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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

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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 where key incidents in Larsen's development occur. Allusion is made, for example, to "the scandal" in "La casilla-I," but the episode is developed, of spatial necessity, in "El astillero-V" where the key events took place. Linking incidents to space reinforces the separateness of events and allows freedom and flexibility in their arrangement, making for increased fragmentation. When most incidents happen is secondary to the fact that they do occur in a particular place at some or any point in the novel. The effect of this treatment of plot arrangement is to blur or obscure the structural design of the work and to leave the reader without his customary guideposts or supports. Such atemporal structuring, which negates sustained cause-effect plot (in this case character) development, creates in large part, the paralytic or static sensation that is characteristic of Onetti's novels. (pp. 262-63)

[There] exists in El astillero a reality-fantasy plane that results from the interweaving of the real and the imaginary (no less "real") and that is another major source of ambiguity in the novel, as becomes apparent when space, time, and character are analyzed.

Although often realistically detailed …, space is more important as atmosphere and stage setting against and on which the drama of personality is portrayed….

This, then, is a nightmare world, very real in its absurdity. But as in nightmares, space has a tendency to lose its real properties. Of basic importance in El astillero is the inner world of the characters, and the qualities that typify spatial settings of the novel are a direct reflection of the situations, perceptions, and traits of specific individuals, particularly Larsen. (p. 263)

Complementing the note of mystery produced by the deliberate withholding of information is the sensation of strangeness and unreality evoked by personification of natural and abstract elements…. The effect of this animation and humanizing of objects coupled with immobilization of people in a reflective state is to invert customary reality and give the novel an "aire de leyenda," a phrase used in the work itself to describe one of the settings….

Time gives the appearance of functioning in what might be called its usual manner; that is, it seems, on the surface, to progress chronologically and bring about change…. Some temporal blurring is evident when attention is called to time that is indeterminate…. It becomes especially vague at those points in the novel when the narrator-creator admits and discusses his uncertainty regarding the temporal placement of events.

Looking beyond the surface factors that give the novel an appearance of chronological progression, the reader encounters a number of ways in which time is made a substance that reinforces the subjectivity and unreality or fantasy of the spatial setting. In the first place, El astillero is a work that concentrates fanatically on "la peripecia interior" with Larsen as the principal focus. Experienced from his perspective, time becomes a subjective substance that can be reversed as the character's thoughts turn to the past, advanced as awareness of failure and premonition of doom foreshadow his end, and halted as his gaze lingers, for example, on an object. (p. 264)

Also a major factor in destroying the appearance of chronological progression is the fact that the novel goes beyond Larsen's present, the period of involvement with the Petrus shipyard, and encompasses events in his past and future. When this is linked to the multiple-narrator structure used by Onetti in this work and the movement of narrators within some or all of these three temporal dimensions, the net result is non-linear arrangement of incident.

In addition, the forward progress of time is halted by the narrators through numerous reproductions (in quotes) of characters' thoughts. Time's flow is stopped and then reversed by several interpolations of parenthetical commentary by a collective narrator and an impersonal omniscient consciousness. It is further distorted by the variant conclusions to Larsen's life which cover the same time span twice. Additional distortion results from recurrent references to the same event (such as, Larsen's departure from Santa Maria five years prior to his reappearance in that city and "the scandal" involving Angélica Inés in Larsen's office at the shipyard), since such references carry the narrative from other points in the temporal flow to that point when the events in question occurred….

With the effect or result predetermined, not only is the temporal thrust of the novel inverted, but time additionally fails to fulfill its customary function in that it brings little or no change in surroundings (atmosphere) or in characters, all of whom resemble each other in superfluousness….

Without doubt the principal emphasis in El astillero is character, and its treatment contributes significantly to the establishment of this novel on the ambiguous reality-fantasy plane. Elements of the unreal are immediately apparent in the almost continual depiction of the inner reality of individuals locked in their own subjectivity. This continual portrayal of the main characters through privileged narration and their quoted thoughts attests to the existence of a contrived reality, a reality of fiction. (p. 265)

Additional sensations of acute unreality that result from treatment of character are related to dehumanization of the individual. Among the methods employed to achieve this is the not uncommon description of a person in terms of an animal (insect) or a thing…. Individuals are also dehumanized by descriptions that single out a particular personal detail and dwell on it to such an extent that the detail comes to replace the person. A woman in a cafe, for instance, becomes her face …, Angélica Inés, her laugh …, Petrus, his mouth…. Or a mannerism is more vividly presented than the individual and substitutes for the whole person or is, at least, an integral part of him, as in the case of Larsen's clicking his heels when walking. In addition, repeated references are made to individuals using relatively the same descriptive phrase that becomes a kind of epithet to which their identifiable reality is reduced…. Recurrent usage of the same or similar words to identify a character when identification is no longer needed smacks of purely mechanical repetition, and such repetition plus reduction of characters to single traits makes them wooden and stick-like….

The line between reality and fantasy is further obscured by the impression that the characters are actors play-acting on stages that are more theatrical than real. They have their own farces …, their own dramas, their own roles (juegos) with themselves as doubles. Although seeming to represent parts that they themselves have chosen, the suggestion is clear that they (and man in general) are only inventions acting out roles assigned them by the author…. Everyone is "una frase," an invention, a fiction. The creation of another and with his fate predetermined, man becomes a robot whose steps follow a random pattern to a fixed end. (p. 266)

When the ambiquity is stripped away from El astillero, several certainties seem to remain. Seen with Larsen as the point of reference, although in truth Man is the focus, the conclusions to be drawn are that the individual's authentic self (E. Larsen) is hidden behind a mask worn by a double (Junta, Juntacádáveres, Larsen of el astillero), and the copy (reproducción) or other self engages in creating a role or living a farce that for a time challenges the predetermined fate (condena) of the true self. Collision with reality (the falsified documents and Gálvez's denunciation of Petrus) puts an end to the farce or drama, and having realized his symbolic death, the character assumes his robot existence mechanically carrying out the necessary acts that lead ultimately (in variant two) to his literal death, with the hospital now recording his full, real name….

[These] actors condemned to a predetermined fate struggle to free themselves. To live, in fact, is to so struggle, is to play a game or to invent roles, but doing this is also to deceive one's self in a game already lost.

There appears to be the suggestion that the only possible escape in all this, either for Onetti's characters or for the author himself, is to invent fictions, to create another reality…. One suspects, nevertheless, that his "escape" is only another deception, since, as Onetti's created world reveals, all men are superfluous in terms of the fate that awaits them, or as Borges suggests, the world, unfortunately, is real, and there is no escape for any man. (p. 267)

Beverly J. Gibbs, "Ambiguity in Onetti's 'El Astillero'," in Hispania (© 1973 The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc.), April, 1973, pp. 260-69.

M. Ian Adams

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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, which is the examination of a marriage in the last stages of disintegration. The focus is the woman, whose personal collapse matches that of the marriage. (pp. 56-7)

Another feature of Tan triste como ella that distinguishes it from most of Onetti's other novels is the presence of the author. Onetti's most common technique is the use of multiple narrators, one of the functions of which is to completely mask the presence and thoughts of the author…. Onetti's figures are openly manipulated, either by the narrator-character or by the reader himself, because of the choices he must make about their actions and motives. The lack of the author's presence thus has to be significant. It is a form of alienation, a desire not to be responsible for or to have lasting visible control over one's actions. Many critics have assumed that the narrator's viewpoint is also that of Onetti. This assumption seems to be supported by the uniformity of tone throughout. However, the deception or ambiguity characteristic of these narrators indicates the need for additional evidence before any view can be assigned to the author. Tan triste provides some of this evidence.

The reader is made aware of Onetti's presence before the work begins by an introductory letter whose outstanding characteristics are ambiguity and evasion. The letter is to "Tantriste," and there is no indication if Onetti is addressing a person or, as an artist, his creation. The terms are predominantly personal; the time has come to break an intimacy and to separate. There is a declaration of mutual alienation and defeat…. [There] is also, in whatever context, a declaration of evasion and of a desire to keep the self hidden.

The letter … offers a problem of interpretation. There is no conclusive evidence for either of two possibilities: the letter could represent a personal or a literary position. Because both seem to be valid they must be accepted…. Both possibilities express alienation in the form of radical solitude, evasion, and withdrawal. But, because of the ambiguity, it is impossible to make any inference as to the extent of the author's personal revelation.

Another aspect of the ambiguity of the letter deserves attention. The uncertainty as to meaning is coupled with vague references to actual events, "the intimacy of the last few months," "the failure," and "the happy moments." The effect, implied certainty joined to ambiguity, destroys any deep meaning. The emotions presented suggest a depth of feeling that is vitiated by the form. The result is an emotional surface with nothing behind it. The emotional experience arising from this depthless surface is schizoid in nature. (pp. 57-9)

The initial reaction of the reader to the [opening] scene is the same as his reaction to the letter. There is an emotional surface that suggests depth but that on examination is seen to cover nothing. (p. 60)

Within the [woman's] dream,… there is a two-level presentation of [her] alienation. One the rational plane her solitude and despair are visible. The more complex irrational level symbolically presents her own attitude toward her body, in sexual terms. She is divorced from her feminine sexuality, for reasons unknown, and, more importantly, she seems to be self-destructive. The dream could be viewed as a fulfillment of a death wish in light of its connection with her suicide at the end of the novel.

The protagonist's alienation, then, is total at the beginning of the novel. The symbolic message of the dream also has a structural function in outlining the trajectory of the protagonist from despair to destruction. El pozo, starting at the same emotional point, ends in the protagonist's desolation without self-destruction. In Tan triste, by the elimination of the first-person narration, the despair, desolation, and destruction seen at the end of the work are generalized into the human condition.

The failure of the marriage is presented first from the masculine viewpoint and is due to the same reasons found in El pozo: inevitable loss of innocence and transformation from girl to woman. "He had loved the small woman who prepared his food, who had given birth to a creature that cried incessantly on the second floor. Now he regarded her with surprise; she was, fleetingly, something worse, shorter, deader than some unknown woman whose name never comes to us."… This attitude, because of its persistence through all of Onetti's work, can certainly be considered as a basic attribute of the author. He does not deny the existence of human happiness through love. Instead, he believes in the inevitability of a transformation into unhappiness because of the nature of life. The emotional result of the form of this belief, a movement from positive to negative, assures a maximum degree of suffering both for those who undergo the experience and for those who believe it is a fundamental truth. In terms of alienation and loss of self the view has several functions. It can be a defense of the alienated, withdrawn individual in that it provides a reason not to participate in life. It can also be a symptom of an extensive dislocation of self through self-hate. The person who hates himself, as does Eladio Linacero, frequently punishes himself. Linacero's attempts at communication are a form of self-punishment. Another form, seen in many of Onetti's characters, is the adherence to a pain-causing belief. (pp. 61-2)

[Of Onetti's main characters, only] Larsen in El astillero, because of his desire to endure despite misfortune, seems to have found something positive and irreducible at the corrupt core of life. But because of the persistence and pervasiveness of this disgust with life in all of Onetti's writing it must be considered as a basic element of his personality. Its context … is always that of evasion and ambiguity, and its existence must frequently be deduced from secondary evidence. Thus it is essentially an emotional perspective rather than an articulated philosophical stance. It is the medium in which Onetti and his characters live rather than the meaning of their existence. Their reaction to it is essentially that of irrational evasion. (p. 64)

For the sin of living one receives either "pay, recompense, or punishment," but they are all the same and have no separate meaning. The root of this ambiguity is alienation. If life is viewed with repulsion, the viewer is already radically separate from it, and whatever forms it assumes are equally distant from the nonparticipating self. (p. 65)

[The] garden seems to be an ambiguous symbol for feminine sexuality in conflict with masculine sexuality. Nevertheless, although the symbol's general nature is moderately clear, its meaning for the woman and her struggle with it are not. Even the additional information that the garden has provided the only true happiness the woman has known since infancy, and that the husband discovered in it the only thing that was of true importance to her, seems to be unimportant. However, if one considers that the novel is built around total sexual polarization, as is indicated by all its symbolism, then two possibilities suggest themselves. The first is that, because of the garden's importance in the woman's youth, the feminine sexuality it represents is that which is uncontaminated by contact with masculinity. Onetti's interest in and repetition of the theme of the loss of purity and the loss of virginity would tend to support this interpretation. The other possibility is that the symbolic pleasure resulting from the struggle with the garden is erotic. In the context of a completely feminine sexuality this pleasure would mean symbolic masturbation. Again, either masturbation or autostimulation is a theme seen in Onetti's work. It is important in El pozo. In all cases it results in self-punishment and self-disgust. The fact that as the garden is destroyed the woman turns to promiscuous sexual activity with the men who are physically destroying it would give some support to this interpretation. The central feature is, however, that because of lack of direct evidence and due to intentional ambiguity the meaning of the symbol remains conjectural. The result is a fragmentation of imagery on a deeper level than has been seen in other works by Onetti. Surface fragmentation is evident in El pozo, with a consequent lack of depth. In this central image in Tan triste the vertical dimension of the fragmentation is greatly extended. There is neither rational nor irrational, conscious nor subconscious coherence. This is not to say that Onetti has abandoned the techniques seen in El pozo. The broken surface imagery is evident in the description of the well-diggers, where only parts of their bodies—their arms and chests—are described. The only total presentation of a human body occurs in the woman's dream. These techniques are merely extended into areas where they were not seen before.

The form and nature of the woman's alienation are directly related to the symbolic presentation of the conflicts that drive her to suicide. That she experiences these conflicts symbolically is the measure of the separation of her self from direct experience. In addition the ambiguity of the nature of the conflicts reflects the fragmentation of the self. She is estranged from her body and in conflict over the nature of her sexuality. Heterosexual activity in the form that she has known it is a threat to her personality. This fact is evident in her relation to her child, who should be regarded as a fulfillment of married sexual life. Instead she hates him for being male and shows absolutely no emotional bond with him. She expresses the wish for a female child, who would have been an affirmation of her flawed sexuality and could not be related to the masculine threat she fears. (pp. 66-8)

As the novel nears its end the symbolic plane comes to the foreground. The reasons for the woman's suicide are presented entirely in this plane. The major element that pushes her toward self-destruction is the failure of the ritual in the garden…. Her reaction to the loss of the garden shows that her self has also been destroyed. She no longer has any contact with reality, and her actions are completely separate from her. "Everything was a game, a rite, a prologue."… (p. 69)

There are [in her suicide] several possibilities. The first is that the woman's suicide is an act of surrender to masculinity and a destruction of the feminine self, made more complete by the perverted nature of the action. This interpretation is supported by the symbolic context of the story and the male-female polarity that develops from this symbolism. The other possibility is that the form of the action indicates only partial surrender to heterosexual drives. The essence of the woman's femininity does not participate. (p. 70)

[The] woman's alienation and loss of self, like Eladio Linacero's, are due to personal factors, the foremost of which is a defective sexuality. The woman's being is polarized or split, and heterosexuality becomes destructive. Her fear of masculinity is so great that she is unable to feel anything but hate for her son. She needs love but can attain only promiscuity.

Her life is presented through a series of symbols with a common feature, ambiguity. In most cases the images show surface coherence with increasing fragmentation as deeper levels of meaning are sought. Several images seem to reverse the process; they show surface fragmentation and lack of meaning but have significance at depth. The result is the same as that of the techniques of imagery in El pozo: a quantitative and qualitative reproduction of a schizophrenic world, but a world much more extensive than that in El pozo.

In addition, a few of the author's fundamental attitudes are visible in Tan triste como ella. The most revealing is a belief in the destructive force of life, in the inevitable unhappiness caused by living. Other attitudes may be inferred from the themes common to Tan triste and El pozo. The loss of innocence that comes with sexual awakening, with resultant unhappiness, is the clearest of these. (p. 71)

[Of] the four suicides [in Onetti's works]—Elena Salas in La vida breve, the woman in Tan triste, Julita in Juntaca-dáveres, Risso in "El infierno tan temido"—three are women. The only thing these figures have in common is their failure to avoid unacceptable reality through evasive activity. Elena Salas and the woman in Tan triste make no attempt at evasion and thus cannot tolerate life. Julita evades through insanity, but when this evasion no longer serves she kills herself. Risso is forced by a woman into a situation in which he has no power to evade. At the other end of the spectrum, Larsen, the man who endures, does so because he is an artist of evasion. Thus evasion per se in Onetti's novels becomes a life-giving force….

[The] most characteristic form of evasion seen in all Onetti's works is the ambiguity surrounding all actions, images, and attitudes. In the sense that this ambiguity separates the author from his work, the reader from the content, and the characters from themselves, it is another form of alienation. (pp. 71-2)

An initial similarity exists between Brausen, the protagonist of La vida breve, and Eladio Linacero. Both men project their lives into imaginary structures, the marriages of both have failed for the same reasons that all marriages fail in Onetti's creations. Beyond these points of similarity resemblance diminishes. Brausen is a much more intelligent and complex person than Linacero. He is highly articulate and, more importantly, shows a great deal of self-knowledge. The greatest difference between him and Linacero is that he is a man in society and is both conscious and critical of that society on an intellectual level, free from his personal necessities. In addition he is capable of action.

The clarity of Brausen's self-definitions and his frequent discussions of the meaning of his creation of other lives make the conditions of his alienation clear. His first definition locates him in terms of personal history and of society. "Meanwhile, I am this small and timid man, unchangeable, married to the only woman I seduced, or who seduced me, incapable not only of being another but even of the will to be another. The little man who disgusts as much as he causes pity, a small man lost in the legion of small men who were promised the Kingdom of Heaven. This one, me in the taxicab, inexistent, the mere incarnation of the idea of Juan Maria Brausen, a biped symbol of a cheap puritanism made of negatives." His alienation is measured by the distance he is separated from himself in order to have the perspective to make this description. It is also seen in his self-disgust. Further, emotional alienation is seen in his opinion of his own morality. It is also shown in his relation to his wife: he is separated from her to the point that he does not know the emotional nature of a pivotal action in their lives. (pp. 72-3)

The new element [in La vida breve] is the concept of mass man. Brausen sees himself as lost and faceless in surrounding humanity. (p. 73)

Brausen's alienation [at his job] is due to his being forced to play a part he despises and that is self-destructive. In addition, he has no control over the results of his actions; they are something separate from his that arises in response to the fear of losing his job.

Brausen's direct and indirect criticism is only a part of his social vision. He is specific in his condemnation of the artificiality of modern consumer society….

Thus a large part of Brausen's alienation is due to the form of his society, and he recognizes this fact. He also sees social aspects in the deeper levels of loss of self. "Because each one accepts what he keeps discovering about himself in the looks of others, one is formed from living with others, and blends with what others suppose him to be, and acts according to what is expected from this inexistent being."… Brausen rejects this way of creation of self. Instead, he destroys the self that is associated with the life of Juan Maria Brausen. By separating from his wife, by being fired from his job, by ceasing to associate with his companions, and by isolating himself in his room, he eliminates his social and emotional self and attempts to construct other imaginary selves, believing that he retains that which is essential to his existence. (p. 74)

In La vida breve the author is trying to produce the totality of the schizoid experience. (p. 75)

It is Onetti who gives the novel a final ambiguous direction. Brausen disappears and the book ends with an adventure with Diaz Grey, who now has a life and personality of his own. He is no longer dependent on Brausen the creator. The ambiguity arises in the relation of Diaz Grey's autonomy to Brausen's conquest of self. No evidence is available to indicate the nature of the relation. The only certainty is that Onetti, as author-creator, has taken the place of Brausen, the creator of other lives….

Onetti, through Brausen, makes a specific criticism of modern society and the conditions of impersonal labor, showing their destructive force on the personality. The other influence leading to alienation and destruction of self is the psychology of the character. The terms of this psychology are essentially the same as those seen in the other works studied: disgust with life, failure of marriage, desire for self-destruction. (p. 77)

Larsen, the protagonist of El astillero, is the opposite of Brausen, in that his life is concerned with the maintenance of self in the face of a hostile and overwhelming world. Diaz Grey describes the heroic side of Larsen's existence, calling Larsen "this man who lived the last thirty years on filthy money given him with pleasure by filthy women; who hit upon defending himself against life by substituting for it a treachery without origin; this man of toughness and courage, who used to think in one fashion and now thinks in another; who wasn't born to die but instead to win and impose himself; who at this moment is imagining life as an infinite and timeless territory in which it is necessary to advance and to take advantage." This heroic quality does not mean that Larsen is not alienated, because he is, but to a much lesser degree than Brausen. He maintains a functional self in the face of his alienation and failure. (pp. 77-8)

The relation between Larsen and the dead shipyard is the central feature of the novel. Larsen's entire personality is revealed in his attitudes and activities with respect to the shipyard. His relation to his job is much more complex than that of Brausen to his job in La vida breve. To begin with, he knows the job is meaningless, but he converts it into a defense against life…. Brausen, alienated by his work, flees from it. Larsen accepts the alienation and manipulates it,… "with the only aim of giving him a meaning and attributing this meaning to his remaining years."… The result of Larsen's efforts is the conversion of the shipyard into a separate world. He recognizes what has happened but is not worried by it.

The most important difference between Larsen and Brausen is that the former can act both in the real world and in the one ordered by his imagination, and the latter only in his created world. In addition Larsen can function with full knowledge of his alienation from all that surrounds him, believing in the complete meaninglessness of his actions. (p. 78)

When Larsen is faced by total failure, without future, alienated from his body and his external existence, he still maintains a self that gives him the will to act in the face of meaninglessness…. The narrator, of uncertain identity, judges Larsen's existence at this point—"Thus nothing more than a man, this one, Larsen …" …—indicating Larsen's reduction to his essential self.

Onetti does not allow Larsen's posture to remain unequivocal to the end. Two possible endings are given, the origins of which are unknown to the reader. In one Larsen leaves, defeated but intact. In the other he is destroyed—humiliated by the boatmen, incoherent; he dies shortly thereafter. The reader must choose. The ambiguity of the ending vitiates any generalization about the positive values represented by Larsen, as it is not certain to what extent he maintains them in the face of his failure. Thus any retrospective judgment of these positive values must be relative to their position in the novel and to their possible final collapse. (p. 79)

The use of the first person plural relates [the narrator] to the town of Santa Maria, as does his interest in events pertaining to the town. The scenes presented, on the other hand, make him omniscient. This omniscience in turn is confused by the equivocal nature of the ending…. One must suspect a deliberate attempt to cloud any positive interpretation of Larsen.

Nevertheless, what does emerge from El astillero is a pattern of alienation that does not seem to lead to loss of self. The will to act, although the actions be meaningless, preserves and defines the essential self. Because of this will to act the alienating conditions of society and life may be met and held at bay. (pp. 79-80)

M. Ian Adams, "Juan Carlos Onetti: Alienation and the Fragmented Image," in his Three Authors of Alienation: Bombal, Onetti, Carpentier (copyright © 1975 by M. Ian Adams), University of Texas Press, 1975, pp. 37-80.


Onetti, Juan Carlos (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Onetti, Juan Carlos (Vol. 7)