Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In 1963, Onetti deservedly won the William Faulkner Certificate of Merit for El astillero. The novel is an innovative transmutation of the themes and techniques of Faulkner, the Uruguayan author’s most influential literary model. Onetti’s Santa Maria country is a fictional locale suggested by but not simply copied from Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The religious allegory of The Shipyard is Hispano-Catholic in content, but it has technical precedents in Faulkner novels such as Light in August (1932). The multiple point of view of The Shipyard also can be traced to Faulkner. Criticism has not always pointed out the differences between Onetti and Faulkner, but The Shipyard displays some, such as the greater measure of pessimism present in Onetti, and the Uruguayan writer’s more pointed reflexive dimension. The distinctive Onettian narrative voice repeatedly comments on the progress of its narration, which itself seems tainted by the arbitrariness and insubstantiality of the lives being told:Now, in the incomplete reconstruction of that night, as part of the whim of giving it historical importance or meaning, as part of the inoffensive game of cutting short a winter evening, manipulating, combining and playing tricks with all those things which interest no one and which are not indispensable, there comes the testimony of the bartender of the Plaza.

Onetti is the best of the River Plate writers who quite independently of the French developed an existential fiction in the 1940’s and 1950’s. He is one of the earliest and most redoubtable craftsmen of the Latin American New Narrative, and for all its reminiscence of Faulkner, the Santa Maria saga was itself highly influential long before the 1980’s, when Onetti’s life work was awarded Spain’s Cervantes Prize and Uruguay’s National Literature Prize. With Santa Maria, Onetti stimulated the equally ambitious projects of younger writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. No novel of the saga is as intense as The Shipyard, or more successful in maintaining Onetti’s ambiguous play between disintegration and imaginative attempts to prevail against it, between the somber theme of mortality and the comic treatment of it.