My Old Friend Onetti

Resting proudly on top of the mess on my desk.


Onetti has unexpectedly entered my life again, perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. Onetti is hard to read, dude! Heck, most of November (again, for whatever reason) was pretty hard. I keep thinking about what my Dad said about his time in the Peace Corps, that the first month is always the best, because everything is really new and exciting and you’re just constantly stimulated by all these new sights and sounds and smells and people. But hey, my boyfriend finally came for a long-awaited, much anticipated visit over Thanksgiving weekend, and now I’m feeling as refreshed and as reinvigorated as though I just came back from a long vacation. For better or for worse, I have three weeks (!!) left in Mexico. And then, it’s off to Quito (again! What is it about this strange ecuatorial country that keeps calling me back?) for a second placement with Kiva. And then…? 

I’d brought El astillero with me to Mexico, but Onetti didn’t pop up officially until my first or second week here (how time blurs things together!!). I was eating meat tacos at the taco cart across the street from the office, when this guy asked me where I was from. We started talking and I learned he was from Uruguay. “Oh!” I said. “I wrote my undergraduate thesis in college on an author from Uruguay.” “What was he called?” the man asked. When I uttered Onetti’s name, much excitement on his part ensued, and he turned out to be a huge Onetti fan. All I could manage was what… I travel all the way to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and eat at a wooden taco cart across the street from the office, and I end up talking about Onetti, of all people? 

So that’s how I ended up meeting Diego, who insanely enough shares the same first name as my thesis advisor at college, another coincidence that feels too crazy and bizarre to be real. I feel like I’ve spent most of this year acting like the main character from Arlt’s The Mad Toy, stumbling around in a desperate attempt to find a mentor of any sort at any price, and ending up meeting a bizarre assortment of random characters. 

Anyway, so Diego’s excitement at meeting another Onetti afficionado ended with him scheduling a presentation about Onetti at Estacion Palabra (the local reading/cultural center) on December 4th. We’ve both been working on it together.  The name of the presentation is “Los sueño rebelados,” (“The rebellious dreams”), a cute play-on-words of one of Onetti’s short stories, “Un sueño realizado” (“A realized dream,” or “A dream come true”). We have power point slides with music and everything. 

It should be pretty fun. Diego keeps insisting that there is no intellectual culture in Mexico and the only people who are going to come and friends of his from his government job and people who want “to look good and impress others.” After Bolaño’s scathing indictments of the relationship between Mexican artists and politicians in The Savage Detectives, I’m really not that surprised. I’m not too hung up about it, I feel like I ‘m sort of just coming along for the ride. And of course I’ve enjoyed hanging out with Diego, getting to know him, being introduced to musicians like Laurie Anderson and Mercedes Sosa, borrowing his random intellectual DVDs (Secrets and Lies, Rhaspody in August, all those documentaries from Iran). Meeting him has been yet another random, inexplicable encounter and friendship of mine in a city that seems to be full of them. 

The goal of the presentation is basically to try to convey the importance of the Onetti universe: what it consists of, how it’s constructed. Onetti is a pretty interesting author, but not an easy one to recommend. I wouldn’t really recommend him to a friend looking for “something to read,” you know? My thesis advisor put it best when he said to me once, “You know what? A lot of the time, Onetti is just plain boring, in the sense that nothing ever happens in his books.” And that’s exactly the point. Nothing happens. The most liberating, exciting thing that takes place for Onetti characters is when they indulge in acts of wild creativity. An author in a deadbeat job writes a screenplay that turns into a novel that eventually turns into a world of its own (La Vida Breve/A Brief Life). A doctor writes down the stories invented by various men about a woman’s funeral in an attempt to explain the drooling, gross-looking goat that attended (Para una tumba sin nombre/A grave with no name). A young man enjoys a woman’s fantastical stories about her exotic vacations, love affairs and adventures when he thinks they’re made up, but when he finds an album filled with photos that proves that they’re true, he feels inexplicably, devastatingly disappointed  (the story story “El album”). 

Storytelling is always inevitably linked to lying in Onetti, and in turn lying is linked with freedom and liberation. Usually, the fictitious, created world ends up supplanting the real one, as it does in La Vida Breve, where a novelist named Brausen writes a book about a town called Santa Maria which turns into a real city and ends up being the setting for most of Onetti’s subsequent novels and stories (one of the best scenes in El astillero takes place when Larsen stands underneath the statue of BRAUSEN-FUNDADOR, Brausen the city founder). Lying, story-telling and creating is often referred to as a game, and most of the joy the characters find comes from playing it. Onetti characters are always seeking to “conocer” or “saber”, to understand or to know, but what they usually end up finding are lies and stories. 

The man himself


The search for knowledge is big theme in El Astillero (The Shipyard), which took me all of November to read. It’s an incredibly well-written book but I also found it difficult to read. It really is a “novel without a plot.” The novel opens with the main character, Larsen, returns to Santa Maria five years after being expelled from the town for running a whorehouse (the plot of another Onetti novel, Juntacadaveras or Bodysnatcher). Shockingly enough El astillero was written BEOFRE Juntacadaveras–I say “shockingly” because so much of the melancholic, elegiac tone of Astillero comes from the feeling that you’re missing the first half of the story. It feels like watching Return of the Jedi without having seen The Empire Strikes Back: you see shots of Luke’s missing hand and you’re like “whoa, what’s up with that? Something really intense must have happened there.” But you’re never told specifically what, you have to figure it out for yourself. It creates a very interesting atmosphere for the story, where everything feels incredibly charged and loaded with the weight of this history you don’t have access to. 

Anyway, so a lot of El astillero feels like the story of Larsen’s fall from grace, even though you never know in full detail what his “grace” was. Basically, the gist of the story is that Larsen returns to Santa Maria and gets a job working in a dilapidated, run-down shipyard, in a somewhat half-hearted attempt at a “comeback,” an attempt to make his life feel meaningful or purposeful. What does he do? He hangs out with his co-workers, Galvez and Kunz. He courts the daughter of his boss, Petrus. One of his co-workers tell him that he has a piece of paper that could incriminate Petrus and send him to jail, and the way Larsen deals with this is maybe the closest thing resembling a traditional plot that this book has. 

An Aimee Mann soundtrack would be pretty excellent for this book. “Going Through the Motions.” “It’s Not.” “I Cannot Get My Head Around It.” There’s a lot of descriptions of winter and cold weather, which fits in with the theme of old age, declining years, the feeling that the best part of one’s life is behind them and that there’s nothing to look forward to (jeez, no wonder I felt so down all November, if this was the main message entering my brain!). 

There were a lot of things I liked about this book. I liked the theme of madness that made me think of Don Quixote and The Savage Detectives. Galvez and Kunz can maybe be seen as acting as a sort of Sancho Panza to Larsen’s Quixote, as Larsen muses: 

“si ellos están locos, es forzoso que yo esté loco. Porque yo podia jugar a mi juego porque lo estaba haciendo en soledad; pero si ellos–Kunz y Galvez–, otros, me acompañan, el juego es lo serio, se transforma en lo real. Aceptarlo asi–yo, que lo jugaba porque era juego–, es aceptar la locura.” (85) 

(sorry I can’t translate the quotes, feel free to plug them into a translator!) This is a very “Onetti” theme, thinking about games and participating in them for the heck of it, in order to “accept madness.” Petrus the boss is definitely portrayed as a crazy King Lear-type patriarch, continuously insisting that any day now the shipyard is going to be back on its feet, raising Larsen’s salary without Larsen having ever received a single paycheck. I say that Larsen is quixotic in the sense that he’s “engaging in foolish impracticality in pursuit of ideals”–but then that begets the question, what ideals? What does Larsen believe in? What does he want? There’s one passage where Larsen ponders about his reasons for working at the shipyard, with “el único propósito de darle un sentido y atribuir este sentido a los años que le quedaban por vivir y, en consecuencia, a la totalidad de su vida.” (72) Larsen starts out with this very strong desire to make his life feel purposeful by taking the job at the shipyard, but it ends up being this crazy, fake game of madness–very appropriately Onettian. 

The descriptions of poverty are also some of the most interesting in the book. All of the parts concerning Galvez’s very pregnatn wife, living in her husband’s squalid, disgusting cabin with a pack of dogs, are pretty gripping. I also like the parts that refer to the “larger” Onetti universe, as when Larsen stands underneath the statue of BRAUSEN-FUNDADOR. It all feels very symbolic and like excellent material for a dissertation. 

I really, really liked this book. I’m not exactly sure what’s going on in it most of the time, and I don’t think it’s just the Spanish. The ending feels VERY Faulknerean, with a very Onetti twist (not to give too much away, but we’re basically provided with two endings of Larsen’s fate, and we get to choose which one we want). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we got to do this in real life? Pity… 

I may not know much but I know that I’m definitely going to have to read this again, preferably in English. 

And that there’s still a lot of work left to be done. 




1 Comment

Filed under books, Mexico, Nuevo Laredo, Onetti

One response to “My Old Friend Onetti

  1. Liz

    Another great post, per usual.

    So should I read Onetti? Seems like a big commitment…

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