A Reign Not of This World: On Juan Carlos Onetti

1271348943-large Jonathan Blitzer in The Nation:

“I am animated by the idea that you can stop reading me when you wish,” explains Juan María Brausen in A Brief Life, a 1950 novel by Juan Carlos Onetti. Brausen's remark appears in a letter to a friend: Brausen has recently left town, and he doesn't want his friend to follow him. Reading Onetti's fiction, you can't help feeling superfluous yourself, encouraged to slink away, to give up the pursuit. It's nothing personal. As the protagonist of Onetti's novella The Pit (1939) says of his writing, more with indifference than piquancy, “I don't know whether it's interesting but that doesn't bother me.” Onetti's characters need to be alone, and whether they are writers or not, they take especial pains to harvest their solitude. In this they resemble their author, who was never quite reclusive but rather willfully self-contained. His fiction appears, maybe more than for most writers, to have been a necessary, perhaps even hermetic, personal instrument; writing only for his characters, as he once professed, he could contain and give shape to the self so that he might, momentarily, forget that he existed. “My oeuvre,” Onetti wrote to Octavio Paz in the frosty and uncharacteristically public exchange that ensued after Paz was awarded the prestigious Premio Cervantes in 1981, “is nothing more than a combination of fictional works in which the only thing that mattered to me was my own self, confronting and maybe conjoined with the perspectives of many characters that life has forced on me or that I have perhaps imagined.” Onetti immerses himself in reality just long enough to fashion an escape. This is his peculiar gift.

Words appear in odd and unlikely combinations with Onetti, always courting possibilities while reducing certainty. His fictions and correspondence attest to his insurmountable remoteness. In interviews he was much the same, speaking slowly, punctuating remarks with long pauses, taking interminable drags on a cigarette in midsentence, trailing off in a bemused monotone. As the Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina once said, recalling a 1977 televised interview with the writer in Madrid, where Onetti lived for nineteen years in political, then self-imposed, exile: “I had never heard anyone speak about literature with such a lack of emphasis.”