Montevideo, Uruguay, 1909 - Madrid, España , 1994

With the passing of the years, the figure of Juan Carlos Onetti is becoming more important and central. He is now considered to have been a fiction writer of fundamental importance for contemporary Hispanic literature, and one of the precursors of the great flowering of Latin-American novel writing during the second half of the last century. He started work very young, without completing his studies, taking all sorts of jobs. Starting in 1930, he worked as a journalist in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. He was editorial secretary for Marcha magazine until 1941, when he joined the Reuters Agency in Argentina. On his return to Montevideo he was appointed Director of Municipal Libraries, a post he held until 1974, when he fled the dictatorship of Bordaberry and settled in Spain. The novel La vida breve, published in 1950, was the first to describe the mythological city of Santa María, where most of his fiction was to be set. He was awarded the Cervantes Prize in 1980, and once democracy returned to his own country, it recognised his importance with the Gran Premio Nacional de Literatura.

  •  "Onetti's novels and stories are the foundation stones of our modernity. All his literary children learned from him the lessons of narrative intelligence, of expert construction, and of an immense love of literary imagination." Carlos Fuentes 
  • "We Latin-American authors are eternally indebted to Onetti." Mario Vargas Llosa 

Bibliography

Novel

Novelas de Santa María brings together three of Onetti's most important works that take place in that city: A Brief Life (1950), The Shipyard (1962) and Body Snatcher (1964).

On his deathbed, the protagonist reviews the diary annotations of his life from the day his wife left him and the country. His sour resignations of the emotional loneliness of existence and the bleak struggle for material survival frames a return to Onetti's universe of Santamaría and sleazy brothels, now compounded by a drug-smuggling scenario. The hero abandons the city life to befriend the local players in the racket behind a dam-construction project. He is drawn into the lives of Dr. Díaz Grey and his wife, a mulatto housekeeper and her stepdaughter, lorry drivers, the 'Turkish' postman, the denizens o the brothel... and Professor Paley, co-ordinator of the North American front organisation, whose local reps (their physiques fashioned on baseball fields and their minds trained by Blible classes) uphold the company motto 'In gold we trust' by scattering coins to pay off their black and mestizo labourers.

Hardly havens of political correctness, the spare vision of these lives is suffused with warmth and irony. There is a sense that Past Caring? is Onetti's last will and testament to the inner world of his imagination, and a fictional farewell to his readers: a meditation on the approaching death that would curtail further forays from a mind trapped in a failing body. 

Magda, una bella prostituta de Buenos Aires, vive en el burdel de madame Safo, mantenida a todo lujo por un importante jefe militar, que no se decide a abandonar a su inmensamente rica esposa para casarse con ella... Sin ceder a la pasión, resignada, Magda sigue ejerciendo su oficio hasta que un día aparece bañada en su propia sangre, con un tiro en la cabeza. Al mismo tiempo, el avión en el que viaja el militar sufre un misterioso accidente.

The archetypal Onetti hero, Medina is at different time of his life a (phony) doctor, a painter, a police chief. He lives in Lavanda, across the river from Santa María, a town he is not allowed to enter and that he therefore wishes to destroy. In the end the wind speaks by devouring Santa María with its flames. 

The first novel written in exile in Spain, Let the Wind Speak is Onetti coming to terms with his exclusion form the Santa Marias of his childhood, his first sexual conquests, his first cigarettes, his first double whiskys. A lover's bitter lament –it ends in the destruction of the object of adoration.

Situada, como buena parte de sus obras, en la ciudad-mito de Santa María, la novela narra una serie de hechos que sacuden violentamente las vidas aletargadas de sus habitantes... Culpas reales o imaginarias, fruto de un crimen biológico o de un suicidio, sucesos de los que parte Onetti para explorar una vez más, con su particular maestría, los abismos de la personalidad humana.

La historia que cuenta en esta novela no traza más que la desventura de una mujer, Moncha Insaurralde, dominada por su vestido nupcial; una novia venida de un viaje a Europa para casarse con un muerto, Marcos Bergner. Es el recuerdo de un recuerdo: el de la joven Moncha cuyo matrimonio no llegó a realizarse y cuyo vestido de novia utilizaba las noches de luna. Este relato se inscribe dentro del ciclo de Santa María, lugar inventado por Onetti, donde se desarrollan varios cuentos del autor.

Set in Santa María, an imaginary provincial town on the banks of the River Plate (reminiscent of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County), Body Snatcher, a tragicomic novel of grotesque ideals and lost illusions, recounts two attempts at self-fulfillment, two Promoethean stories by turns. Larsen, a boldly original pimp of wary whores, tries to establish the perfect brothel; passionate Julita, a mad widow, refuses to accept the death of her husband by taking his younger brother as her lover. In their sordid, self-righteous society, which pits stupidity and lust against honor and love, both characters are doomed to failure.

The Shipyard chronicles an anti-hero named Larsen who returns to a fictional place, Santa María, to try to revive a useless and abandoned shipyard. With all the enthusiasm of a man condemned to be hanged, Larsen takes up his new post. Like the other workers at the shipyard, he routinely goes through the motions. Every so often, his sense of reality is shaken by a tremor of self-deception and then it is possible to believe that the yard's glory is not just a thing of the past. In spite of its melancholy and sense of alienation, Onetti's novel conveys, through its unique poetic language, a real sense of transcendence and hope. Allegorical, reflecting the decay and breakdown of Uruguayan society and modern urban life, The Shipyard is a landmark of Latin American literature.

In A Grave With No Name Onetti returns to the imaginary world of Santa María, the mythical city which forms the backdrop to many of his novels. A woman dies. A doctor watches the bizarre funeral procession straggling through the poor farmsteads with a goat bringing up the rear –'lame, slavering down its beard, one leg in a splint...' He gradually pieces together the story –or stories– behind this woman, who might be Rita, who had stood outside the railway station begging –or soliciting– in the company of her goat. In his attempt to uncover her true history,  to distinguish fact from fiction, the narrator is irresistibly drawn into a world of tumbledown shacks and shattered dreams. 

'I am particularly fond of Farewells. I wrote it very quickly, with lots of love, even for the words. Some of my other works may be more literary.. But I have a special feeling for it, I like it more.' Juan Carlos Onetti

In Farewells, a young international basketball player is dying of tuberculosis. His arrival at a sanatorium in a mountain holiday resort prompts speculative and, at times, vicious gossip among the guests. The narrator, café-owner cum shopkeeper, recalls the physical beauty of the dying sportsman with admiration and affection. The male nurse and hotel maid, the tubercular residents and the café clientele wonder over this enigmatic loner. Letters arrive... Two women visit –his wife and his mistress? He moves into a chalet... Making love in his condition? Is this a scandalous threesome? Incest? Or 'that oddity, the well-knit family'? Who can tell? Subtle detail, snatches of conversation and the café-owner's recollections create a mysterious network of unlikely relationships in 1950's Argentina.

 

 

 

In A Brief Life, Juan Carlos Onetti's protagonist, Brausen, is caring for his wife after a long illness. To compensate for the physical void which temporarily stalls their caresses, Brausen eavesdrops on his neighbors, a husband and wife, imagining their gestures and their expressions. He also imagines stories: of a mythical town called Santa María, and of a doctor named Díaz Grey. But he not only wishes to imagine himself as someone else, he also seeks release from the world he knows. He leads many lives, some real and some fantastic, in order to experience a moment of psychic weightlessness—a 'brief life'.

Tonight is set in a port which has surrendered to the forces of an anonymous general. It could be Valencia in 1939, Buenos Aires or any city after a dictator has come to power. Inspired by conversations with anarchists exiled in Buenos Aires after their defeat in the Spanish Civil War, Onetti structures his novel as a thriller to map out the despair of the men trying to avoid capture and the sadism of those in pursuit. Morasan's secret police patrol the seedy quayside bars, hunting down Barcala and Ossorio. In an atmosphere of suspicion, fear and betrayal, these erstwhile revolutionary leaders question their political inspiration, cling to memoires of moments of warmth and passion as the net draws ever tighter around them: 'All there is is this trap and us waiting to be cut to pieces.' 

Onetti's stark and ironic prose brilliantly conveys the pointlessness of war, the terror of betrayal and the futility of death in the name of lost heroic causes.

In No Man’s Land, Juan Carlos Onetti dissects a restless, rootless generation of intellectuals, would-be artists and political activists in the city of Buenos Aires. Their parents came from Europe to find a land of plenty in Argentina and now they are caught in a void: neither Argentinian nor European. Theirs are spiked conversations in shadowy bars and brothels, ringing with disillusion. Political idealism has been shattered by the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact. Men and women find no solace in flesh or in feeling as they pursue ghosts form their amorous pasts. Abortion, suicide and failure weigh heavier than fantasies of tropical islands or the dream of a new world. The chaos of lives on the edge of the abyss is caught in a jagged, cinematic narrative, swiftly moving through sequences of abrupt scenes.

In Onetti's cycle of novels, No Man's Land is a key work, in which the focus shifts from the solitary protagonist of The Pit, to the first appearance of Onetti's greatest creations: Larsen the corpse-gathered and the vividly realized imaginary town of Santa Maria. If The Pit anticipated Sartre's existentialism, then No Man's Land is an early incursion into the fragmented space of an end-of-history post-modernism. 

"The Graham Green of Uruguay... foreshadowing the work of Beckett and Camus." Sunday Telegraph

"Onetti's voice and subject matter are his own... his work is always on a knife-edge... He is laconic, elegant, literary." London Review Books

"The Onetti experience is a curious one: readers end up feeling that they understand life better after a stay in this ghostly, tantalizing wold... The form is subtle and delicate, the message sordid an bleak, the flavour inimitable." The Guardian

Eladio Linacero, 'a lonely man having a smoke in some old corner of the city', dwells upon fragments from his past on his fortieth birthday. From afar he sees the rising tides o Stalinism and Fascism in Europe, but is uninspired by the left-wing activities of his room-mate  and the mythical endeavours of thirty-three heroic gauchos fighting for Uruguayan national independence. His relationships with women –dominated by memories of his rape of a girl in his youth– are a futile quest for lost innocence. Married love perished when an interest in crockery and refrigetors took over. A chance encounter with the poet Cordés kindles a spark of friendship which soon dies when he responds coldly to Eladio's writing.'Why don't things happen tot he man who waits and reaches out with all his heart from some forsaken street corner?

"The birth of the Latin American novels dates from the appearance of The Pit, the first novel by the Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti" Mario Vargas Llosa,  Times Literary Suplement

Short stories and novellas

La obra de Juan Carlos Onetti aborda las desgracias de la vida humana desde una perspectiva que combina la pregunta existencial con la puesta en escena de la ficción y su poder de salvar a los hombres. Eterna Cadencia Editora ha reunido en un solo volumen sus novelas breves (El pozo, Los adioses, Para una tumba sin nombre, La cara de la desgracia, Jacob y el otro, Tan triste como ella y La muerte y la niña), incluyendo además un prólogo de Juan José Saer sobre ellas.

"Dear Sad: I understand, despite the inexpressible and innumerable ties that binds us together, that the moment has come for us to thank one another for the intimacy of the last few months and say goodbye. You have all the advantages; I accept my guilt, responsibility, and failure. I try to excuse myself –only for the benefit of the two of us, of course– by invoking the difficulties involved in vacillating for so many pages. I also accept the happy moments as well deserved. In any case, forgive me. I never saw your face directly, never showed you mine." Juan Carlos Onetti

Este libro recoge sus cuentos completos en una nueva edición revisada por Hortensia Campanella. Una nueva oportunidad de recorrer los mundos más sugestivos, de acercarnos a la fantasía y a los personajes de uno de nuestros clásicos más inquietantes y sugerentes.

Narra la visita de un ex-campeón del boxeo a Santa María. El cuento está reconocido como una referencia inevitable en la narrativa breve latinoamericana. Incluido en los volúmenes Cuentos completos y en Novelas Breves. Álvaro Brechner dirigió la película Mal día para pescar (2009), basada en el cuento de Onetti. 

La cara de la desgracia sirve para explicar la forma en que Onetti construye una historia con el residuo de otra. La situación narrativa de La cara de la desgracia se estructura a partir de la lógica de la memoria, atada a la imposibilidad de reconstruir el pasado, y es ella la que determina la construcción de un mundo donde la ambigüedad privilegia los diversos niveles del relato. Desde esta perspectiva, este análisis se concentra en los recursos estilísticos y estructurales ligados a la evocación del recuerdo, la confesión, la ruptura del tiempo y la configuración simbólica de los espacios.

El personaje de esta historia es un joven que intenta sobrevivir en un entorno que casi siempre le resulta ajeno y asfixiante. En ese contexto, la búsqueda del amor representa lo realmente perdurable en contraste con lo efímero. La primera reflexión del personaje anticipa un temperamento independiente y divorciado de convencionalismos, cuando observa a un profesor ya anciano, quebrado y desgastado por el tiempo y una rutina exasperante. El protagonista percibe a ese hombre desahuciado y quizás hasta en los umbrales de la muerte, como el símbolo de una sociedad que rechaza por su resignación e inmovilismo. En el siguiente cuadro vivencial –tan o más representativo que el anterior– el protagonista se integra a una animada tertulia que reúne a un grupo de presuntos intelectuales, donde el tema dominante es el arte. En este cuadro, Juan Carlos Onetti propone al lector asomarse a un universo de intensos debates dialécticos gobernados por la vacuidad, donde forma y contenido entran en permanente conflicto. Más allá de la controversia, aflora el rostro de una sociedad por entonces ajena a la cruda realidad cotidiana, que se agota en la teoría y en la intelectualización de discursos abstractos.

Anthology / Selection

Contiene: Avenida de Mayo, Diagonal Norte, Avenida de Mayo, Un sueño realizado, Bienvenido, Bob, La casa en la arena, El album,  El infierno tan temido, La cara de la desgracia, Jaboc y el otro, Tan triste como ella, La muerte y la niña, Presencia.

En tres volúmenes:

  • Novelas I (1939-1954)
  • Novelas II (1959-1993)
  • Cuentos, artículos y miscelánea

Letters

El volumen da cuenta del intercambio epistolar que ambos personajes mantuvieron entre 1937 y 1955. Se trata de un proyecto conjunto de tres editoriales publicado el año del centenario del nacimiento del autor. 67 cartas entre dos personalidades tan distintas como las de Juan Carlos Onetti y Julio E. Payró.

Other genres

Reeditados en numerosas ocasiones, los textos aquí reunidos constituyen la más completa recopilación de su pensamiento, de su original modo de enfocar la historia, la actualidad y la literatura, siempre al servicio de los principios más generosos y de unos valores éticos que constituyen el valioso fundamento de su labor de escritor. Imprescindible por lo sustancioso. Reúne textos que abarcan más de cuarenta y cinco años de obra crítica, de 1950 a 1994, como el núcleo fundamental de la vida de su autor. Edición de Jorge Onetti.

Prizes

  • 1991 - Gran Premio Rodó for intellectual work, awarded by the Montevideo Municipal Government
  • 1990 - International Prize from the Unión Latina de Literatura 
  • 1985 - Gran Premio Nacional de Literatura de Uruguay
  • 1980 - Mondello Prize (Italy) for Los adioses
  • 1980 - Critics' Prize
  • 1980 - Premio Cervantes
  • 1974 - Italian-Latin American Institute Prize for El astillero
  • 1963 - William Faulkner Foundation Ibero-American Award
  • 1962 - Uruguay National Literature Prize