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Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994): An existential allegory of contemporary man.

Por: Ainsa, Fernando, World Literature Today, 01963570, Summer94, Vol. 68, Fascc
ulo 3
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Now that Juan Carlos Onetti has left us--when we had already come to believe tha
t he was immortal--we ask ourselves, from where within a country in which narrat
ive is traditionally polarized between rural realism and modest urban incursions
did this writer emerge? What was his literary heritage? And, most important, ho
w could he establish, based on a "territory of the imaginary," Santa Maria, a fi
ctional tradition in which a good many Uruguayan and many other Latin American w
riters can recognize themselves, an exclusive world that today is the inheritanc
e of universal literature?
If going from the regional to the universal is the privilege of good literature,
then in Onetti's case everything began in 1939, in the unkempt room of a teneme
nt house, where a man smokes and paces incessantly through a hot and humid summe
r night, after a day of celebration. Bored with lying in bed and with smelling a
lternately one armpit then the other while grimacing in disgust, the man takes s
tock of his life on the eve of his fortieth birthday: he has no work or friends,
he has just divorced, and his neighbors seem "more repugnant than ever"; it's b
een more than twenty years since he lost his ideals, and, according to news he h
as heard on the radio, "it appears that war is imminent."
Any human being confronted with a similiar life circumstance could not avoid the
most somber of reflections. Nevertheless, Eladio Linacero, the protagonist of E
l pozo (1939; Eng. The Pit, 1991), Juan Carlos Onetti's first novel, succeeds in
evading his sad reality. For him, it is enough to begin writing a dream ("the d
ream of the log cabin"), although to do so he feels obliged to recognize that, i
n his words, "I am a solitary man who smokes anywhere in the city," a confession
with which he ends his monologue. In the space of fifty-six pages, narrated in
the first person throughout that insomniac night, he not only frees himself from
the most menacing ghosts of solitude but also establishes another reality, than
ks to his simple formula of acceptance: "I am a man who turns toward the shadow
on the wall at night in order to think of foolish and fantastic things."
This salvation through writing portends a destiny that Onetti would fulfill with
exemplary precision. Twelve years later, in 1951, another man also paces while
suffering insomnia in a small apartment in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aire
s, "a small and timid man" who has said "no to alcohol, no to tobacco" and that
there is "nothing like women." Jose Maria Brausen, the protagonist of La vida br
eve (1951; Eng. A Brief Life, 1976), appears to be the direct descendant of Lina
cero. Like the latter, Brausen maintains a mediocre existence and, after five ye
ars of marriage, comes to discover the end of his relationship, ruined by indiff
erence. The pretext of this sudden revelation has been the mastectomy which his
wife Gertrudis has just undergone, but the reality of his solitude appears much
more profound than the scar that cruelly marks her amputation. Without feeling c
ompassion or affection and while listening to her moan as she dreams, Brausen ac
cepts his failure with "the expected resignation that comes with being forty."
Nevertheless, within the four walls of his apartment and through successive nigh
ts during which, plagued by insomnia, he paces between the kitchen, the bedroom,
and the bathroom, Brausen is capable also of freeing himself from his present c
ircumstance. "Any sudden and simple thing was going to happen, and I could save
myself by writing," he says the night he decides "to do something." He sits at a
table where, by his own account, "I had under my hands the paper necessary to s
ave myself, a blotter, and a fountain pen." Unlike Linacero, for whom it suffice
d "to tell a dream" with the "event" that preceded it, Brausen simultaneously un
dertakes a twofold escape. On the one hand, he doubles as Arce, a makeshift macr
o (pimp) who bursts into the apartment of his neighbor, a prostitute whose noise
s he has heard through the thin partition walls that separate their bedrooms, as
if their two beds were end to end. At the same time, he assumes the identity of
a character he has created (Diaz Grey) in a city (Santa Maria) imagined with su
ch perfection that at the end of the novel he is able to flee to it without forc
ing the ambiguous reality of the fiction he invented. Beginning with La vida bre
ve, this mythical city with recognizable archetypes of the River Plate region--s
ynthesized by Onetti as a true paradigm--becomes the setting for the rest of his
work. Brausen, its "founder," will have a monument erected in his honor in the
principal plaza in La novia robada (The Stolen Bride; 1968), and in Guando ya no
impone (When It No Longer Matters; 1993) his name will be invoked during religi
ous processions.
Through the evasion of the sad personal circumstances of Eladio Linacero and Jos
e Maria Brausen, Onetti establishes a formal, tense universe, a world enclosed e
xistentially on itself, rigorous in style and without concessions yet saved by t
he act of writing placed at the disposal of its antiheroes. Disoriented beings (
when not frustrated), uprooted noncomformists, outsiders, and marginal figures f
ace the difficulty of communicating with others and feel that authenticity is re
pressed by society. They take refuge with their anguish in the space of a small
room and carry out a solitary, intense "descent into themselves," having been pr
eceded by the first outsider in modern literature, the protagonist of Dostoevsky
's Notes from Underground.
Born 1 July 1909 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Onetti is a member of a kind of lost ge
neration of the River Plate that reached maturity in the 1940s and could be char
acterized as somewhat nihilistic. To the extent that he was able to create chara
cters who were authentic spiritual pariahs, morally banished and politically dis
enchanted, his total rejection of the ruling values is among the most radical. H
is anti-heroes go much further in their forsaking all belief. Abandoned beings,
"amoral, indifferent" men "without faith or interest in their destiny," as he wo
uld define them in his foreword to Tierra de nadie (No Man's Land; 1941), they a
re depicted, Onetti admits, "with an equal spirit of indifference," although in
reality he has always been empathetic to their sadness through an expressive pit
y and has discovered with them that the freedom such characters as Linacero or B
rausen attained only served to make their isolation more obvious.
In Onetti, solitude is the result not of a deliberate calling for independence b
ut rather of a kind of paralyzing lucidity. All impulse to "action" is denied by
a thoroughgoing introspective analysis. In this position there is an inevitable
failure, a negation of all that could become delightful, vitalistic enthusiasm,
a call to analyze and reflect instead of openly enjoying life. Protagonists who
are confined to their rooms like Linacero and Brausen, uncommitted observers of
other people's business like Diaz Grey or Jorge Malabia, impresarios destined f
or defeat like Larsen, eternal planners of projects that are never carried out l
ike Aranzuru--all seem to have come to the conclusion that, as H. G. Wells said,
"there is no escape or getting around it or getting through it."
In Onetti's work there is no place for a man of universal values, even if these
values appear to be threatened, problematic, or alternative. His disillusionment
is total and absolute; there is no possible faith, no imaginable response to cr
isis, no question worth posing. His dispossession brings him close to the essent
ial dead-end truths of Samuel Beckett's characters. Linacero is, in effect, not
unlike Molloy.
Onetti's characters, moreover, live "marginalized" on the muddy banks of the Riv
er Plate, "expelled" from Europe, and "fallen" into "an uncharted land, void of
spirit." H. A. Murena defines the situation of the River Plate in El petado orig
inal de America (America's Original Sin): "America is made up of exiles, is the
land of exile, and all who are exiled know profoundly that in order to live, one
must be done with the past, must erase memories of this world to which one's re
turn is forbidden, for to do otherwise is to remain suspended from memories, una
ble to live." Therefore, Onetti ironically asks himself, "Why here? Preceding us
there is nothing. One gaucho, two gauchos, thirty-three gauchos," making a clea
r, irreverent allusion to the Uruguayan national myth, historically rounded on t
he landing of the "thirty-three gauchos from the east bank of the River Plate."
Onetti not only affirms the lack of a perceptible historical past, but he also d
isavows the expression of traditional culture. In a weekly newspaper column, sym
ptomatically called "La Piedra en el Char-co" (The Rock in the Puddle), he sever
ely criticizes his era for lacking originality, for the sterility into which reg
ionalism, costumbrismo, and social realism have fallen. Devoid of all rhetorical
weight, history is transformed into a tabula rasa, where everything remains to
be written, but where, in reality, nothing is worth writing.
Onetti's antiheroes proclaim that "nothing can be done," or, what seems more ser
ious still, that "nothing is worth doing." Far from anguish, nausea, and even de
tresse, one can speak only of fatalism and resignation. Onetti himself declared
as an elemental philosophical principle that "the whole art of living lies in th
e simple ease of accommodating ourselves within the hallow of events that we hav
e not provoked by our own will; not forcing anything; simply being each minute."
In conclusion, it is not worth struggling for some other future, since "An enlig
htened man should do nothing. Look at construction workers, at any number of thi
ngs. It breaks your heart. All life wallowing in misery. Look at politics, liter
ature, or what have you. All is false, and the autochthonous is the falsest of a
ll. If there's nothing to do here, don't do anything. If gringos like to work, l
et them break their backs. I don't have any faith; we don't have faith. Some day
we'll have a mystique, for sure; but in the meantime, we're happy."
The formulation of a philosophy of existence in Onetti can, consequently, seem w
eak. One must wade through sundry isolated paragraphs of his works in order to c
onstruct a scheme that surprises by its simplicity and its coherence. For the mo
ment, one discovers that, like a good inhabitant of the River Plate region, Onet
ti understands that synonymous with virility is a certain contentiousness, a cer
tain obligatory terseness of emotional expression and its mysterious reasons--a
constant that appears in the works of authors as diverse as Macedonio Fernandez,
Jorge Luis Borges, and Julio Cortazar, as well as in many tango lyrics.
In essence, more than a form of deracination, Onetti translates the profound fru
stration of the inhabitants of the River Plate region, maladjusted as a result o
f expectations and legitimate aspirations and the sad proof of their surrounding
reality, a reality which he judges with a severe, hypercritical focus. His is a
criticism that opens its doors to the skepticism of "withdrawn men who shun the
masses with taciturnity," about whom Juan Carlos Ghiano has written. In this se
lf-reflection one recognizes not only a single esthetic stance but also a genera
lized attitude, even at the popular level, where one vacillates between denuncia
tion and acceptance, the confirmation that "things are as they are and there is
no recourse but to accept them as such."
One reality Onetti himself had to face came in 1973, when, during the coup d'eta
t of 27 June, he was forced to leave Uruguay and take refuge in Spain, where he
resided until his death. In Madrid, far from the Buenos Aires where he had worke
d as a correspondent for the Reuters news agency, or from his native Montevideo,
where he had written for the weekly Marcha and the daily Accion and where he wa
s director of the municipal library, he received the 1978 Cervantes Prize and, t
hanks to numerous translations, international recognition.
The fame that was to arrive late did not change Onetti's view of life at all, th
at vision that Diaz Grey outlined in El astillero (1961; Eng. The Shipyard, 1968
): life "is nothing more than this: what we see and what we know." There is no t
ranscendence or philosophical meaning worth insisting upon. The important thing
is that "nothing makes sense." The meaning of this view of existence is quite si
mple: men are beings who, refusing to accept clarity, complicate everything with
"words and anxieties." Resignation, not at all anguished, must lead to admittin
g death itself as part of a routine.
Onetti's fatalism seems to lead to a certain passivity. Here we are far from all
demonic existential anguish; we are close to a kind of beatific, transcendent u
nderstanding of all human and earthly anxieties, an attitude that could be relig
ious had it been nurtured by faith. This insistence on the precariousness of exi
stence, which provides the basis for the title of one novel, La vida breve, and
is implied by the title of another, Los adioses (The Goodbyes; 1954), makes one
recall the lyrics of a song which points toward maturity: "Las marionetas, dan,
dan / dan tres vueltas y se van" (The marionettes turn, turn, / turn three times
and are gone).
From the impersonal rooms or boarding houses the evasion projected by solitary m
en has led to boredom or sadness, the expression of a resigned fatalism, far fro
m all anguish and despair. At the end of the dream there is nothing left but to
"watch oneself parsimoniously, calmly, growing old without drawing conclusions,"
or perhaps to "bore oneself smiling," as Diaz Grey suggests with a certain sadn
ess--a sadness which can also be a "state of love" that assures a balance betwee
n hopelessness and rebelliousness and foretells a possible individual salvation.
And for what purpose is one saved? The answer rests in literature alone, that fo
rm of writing which frees Linacero and Brausen and which Onetti makes his own wi
th a rigorous vocation, for what matters is to write, but not in any old way. In
Onetti, beneath the guise of anti-intellectualism, one discovers a compendium o
f many of the techniques of the best contemporary narrative: the ambiguity of He
rman Melville, the multiple points of view of Henry James, the interior monologu
e of James Joyce, the collective characters of Sherwood Anderson (Does Winesburg
, Ohio influence Santa Mafia?), the rounded perfection of a story by Stephen Cra
ne, the atmosphere of William Faulkner. The lack of faith in any philosophical,
religious, or political dogma does not keep Onetti from believing in the essenti
al condition of the writer. As Lucien Goldmann would say of Jean Genet, one coul
d also say of Onetti: "Only art and appearance can constitute the esthetic compe
nsation of a deceptive and insufficient reality." The exaltation of the powers o
f imagination through literature would, therefore, constitute more than escape;
it would constitute authentic liberation. One could add, from a gnostic point of
view, that if to tell a story is to understand, then to understand is to create
--an understanding and a creation that, in Onetti's literary praxis, has been tr
anslated into a brief yet intense saga. If his work appears to be an enterprise
of evasion, made acute with mechanisms that go along with the able management of
the best techniques and procedures of writing, it does not constitute an easy e
scapism, for to escape from one specific reality does not imply abandoning man's
essential reality, to let fall into "moral indifference" his existential proble
matic, which is valid in all time and space.
Herein lies the true meaning of Onetti's work: to arrive at the crux of the indi
vidual's intimate solitude, at the metaphysical sadness of the human condition,
through the progressive awareness of the uselessness of most human action and th
rough the stripping away of all the trappings that surround us and create for us
false dependencies on our surrounding reality; and, in arriving at this crux, t
o grasp the essence of the human condition in order to distill in an original an
d solitary way a true existential allegory of contemporary man, not just of the
River Plate region or of Latin America but of universal man.
Translated from the Spanish By David Draper Clar
FERNANDO AINSA is Director of Publications for UNESCO in Paris. A native of Urug
uay, he is the author of numerous books, including De la Edad de Oro a El Dorado
: Genesis del discurso utopico americano (1992).