A Faint Sound of Rust

Michael Wood

Juan Carlos Onetti, 84 years old and now a Spanish citizen, living in Madrid, is one of the most distinguished and most neglected of Latin American writers. He was born in Montevideo, but takes the idea of being an important Uruguayan author as something short of a compliment, even as a kind of joke. He hasn’t sought his neglect, but he has cultivated the neglect he found, made it part of his story. He boasts of failing to get literary prizes in the way other writers casually mention that they’ve got them. His neglect began early, almost as soon as he was discovered, with his harsh and jagged short story ‘El Pozo’ (‘The Pit’), 1939; and when he did get a major literary prize, the Cervantes, it was in 1978, late enough for the legend of neglect to be maintained.

We get a recent picture of Onetti in Ramon Chao’s book (Onetti, 1990), although not an entirely reliable one perhaps. Partly because he behaves a little too much like everyone’s idea of an old-style Latin American intellectual, drinking endlessly and making dark epigrams by the score (‘Critics are like death: they may be late but they always get there’); and partly because Chao has cobbled lots of these epigrams from Onetti’s novels, so that he seems, in casual conversation, to be talking like his most literary self. Perhaps this is how Onetti talks, but the uneven texture of Chao’s book suggests otherwise: that the speaking Onetti and the writing Onetti are quite different. Still, it’s a good performance, however stage-managed. We meet a man who has read enormously, is generous about other writers, has not grown old mentally, is often very funny and has what seems to me an unfailingly accurate view of the qualities of his own work – not the most common capacity among neglected or un-neglected writers.

Early in Chao’s book, Onetti recounts the visit of a young man who tells him that his best book is Los Adioses (Farewells), 1954. Onetti says this is his own favourite too, but critics have preferred El Astillero (The Shipyard), 1961. ‘No, absolutely not,’ the young man says. ‘Farewells is the best.’ Later Onetti says he likes Farewells the most, has ‘a special tenderness’ for it; but thinks The Shipyard is ‘a more perfect narrative’, and regards La Vida Breve (A Brief Life), 1950, as ‘richer in literary content’. Glossing these casual but lucid discriminations, we might say that Farewells is perhaps the best introduction to Onetti, the place where we meet his odd curiosity and his distinctive tone, both clinical and kindly, in their most undisguised form; that A Brief Life best shows the range of Onetti’s interests and talents but also his faults as a writer; and that in The Shipyard he found the absurd and compelling metaphor he had been looking for all his life, so that he was able to become something like a Conrad who had soaked himself in Beckett, or a Dashiell Hammett who had been reading Camus and Ionesco.

These are wild approximations, of course. Onetti’s voice and subject-matter are his own, and their very elusiveness has played a part in his neglect. The other part was played by accident. Onetti was too late for some fashions and too early for others. He was an existentialist before he had read Sartre, but everybody else had read Sartre before they read Onetti. He invented and peopled a Latin American town like García Márquez’s Macondo, but he filled it with obliquities and ironies rather than miracles. Onetti owes a lot to Borges, as almost all contemporary Latin American writers do, but a hard-boiled manner borrowed from North American detective fiction conceals many of the more dizzying conceptual moves he makes. Onetti’s work is always on a knife-edge: it could lapse at any moment into sententiousness or bathos, and quite often does. But the edge itself makes it like no other writing we are likely to meet.

It’s not easy to say what Onetti’s fiction is about, and perhaps not entirely appropriate to try. It centres not so much on plot or theme or character as on an erratic but insistent inquisitiveness about the stories people step into or trail behind them. These stories can be lifted from life or frankly invented; sometimes they are pursued at length, sometimes merely held up for us to look at, like slides or title-cards or icons. What matters is their shape or implications, their power of suggestion, what they say without meaning to say anything. ‘An anecdote,’ Onetti has one of his characters think, ‘can contain life but cannot alter the sense of it.’ One way of describing this would be to say that what looks like a narrative device is one of Onetti’s major subjects. Everything is perspective, guesswork; people tell tales, of themselves and of others, read clues and hints, listen to gossip, put pieces of history together. The Shipyard opens with a joke about a hundred days, as if the seedy central character were a sort of Napoleon, and the mode in which we keep hearing about him (‘Many people swear’, ‘Others on the contrary remember’, ‘In all likelihood’, ‘It is almost certain’, ‘According to reports’, ‘Everything points to’) ironically shunts him into legend, as if his very seediness was fabulous.

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