, here and there, of the presence of another character's point of view: "Onetti" or the "author," who is a god-like creature. That "country bumpkin" was, in fact, the first to explore systematically in Latin-American fiction the possibilities of a constant shifting of the narrative point of view. Now, Onetti may be tired of it (as Borges is tired of mirrors and labyrinths), and longs for simplicity, or even perhaps total silence. But "A Brief Life" paved the way for Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Vargas Llosa and Manuel Puig, to name a few. Onetti knows it, although he prefers to ignore it. It is his privilege. But his readers ought to know best. (pp. 7, 25)

Emir Rodriquez Monegal, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 11, 1976.

A work of insurmountable obscurity,… ["A Brief Life"] is made up of a series of fantasies about three or four characters who sometimes seem real, sometimes not; constantly disappearing and then popping up in bizarre new contexts, or even identities, they are always just blurry enough to evade the reader's grasp. Even the narrator, a middle-aged advertising copywriter, never becomes more than a ubiquitous gray shade who seems to be able to slip under doors and through walls in order to observe [inexplicable] scenes…. (pp. 108, 110)

The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 9, 1976.

With its stately, elegant prose, "A Brief Life" is a virtuosic blend and balance of opposites: melodrama and meditation, eroticism and austerity, naturalism and artifice.

Juan María Brausen is an ascetic, unhappy, middle-aged advertising copywriter living in Buenos Aires. When the novel begins, Brausen is lying on his bed, listening to the flamboyant conversation of the prostitute who lives next door…. He longs for another existence, another identity…. (pp. 82, 84)

One afternoon while the prostitute is away, Brausen steals into her apartment. What he encounters is a still life: a worn-out tablecloth, scattered garments and crushed packs of cigarettes. Suddenly he feels unburdened, "believing I was moving into the atmosphere of a brief life in which there was not enough time to become involved, to repent or to age."

He devises a persona named "Arce," who is daring, even cruel, and takes to visiting the prostitute at night…. He makes love to her, takes to beating her and finally decides to murder her.

While Brausen struggles to become the "pornographic" Arce, he also works on his screenplay, an elaborate tale involving an unhappy, ascetic country doctor who supplies morphine on demand, and three addicts—a decadent middle-class couple and a young English gigolo. At first their lives borrow discreetly from Brausen's; eventually they come to dominate it.

In Onetti's hands, the novel becomes an excursion into a labyrinth where the real and the imagined are mirror images. His various stories are charged with suspense, intrigue and an eroticism fueled as much by disgust as desire. When disaster threatens to extinguish one set of characters, Onetti intervenes like a kind of Prospero and brings on another. Behind his sleight of hand is a melancholy irony—for all our efforts to escape a single life, we remain prisoners of a pattern, "condemned to a soul, to a manner of being." (pp. 84, 87)

Margo Jefferson, "Labyrinth of Mirrors," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), February 16, 1976, pp. 82, 84, 87.

In 1939 [Onetti] published his first novel, El pozo ("The Pit"), a powerful story of existentialist flavor at a time when existentialism had yet to acquire its universal literary identity. It was a new departure for the mostly rural oriented Spanish-American novel of social realism. Even today El pozo retains most of its freshness; every trait of Onetti's art if already fully displayed in its pages.

Unperturbed by the fact that only a score of people read his first book, Onetti went on to write twelve more, almost equally divided between novels, novellas and short stories. None of them, however, made him popular or even solvent.

A Brief Life is Onetti's second book to be translated in this country. It was preceded in 1968 by The Shipyard, an allegory of Uruguay's decadence, which went virtually unnoticed. Its publication at the time probably had something to do with the "Ibero-American Award" bestowed on this novel by the William Faulkner Foundation in 1963, in keeping with Faulkner's wish to promote the best of Latin American fiction that was still unknown in the United States. This event could raise the question of whether or not Faulkner knew, before his death in 1962, that Onetti was one of his fervent admirers and his most distinguished disciple. But even if we never find out, it is still true that much of Faulkner's rich, dark sap flows through the meandering narrative art of Juan Carlos Onetti. (pp. 410-11)

Santa María is Onetti's own world, just as imaginary and yet as real as Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, or García Márquez's Macondo (its author is another South American "faulkneriano."). This is no utopian paradise but a very earthly hell peopled by wild nymphets, desperate women and misanthropic men engaged in fierce metaphysical struggles with their own self-destructiveness and the boundless perversity of the locals. Ultimately, Santa María symbolizes attitudes, habits and mores that are very much alive in the provincial communities of both Argentina and Uruguay.

Many of these elements, far from being exclusive to A Brief Life, are already manifest in Onetti's earlier works, especially in El pozo, for they constitute his unchanged Weltanschauung. Unlike Sartre's nauseating blackness, Onetti's vision of society and human relations has a special gray coloring and a bittersweet taste. He has some of Céline's anarchistic gusto (without his nastiness), and both his manner and his concerns recall Pavese's lyrical treatment of time, memory and characterization. In any case, the spiritual closeness between Onetti and some of his characters is rather uncanny….

Onetti's art is a strange aggregate of cultural characteristics and personal circumstances (some elusive, many contradictory and a few truly illuminating) none of which would really endear his writings to us were it not for the extraordinary nature of his style. His prose has a genuinely hypnotic force, digressive and meandering, but quite without apparent longueurs, studded with linguistic quirks and poetic flights, economically terse and playfully serious; he teases the reader with alternate scenarios for a given situation to concentrate afterwards on a passing thought or a seemingly unimportant gesture. He uses zeugma and metaphor with the deadly flippancy we can admire in Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler—two writers Onetti admires. (p. 411)

A Brief Life, which is anything but brief or easy to read,… inaugurates the so-called "Saga Sanmariana"—a series of stories loosely related and cross-referenced to this seminal, founding novel. The Shipyard, originally published in 1961, is an important part of the saga which now should be sought out by those American readers whose appetite has been whetted by their experience with A Brief Life. Onetti's novelistic magic, like Faulkner's, requires a certain amount of perseverance on the reader's part. But after exposure to a few of his novels, a certain kind of reader gets so involved in Onetti's style and so identifies himself with his vision of the world, that very little else in contemporary fiction can be as satisfying. (p. 412)

Luys A. Diez, "Faulkner from Down Under," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), April 3, 1976, pp. 410-12.