Juan Carlos Onetti: Portraitist of Failure

From Uruguay to Germany, to Spain and back to Argentina, the literary establishment worldwide has joined in the celebration of the great Uruguayan writer, upon the commemoration of the first centenary of his birth. Literary recognition, when it comes, tends to be viral. By the time Juan Carlos Onetti was awarded Uruguay’s National Literature Prize, in 1962, he had been a writer for close to thirty years. He had been a successful writer, inasmuch as he had managed to procure a living for himself and his family as a “man of letters” rather than as a salesman of typewriters or a marketeer – both the trades of his early youth. Internationally, however, Onetti remained an obscure figure until the virus of his fame spread through the decade of the sixties. Still today, amidst universal praise and the unavoidable reference to his prose as inspiration and/or ancestor to the Latin American boom, he must count among the least read members in the canon of Hispanic, and even Western literature.

Onetti. Photo: aimdigital.com.ar

Born in Montevideo on July 1, 1909, Onetti’s early life drifted between the parochial and the nondescript. The middle of three siblings, he dropped out of secondary school as a teenager. He was always evasive about his childhood, which he described as a period of happiness – indeed, uninterestingly happy. By the time he turned 35 years old he had married twice (to two sisters who were also his first cousins), had fathered a son from his first wife and was working as a journalist in Buenos Aires. He would spend the vast majority of his time in the Argentinian capital until 1955, when he moved back to Montevideo to develop a fruitful, though relatively lackluster, career as the editor of the weekly journal Marcha. By then, Onetti’s greatest literary creation – the imaginary city of Santa María – had been under construction for years. In 1961 he published The Shipyard, which merited him his country’s National Literature Prize, and three years later he published Body Snatcher – the core of his literary creation had been completed, and the time was ripe for acclaim to come his way.

Except, acclaim for him was seldom unanimous. A curious tendency to finish second in literary competitions came to its culmination in 1967 when he was mentioned as finalist to the first edition of the prestigious Venezuelan Literary Prize Rómulo Gallegos, which was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa instead, for his majestic novel The Green House. But in 1967 the sudden interest felt by the literary establishment for Latin American narrative was well underway, and Onetti’s reputation as one of the sources of admiration among the young caste of new writers was more than cemented.

Onetti might never again have left Montevideo, had it not been for an ugly bust-up with the dictatorship of Juan María Bordaberry in 1974. Onetti and his colleagues from the editorial board at Marcha had selected a short story entitled “The bodyguard” as winner to the publication’s yearly literary prize. The story dealt with the conscience of a bodyguard after he carries out brutal acts of violence and torture. The government of Mr Bordaberry considered this to be incendiary material and sent the 65-year-old Onetti to prison. After spending six months in a mental institution he was released. He immediately fled to Spain, where he stayed until his death in 1994. In 1980, after the publication of what he considered to be his magnum opus, Let the Wind Speak, he was awarded the most prestigious literary prize in the Hispanic world, the Premio Miguel de Cervantes.

Onetti’s prose is as distinctive as it is difficult. Unimpressed by the evident, he strove to build a baroque code that divulged his stories only in the most oblique of fashions. Thus, reading his work is rewarding in the same measure that it is laborious. Not least because of his choice of themes, which inevitably lead to the exploration of failure. For Onetti the truly remarkable, that which is worth telling, is intrinsically linked to the effort to attain something, anything, no matter how insignificant. In fact, regardless of whether the goal is achieved, the merit of a story – its substance – is found in the struggle posed by obstacles and the process through which his characters attempt to overcome them. This fascination with adversity often takes Onetti’s narrative into the grotesque underworld of those who live on the outer edges of the acceptable. Insofar as his fiction is a space devoted to the frustration of living in a constant effort to go on, to the overbearing burden of existing, and, indeed, to the more sinister aspect of human nature, his work becomes not so much an apology of failure but, rather, a fascinating and often sympathetic study of it, which could hardly be described as uplifting, yet remains addictively engaging.

In a year fraught with memories of a revolution which still harbored hope fifty years ago and with the frenzied hype of what the future might hold in store for a world released by a certain Barack, there still is room to celebrate one of the most accomplished storytellers of the twentieth century. 2009 might not go down in history as Onetti’s year, but while the excuse is there, the challenge remains to pick up one of his novels and have a taste.






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