Juan Carlos Onetti Onetti, Juan Carlos (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Onetti, Juan Carlos 1909–

Onetti is a Uruguayan novelist and short story writer. His concern with the disintegration of language is reflected in his fragmentary style and episodic narrative form. The episodes that constitute Onetti's fiction, especially A Brief Life, are often unrelated fantasies of the narrator, effecting a quality of detached obscurity. (See also CLC, Vol. 7.)

Beverly J. Gibbs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although a reflection of conditions … in Uruguay and Argentina, Onetti's novelistic world transcends geographical bounds and is in essence the fictionalized spiritual landscape of contemporary man, a spiritual world that can be situated in the black-literature tradition of Céline and Sartre and that owes a largely technical debt to Dos Passos and Faulkner….

Onetti's work is marked by a fundamental ambiguity that appears in a variety of guises: as doubt, uncertainty, enigma, vagueness, obscurity, inexplicability, indistinctness, unreality, fantasy. (p. 260)

On the surface El astillero is structured around one basic narrative thread: Larsen's return to Santa María after a five-year time lapse, his involvement in Puerto Astillero in the Petrus shipyard and the parallel development of a relationship with the shipyard owner's mentally defective daughter, his inability to maintain his position as general manager of the shipyard, and his ultimate abandonment of Puerto Astillero in one of two ways and with one of two consequences. Events in this main narrative line are arranged, on the whole, in linear succession, and time encompasses a sharply limited interval…. The spatial setting is likewise closely restricted as far as the primary narrative is concerned, with key developments in Larsen's present occurring in five locations [which are used as section headings in the novel]. (pp. 260-61)

The foregoing description of the novel's structure is accurate, but incomplete, since this seemingly tightly knit whole is so run-through with ambiguity that the result is one of almost total fragmentation.

The book opens with an immediate temporal reference to certain events that happened some five years ago to a man called Larsen or Juntacadáveres, as we are told immediately in a parenthetical remark by the narrator…. The reader … knows that something serious occurred, but he remains totally ignorant of any details. The note of mystery injected into the novel by this in medias res beginning is never eliminated or the enigma clarified. If anything, the mystery is deepened by obscure references throughout the novel to people, places, and events inexplicably connected with Larsen's past of five years ago….

[Contributing] to the ambiguity of the novel are isolated details, presented as thoughts of individual characters or as descriptions of the narrators, whose significance in terms of the main plot line is unclear. The meaning or implication of an event, action, thought, or whatever, is either initially obscure and elaborated upon subsequently to the point where some of the reader's questions are resolved, or the significance is forever hidden. In the latter case, narrative details are not just suspended or withheld temporarily; they are totally and deliberately omitted. (p. 261)

Not only does the reader find himself compelled to supply his own interpretations of the thoughts and actions of the characters, he is also in the position of having to furnish dialogue transitions that are lacking…. The justification for [the] use of juxtaposed, disconnected dialogue is that the characters not only talk past one another, but they fail to make contact in other senses and continue each isolated in his own world.

Further contributing to the ambiguity of El astillero and the collaborative task of the reader is the utilization of variant conclusions to the novel….

The variant ending of the novel is related to flexibility in arrangement of narrative material and to the unimportance of any specific sequential structure…. [Whatever] course Larsen attempts to set for himself (whatever role he plays) is doomed to end in failure and in the completely individual and real phenomenon of death, (hence his full name in the hospital records). This is the fixed point, and how one reaches it or in what sequential arrangement of events is relatively immaterial. (p. 262)

The work has an over-all plot line that focuses on Larsen and progresses through certain identifiable states to a fixed conclusion. Except for the certain specific episodes that of necessity precede or follow other events and thereby create the sensation of the novel's temporal lineality, incidents are presented randomly as a series of enigmatic, isolated fragments, juxtaposed against each other in a montage technique that serves to fragment narrative structure…. The reader is thrown into a world where significant events have already transpired, but whose detail is forever cloaked, partially or completely, in mystery. Allusion is made to events, and then their elaboration is delayed or omitted. Statements are made by characters and about them that omit the key to motivation and interpretation. Gaps or blanks in information alternate with enigmatic details, speculative remarks, cryptic utterances, and different versions of the same event. Rather than being advanced logically step by step, the narrative is developed in fits and snatches, backward to the past, forward to the future, or it seemingly stagnates in a static present.

Scrutiny of the book's table of contents or recall of its section headings reveals another significant fact. Specifically, that placement of incidents and episodes in El astillero has a spatial rather than a temporal orientation. The five sections (Santa María, El astillero, La glorieta, La casilla, and La casa) receive their titles on the basis of...

(The entire section is 2257 words.)

M. Ian Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Many of [Onetti's works] fall into the territory between novel and short story. The relative complexity of theme and the quantity of subjective elements associated with it … seem to be reasonable criteria to separate short novels from short stories. Thus El pozo, although of few pages, is in Onetti's novelistic mode because of the presence of many themes and because of the subjective, ambiguous presentation of these themes. "El infierno tan temido" is structured around one action and its consequences and is very limited thematically. "Jacob y el otro" is of greater length than the other stories, but is again characterized by simplicity. A future action, a wrestling match, is the cause of all of the story's movement, and there are few complications of imagery or subjective content.

Complexity and ambiguity are the major characteristics of Onetti's novels. (p. 38)

Readers of Onetti know that Santa María is a creation, because they were present at its birth in La vida breve, where it is an invention of the main character, Brausen. The major difference [between this and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County is] that Onetti's world is centripetal. The external features serve only as a frame for internal chaos. All the characters fall toward this center point, and individuals do not stand out as they do in Faulkner. Onetti himself, in Juntacadáveres, has best described his typical character in Santa María: "He isn't a person; he is, like all the inhabitants of this strip of the river, a determined intensity of life molding itself in the form of his own mania, his own idiocy."

Alienation is a major feature of Onetti's internalized world. (p. 39)

Onetti's artistic manipulation of [what has been called a] schizophrenic experience (or the experience of extreme alienation) produces a unique imagery and an unusual sensation for the reader of participation in an alienated world….

The protagonist of El pozo, Eladio Linacero, is one of the best examples in contemporary South American literature of the completely alienated man. (p. 40)

The story is, however, built not around the solitude of the protagonist but, rather, around his attempts at communication. The time elapsed, less than one day, is limited to how long it takes Linacero to write his first-person narrative. The author-protagonist gives the reader fragments of past and present personal history and an ostensibly complete picture of his emotional life.

Based on the nature of the attempts at communication, the novel divides itself into two parts. The first is concerned with the narrator's presentation of his present situation, the beginning of the act of writing, a statement of purpose that is … both aesthetic and emotional, and, finally, the first attempt at written communication, directed toward the reader. The second part is primarily a description of past frustrated attempts at communication with other people. In each case the hidden content of these efforts reveals more of the narrator's condition than he is aware of presenting. The result of the narrative is that Eladio Linacero reaches a crisis of self-hate, induced by a confrontation with his own existence. The novel ends at the moment of his maximum desperation. (pp. 40-1)

The room is important as the boundary of the narrator's physical solitude and as the setting for the entire story. It is also the only place left to the narrator in his retreat from the world. At the beginning of the narration, he room has been a fixture and a delimitation of his life for some time, to the point that he is no longer aware of its existence. Yet, upon starting an attempt at communication, he sees it again, with new perspective. The inference is that he is entering into a new relation with his surroundings, no matter how reduced they are, caused by the act of creation. (pp. 41-2)

[When] he is looking at the room as though it were for the first time, he does not generalize on what he sees. Instead he describes isolated parts, substituting them for a totality of vision.

This form of vision emerges more clearly in his first description of a person, a prostitute…. Two fragments—fingers and a shoulder—serve to represent a human being. The narrator remembers nothing else about her.

The function and meaning of this type of vision do not become evident immediately. It is only through the additional information given by the narrator and through contrast with another kind of vision present in his dreams that the reader can begin to define their importance. (p. 42)

Onetti often uses two levels of repeated actions: habitual actions and repeated meaningless actions. They have as a common ground repetition, but habitual actions are meaningful in that they reflect and define the existence of the person involved. Repeated meaningless actions are external to the character of the person but may have meaning in relation to the book. An example of habitual action is seen in Los adioses; the protagonist is most frequently seen in the act of drinking, and this act is his major connection with the narrator.

In addition to the function of these two types of action with respect to the description of characters, they also are major structural elements. In Para una tumba sin nombre the action of smoking a pipe is used to separate the narrative sections and to represent the narrator's periods of communication. It has a similar function in La cara de la desgracia. Habitual action is raised to the level of ritual in Tan triste como ella, where it is central to the understanding of the protagonist's suicide. When she can no longer struggle against the vegetation in her garden, life ceases to have meaning for her. In El astillero repeated meaningless action, reading former business transactions, becomes a defensive ploy in Larsen's fight to endure.

One of the significant differences between Onetti's novels and his short stories is the relative lack of repeated action patterns of both types in the latter. "El infierno tan temido" initially seems to be built around repetition, the sending of pornographic photographs, but the action is really cumulative rather than repetitive: it is the vengeance taken by the wife for damage done by her husband. The stories probably lack these patterns because they are concerned with one action and its immediate consequences, whereas the other works emphasize an expanding series of possibilities, conflicts, and ambiguities arising from any situation or action.

The aesthetic result of this technique is a fragmentation of the character or characters involved. The repetition destroys what would be a normal process of development and response, so that, instead of gaining recognition and familiarity with the literary figure through cumulative exposure, the reader is constantly thrown back to the uncertainty and ambiguity of his first contacts with the character. Onetti's frequent use of a narrator separated from the protagonist would also seem to indicate his intention to distance the reader from his characters. In effect this is planned alienation of the reader from the content of the work.

El pozo is atypical of Onetti's works in that the first-person narration has an immediacy and a directness not seen in most of the others. (pp. 44-5)

[The] reader should be aware that he cannot take the declarations and judgments of the narrator at face value but must instead search for evidence of other interpretations….

As a literary device the deceitful narrator poses several problems. First of all, the reader must not have a sense of being manipulated by the author. Onetti avoids this problem by making deceit an integral part of the narrator's character and an essential part of the meaning of that which is narrated. (p. 46)

Another problem is the possibility of excessive distancing of the reader from the character, with resultant loss of interest in the entire work. This possibility is also avoided because the detection and evaluation of the deceit become a necessity. Thus, although the reader is separated from the protagonist, he participates in the work because of the independent judgments he has to make….

It becomes apparent that the only satisfactory life [Linacero] has takes place in his dream world. His attempts at communication fail because people either reject his dream world or see the true motives behind it that he is unwilling to accept. The division is so important that it is reflected by the novel's imagery. Each world is characterized by its way of looking at people and objects. (p. 47)

The picture of alienation that [emerges] from the study of what the narrator relates and what can be seen behind his words is one of almost total withdrawal and isolation, made even more intense by repeated efforts at communication. The underlying causes of this alienation are rooted in the character of the narrator and are not due to any outside social pressures. The essence of Linacero's personality is an irrational disgust for all aspects of living. This disgust is coupled with self-hate that seems to arise from his adult sexual life. However, the origins of these features remain largely conjectural. Onetti has limited himself to presenting the condition without going into the causes of it.

The dominant technique used in the development of the protagonist's personality is that of the deceitful narrator. The reader, although distanced from Linacero, participates in the work because he has to make judgments about it that affect the meaning of the entire story. (p. 54)

[The] use of habitual or repeated action, does not play a very great role in El pozo, although several times the act of smoking carries the true meaning of what is being narrated. Of much more importance are the vision and visual images described by the narrator. A fragmented imagery is characteristic of all that he describes in the real world. The dream world contains coherent vision and imagery…. [Linacero] obviously has a totally split personality in that his emotional life takes place in his imaginary world. His external "real world" personality is permeated by his fantasy self. Neither part functions satisfactorily. The visual fragmentation is schizophrenic, offering a broken surface with no depth coherence. An example of this depthless vision is the lack of sexual connotations of the parts of the female body described in the "real world." Only in the fantasy world is there something behind the imagery.

Thus, in order to convey the experience of extreme alienation, Onetti has created a schizoid form of vision and made it coincide with the split personality of the protagonist. On a different plane he has fragmented normal action patterns, emphasizing repeated or habitual actions. The result of this technique is to give the entire work a schizoid atmosphere. The personality of the protagonist is, however, the determinant for the techniques used to create alienation. This is not the case in many of the later works of Onetti, in which the personality becomes lost in a web of objects, actions, incongruous emotions, and partially understood symbolism. (pp. 54-5)

[There] is a symbolic plane in El pozo, but it is weakly developed and serves only as background to the narrative. All the important action, real and imaginary, takes place in small enclosed areas. On the real plane this setting is indicative of the isolation of the protagonist, but in the imaginary world these enclosed areas, "the log cabin," above all, become indistinct sexual symbols. All the imagery related to the cabin has sexual overtones on an oneiric Freudian level.

The theme of artistic creation introduced at the beginning of El pozo is seen to be determined and formed by the personality of the narrator. The content of his dreams is a manifestation of emotions and desires that he conceals from himself in the real world. The dreams also serve as sexual stimulants. The reader is able to judge the extent of alienation by the schizoid form it forces upon the images and actions of the protagonist. In contrast to this process of creation of imagery from within the person, in … Tan triste como ella, the images come from outside the protagonist and are projected inward. (pp. 55-6)

[Tan triste] is the clearest statement in Onetti's writing of man's radical inability to penetrate life and to communicate with other human beings. It shows what Onetti's characters do when there is no evasion, only struggle with their crushing concept of reality. Their alienation is clear and total.

Tan triste is also the most symbolic of all Onetti's works. Many of them can be interpreted symbolically, the best example being El astillero. In this novel both the action and the situation have strong symbolic overtones. In Tan triste there is a profusion of objects and actions that have only symbolic meaning and that impinge upon the protagonist…. [The] symbolism of Tan triste, like that of the images in El pozo, is of a special nature to meet the needs of the author in his expression of extreme alienation.

The outstanding difference between El pozo and Tan triste como ella is the latter novel's complexity. While in El pozo ambiguity is restricted to the true motives of the protagonist, in Tan triste it extends to all aspects of the work: its structure, symbolism, and meaning.

In broad outline the novel has a cyclic structure, beginning and ending with the same image. The first part is a symbolic dream that at the end becomes reality with the suicide of the female protagonist…. [To] characterize the world as one of phallic obsession [as Emir Rodriguez Monegal does] is an over-simplification. The obsession is sexual. It will be seen that almost all the symbols are sexual, but only a part of them are phallic. The symbolic meaning of the form of suicide is definitely phallic, but too much emphasis should not be put on it by itself.

At the level of action, very little takes place in the novel,...

(The entire section is 5878 words.)