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.

The narrator of Farewells is the owner of a bar and shop in a small town close to a sanatorium. He prides himself on knowing more about the patients than they know about themselves, on being able to read whole histories in their faces and gazes and hands and gestures. What seems to be the main story concerns a former basketball star who is resisting the idea of his encroaching death – he finally defeats his illness by committing suicide – and the two women who visit him. More deeply, the work explores the power the narrator thinks he has over people through his knowledge or foreknowledge of their condition, the consolation he finds in this power for the loneliness and abjection of his life; and above all his rage when he finds he is wrong about the women who visit the basketball player: not younger and older mistress, as he thought, or wife and young mistress, but his daughter and mistress, who finally make peace with each other. The narrator says, probably correctly, ‘that death was all the man had left and he hadn’t wished to share it’; but he says it ‘with contrived pity and a note of contempt’, as if what he calls the man’s ‘final avidity’ could compensate for the narrator’s own error and arrogance.

‘I don’t know how to write badly,’ Chao reports Onetti as saying. This is not an empty boast, but the remark needs interpreting. Onetti writes wonderfully well, indeed never writes badly; but he often overwrites, his work is full of moments of old-fashioned fine writing, bids for easy lyricism or philosophy. His characters, so dedicated to perspective, are always trying to find out where they are, and they often lecture us about it. It is on these occasions that we read of ‘an unproud enemy to pity’, or ‘the pale silent frenzy of putrefaction’, or the ‘apocryphal evocations’ of ‘the aroma of jasmines’; or that a character tells us, ‘I examined my bravado, I began to doubt the sincerity of my hatred.’ More often, Onetti’s language is not easy but brilliantly risky, moving very suddenly from the laconic to the expansive, with an almost Joycean lift from the shabby into the poignant. ‘It was surprisingly dark as he made his way cautiously down the three steps and swayed his rolling walk across the empty lot. No sign of the women or the dogs. A light-hearted wind was sweeping the sky clear; by midnight it seemed certain the stars would be out.’ The laconic tone has its effects too, of course; more like Tom Waits than Joyce. We see a woman give ‘a small smile of despair’, hear of another who ‘may prefer catastrophes to explanations’, another who has ‘memories’ that stuck to her like bandages, yet another from whom ‘happiness continues to flow ... like a bad smell’. We learn of a man’s ‘implacable cordiality’, and of the ‘cretinous haste’ of passing time; or are told that ‘Our faces have a secret, not always the one we try to hide.’ ‘The delicate administration of pity’ is not exactly laconic, but it shows ironies within sorrows within ironies.

It helps to look at Juntacadáveres (Body Snatcher), 1964, and The Shipyard together, since Onetti interrupted work on the first to write the second, and since both novels recount the sombre and ludicrous travails of one Larsen, an ageing pimp of the River Plate. He is called Body Snatcher, more literally a collector of corpses, because ‘bodies’, ‘mortuary’, ‘skeleton’ and associated terms are Onetti’s playful language for brothels and those who work in them, and because Larsen specialises in picking up fading women, listening to their stories, making them feel better and taking their money. In Body Snatcher his exploit is to set up the first brothel in Santa María, a ramshackle town that has just become a city – a place built, as Emir Rodríguez Monegal says, out of ‘pieces of Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rosario and Colonia do Sacramento’, that is, out of cities in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil situated on the banks of the Plata or the Parana. Onetti has invented this place in the way Flaubert invented his Normandy: imagined it as an intricately specified reality. Santa María, like Macondo and Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, doesn’t exist, but you can find its twin all over Latin America.

It’s easy to draw a map of the whole area and a plan for Santa María in addition to giving it a name. But you’ve also got to put a special light in each store, each doorway, each corner. You’ve got to give form to the low clouds that drift over the church steeple and the flat roofs with their cream and pink balustrades; you’ve got to dole out disgusting furniture, accept things you hate, bring in people from who knows where so that they can take up residence, dirty things, move us to tears, be happy, and waste themselves. And during the game, I have to give them bodies, the need for love and money, different and identical ambitions, a never-examined faith in immortality.

The brothel is a lamentable, half-hearted affair but the source of great scandal, and Onetti treats it, through his various narrators, as a sort of deviant, heroic innovation – as if Larsen were a decrepit Mack the Knife aggrandised by the sheer distaste others feel for him. He’s a man with an ideal, Onetti says in Chao’s book: of the perfect brothel. The ideal is disreputable, and the brothel is a dump, but that’s what makes them into a sly commentary on other ideals and achievements. Larsen is a small-time philosopher, un petit philosophe: ‘he knows that our daily reality gives us no weapons for the struggle against time.’ Larsen thinks of his brothel as anyone may think of a project: as a way of staving off failure, or rather the acceptance of failure, the final renunciation of what Onetti elsewhere calls the ‘sin’ of believing that ‘what’s unavoidable needs our consent.’ Larsen represents Onetti’s suspicion that all ideals are parodiable (many of them are parodies already), although to think of the brothel as only the parody of an ideal is to condescend to it more than Onetti would want. His humour is not only deadpan here; it will turn into seriousness at the slightest sign of pomposity on our part. Larsen has ‘a vocation or mania’, he understands ‘the need to fight for a cause without having real faith in it, and without considering it an end in itself’. It’s true, as Mark Millington has written, that Onetti’s novels focus on the individual consciousness rather than the community – except in so far as the community is the enemy of such consciousness – but it’s also true that Onetti’s individuals often acquire a weirdly satirical even allegorical aura, as if whole cultures had been caught up and had found their emblems in them.

Massive stories of emigration and loss lurk in Onetti’s books: we may think of the character in A Brief Life who seeks to justify himself ‘above all to some corpses he could imagine lying, more severe in death, beneath the earth of some cemetery in some Austrian village’. Or of Larsen, in Body Snatcher, refusing to look at the vision he might have of himself.

If he’d had the slightest suicidal impulse, the courage necessary to stop in front of a mirror, interrupt his siesta and examine his conscience, he’d have found he was exactly like the image of a long-haired, threadbare violinist playing medleys and waltzes from operettas without the permission of the owner in second-class cafés located in third-class cities. There he’d be, his head held high, variously scornful, his large mouth fixed in a smile that could withstand any interpretation, confident that something essential was safe as long as he didn’t pawn the greasy, darkened violin, as long as he didn’t play tangos, as long as he protected his music from the accompaniment of drunks and disgusting women, as long as, every three numbers, he could make the rounds of the tables and hold out a tiny metal tray onto which fell the coins he could empty into the pockets of his black jacket without having the skin on his hands participate in the joy and humiliation. Sometimes showing a yellowed concert programme, worn out in the folds, hard to unfold, with his still-recognisable photo on it, with the word Wien underlined in red by himself so that it could be found rapidly among the others, which were incomprehensible, and pursued by diaereses and curves devoid of sweetness.

In the end, when Catholicism and civic dignity get their act together, Larsen is run out of town on the order of the governor of the province – his hundred-day return to power, five years later, is recounted in The Shipyard. Body Snatcher offers an edgy comment on the vanity of human wishes, memorably mingles sarcasm and pathos, but it is a slow and sometimes cumbersome book, its deadpan often hardening into ponderousness or rigidity. What Onetti needed was an image so rich that he and his readers could circle round it for ever, and Larsen’s brothel was not quite that. The Shipyard, the novel and the place within the novel, is. This book is frankly phantasmagoric, a detailed report on an extraordinary folly, but it is written with the bemused intimacy we all have with our own moments of craziness. It is, to evoke Conrad again, like Heart of Darkness in slow motion, and irreparably cut off from anything resembling mundane or practical reality. A man steps into a fantasy which others play along with, and which nothing, strictly, contradicts or confirms.

Larsen, now described as ‘a heavy, small, aimless man’ with ‘tiny, calm eyes’, becomes general manager of a derelict shipyard just upriver from Santa María. There are no boats, no work, no contracts, the place has been disused for years. The owner, Jeremias Petrus, is engaged in Dickensian legal disputes which he dreams will bring activity back to the yard; there are two employees, who make a living by selling off bits of rusting junk from time to time. Larsen and Petrus have important business meetings; Larsen and the employees show up for work, stare at old files, send each other memos, make sure the inter-office buzzers are working, go home – which for Larsen is a run-down hotel and bar called The Belgrano. Larsen is fully conscious of the madness of what he is doing, as indeed are the others, but he prefers the madness to what he might be doing instead. The triumph of the book is the agility and ingenuity and wry sympathy with which Onetti evokes this astonishing and desperate game, this story of a ‘fat, obsessed man’ in ‘a ruined, unlikely office’.

Onetti denies having had any conscious allegorical intention in this work, any idea of picturing or prophesying the fate of Uruguay or Latin America, and I think we should take him at his word. But The Shipyard brilliantly catches a quite particular mentality, not confined to Latin America, but not peculiar to Larsen either. It involves what Larsen calls the acceptance of a farce as if it were a job, and there are many farces, public and private, that we go on playing out because we can’t bear the thought of what’s beyond them. If Larsen in the shipyard is not an allegory, he does set in motion something like a fable, or parable. He is like a character in Kafka, only far shabbier: his life is not ours, but we can’t disavow him entirely, we have been in parallel places.

When one of the employees defects from the game, fear settles on Larsen like an illness (‘like the nagging, gentle, companionable pain of a chronic illness, one you are not going to die of, because it is only possible to die with it’); fear not that the game is over but that it is going on without him, that it doesn’t depend, as he thought, on his choice: what’s unavoidable doesn’t need our consent. Larsen is last seen leaving Santa María with some boatmen, to whom he gives his watch as payment for his passage. He is so attuned to the ruin of the shipyard that he can hear ‘the faint sound of moss climbing over the piles of bricks, of rust eating at the iron’. Or – there is an alternative version, as is fitting for a legend, however squalid – the boatmen find Larsen sick, delirious. They refuse to accept his watch. Larsen can still hear the ruin of the shipyard, ‘the hiss of corrosion and collapse’; but he dies of pneumonia, in Rosario.

At one point in The Shipyard, sitting in the main square of Santa María, Larsen contemplates the statue of the city’s founder, and the narrator treats us to a short excursus on the discussions the good citizens had about the statue when it was first put up, the ‘arguments over: the poncho, seen as too Northern; the boots, as too Spanish; the jacket, as too military; the hero’s profile was criticised as being too Semitic; his features were said to be too cruel, sardonic, and the eyes too close-set; some said his body was so tilted it looked as though he was a novice on horseback.’ This is funny as it stands, but it takes an interesting extra twist when you realise that the founder, in this case, is a character in another Onetti novel, and that ‘founding’ means inventing and fleshing out as a fiction. Juan María Brausen, the founder of Santa María, is the narrator and chief character in A Brief Life, and Santa María a place he inhabits in his mind, an escape from the pain and confusion of his broken marriage, his failed career and his entanglement with the prostitute next door. The title of the novel is borrowed from de Falla, and also glances at a sentimental French song which keeps cropping up in the text:

La vie est brève
Un peu d’amour
Un peu de rêve
Et puis bonjour

More concretely the phrase alludes to Brausen’s brief lives in Buenos Aires and Santa María, and to a further life he has as a man called Arce, the persona he adopts for visiting the prostitute and her world. These lives are all impersonations, and Brausen comes to feel he is finally no one, or only a ‘bridge between Brausen and Arce’, or only the gloomy demiurge of Santa María.

For Santa María is no less painful and confused than Brausen’s reality – and no less real in the end, since he goes there at the conclusion of the novel – but in Santa María he has a creator’s rights, he can make corrections, he can come and go in his mind, and above all, he can live out the sorrows of other people instead of his own. Having a statue of him in a later novel solidifies Brausen’s act of imagination into a fictional history strongly analogous to the history we are living; and also, more mischievously, makes most cities and founders in Latin America look like Santa María and Brausen, dreams and dreamers that have crept on to the historical map and stayed there.

The same eerie joke appears, in another key, in Onetti’s most recent work, Cuando ya no importe (When It Doesn’t Matter Anymore), published earlier this year. Díaz Grey is a doctor through whose eyes much of Santa María is seen, in a number of Onetti’s novels. He is about forty when Brausen conjures him up (‘feeling my growing need to imagine and to draw close to me an indistinct doctor of forty years, the laconic and despairing inhabitant of a small city located between a river and a colony of Swiss farmers’). In the new novel Díaz Grey, now considerably aged, and married to the mad daughter of Jeremias Petrus, is a quiet accomplice in a flourishing drug traffic on the Brazilian border, and in love with and then abandoned by a very young girl, who may be his daughter. He confesses that he has no memories of his earlier life, of anything before his appearance in Santa María, when he was already qualified as a doctor. He says he was then 30, but this means that Onetti either didn’t check on the age he had given Díaz Grey in A Brief Life or doesn’t care about consistency. It may be ‘a very strange case of amnesia’, the doctor thinks. He must have had, like everyone else, ‘childhood, adolescence, friends and parents, the inevitable’. He doesn’t quite arrive at the suspicion that he is a character in a novel, but he does say, in one of those Borgesian twists which are so easy to miss in Onetti, that ‘only a novelist can put a creditable past into writing’ – he means he would have to be a novelist to provide himself with a satisfactory past, but there is the same mischievous idea at work here as with Brausen’s statue. What if our real past is just the fiction we prefer, a fiction supported by documents and corroborating evidence, and therefore not so openly imaginary as Díaz Grey’s past would have to be?

Cuando ya no importe is a casual, untidy but engaging work. It consists of the ‘notes’ the apuntes, of an unnamed narrator – he has false papers identifying him as John Carr, an engineer, but we never learn his real name and he doesn’t appear to have a profession. His notes are dated but scrambled – he tells us at one point he dropped them all, and couldn’t be bothered to put them back into chronological order: a handy device. The narrator is also involved in the Brazilian drug traffic, and in love with the doctor’s nymphet; but he is new to Santa María, which allows Onetti to show us his old haunts through fresh, sceptical eyes. The tone, again is that of the philosophical private eye, although the narrator is not a detective. He is, like Onetti, a great reader, and has the appealing habit of referring to fictional characters – Kirilov, Almayer – as his friends.

Needless to say, things end badly, in loneliness and drizzle; and with thoughts of death, and the suggestion that in Montevideo there is a cimetière marin more beautiful than the poem, ‘un cementerio marino más hermoso que el poema’. This, I take it, is Onetti’s idea of elegy and farewell, and it is entirely in keeping with his work, and with the image he presents of the writer: laconic, elegant, literary, yet convinced that people, even dead or disgraceful people, could have homes more handsome than literature.