Juan Carlos Onetti 1909-1994
Uruguayan-born Spanish novelist and short story writer.
The following entry provides criticism on Onetti's works from 1975 through 1999. For criticism prior to 1975, see CLC, Volumes 7 and 10.
Onetti is regarded as an important Latin American fiction writer whose works anticipated the major period of the South American novel in the 1960s in its use of fantastic events, innovative points of view, and existentialist themes.
Onetti was born on July 1, 1909, in Montevideo to Carlos Onetti, a customs worker, and Honoria Borges. While he considered his childhood to have been happy, it was not without difficulties, as the family frequently moved, causing Onetti's education to be irregular. He dropped out of high school and took on a number of odd jobs—as a waiter, a doorman, and a grain inspector, to name a few—while spending much of his spare time reading. In 1930 Onetti moved to Buenos Aires and began writing for periodicals and the Reuters news agencies in Buenos Aires and Montevideo; around the same time he began writing fiction. Always concerned about corruption and materialism in culture and government, Onetti openly supported progressive reforms and was involved with a group of intellectuals who met regularly at a café in Montevideo, to which he returned in 1934. Onetti and his contemporaries launched the influential journal Marcha in 1939, with Onetti serving as literary director until 1941. In 1957 he became director of Municipal Libraries in Montevideo. In 1974 Onetti served as a judge for a short story contest. The judges awarded the prize to a short story considered pornographic by the Uruguayan government, and Onetti was first imprisoned in a mental institution and then exiled to Madrid. There he continued to publish his works, to great international acclaim. He became a Spanish citizen in 1975 and refused to return to Uruguay even after the restoration of democracy. In 1980 he was awarded the prestigious Cervantes Prize, but he continued to work at a number of odd jobs despite his literary fame. In 1985 the president of Uruguay traveled to Spain to present him with the National Literary Award. Onetti died in Madrid on May 30, 1994.
In addition to social and political concerns, Onetti addressed in his fiction existentialist themes of alienation, isolation, and the challenge to create one's own reality, particularly through literary production. In his first major published work, the novella El pozo (1939; The Pit), Onetti used modernist narrative techniques such as multiple strains of narration, free association, and the spatial and temporal distinctions of inner experience—including dreams, fantasies, and memories—ushering in a new period of Latin American narrative. The Pit is the story of a man isolated from others in a room in a boarding house, who attempts to bring meaning and order to his life by writing his memoirs. These, however, turn out to be nothing more than a depiction of the fantasy life he wishes he had lived. Most of Onetti's early works are marked by this sense of despair and regret. But despite his use of modernist narrative techniques, Onetti's fiction remained more or less traditional in form. In 1950 he broke with conventional literary techniques and published what many critics consider his greatest work: La vida breve (A Brief Life). In this novel Onetti again explored the power of literary production to invent a personal reality. His protagonist Brausen—again, a man afflicted with despair and alienation—creates for himself two doubles: a physician named Díaz Grey, and an antagonist named Arce. The narration flows among the three characters until the fictional Grey and Arce finally break away from their creator's influence. In addition to his doubles, Brausen invents a city called Santa María, which went on to become the setting of several of Onetti's later works, including Los adioses (1954; Goodbyes and Stories) and Una tumba sin nombre (1959; Farewells & A Grave with No Name). In both of the later works Onetti questions the nature and, more fundamentally, the possibility of truth, as narrators recount their stories based entirely on subjective observation and hearsay. In Juntacadáveres (1964; Body Snatcher) and its sequel El astillero (1961; The Shipyard), the Santa María setting serves as a unifying factor. Body Snatcher relates the simultaneous stories of Larsen, whose dream is to build the perfect brothel, and Julita, a widow who refuses to accept her husband's death and takes his brother as her lover to avoid reality. Both failing in their attempts at perfection, Larsen is exiled and Julita commits suicide. The Shipyard continues Larsen's story. Back from exile and yearning for meaning in his old age, he takes on the restoration of a dilapidated shipyard, which gives him the illusion that his life has dignity. In the conclusion to the Santa María, Dejemos hablar al viento (1979; Let the Wind Speak), the city, set ablaze by its chief of police, burns in a purifying fire.
Ignored by critics for years, Onetti's fiction was “discovered” in the 1960s, in conjunction with the “boom” period of the Latin-American novel. But it was not until Onetti relocated to Madrid and his works were translated for an international audience that he received widespread notice. He was awarded many literary prizes and honors and is considered to have been a seminal Latin-American novelist.