In 1974, Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-94), Uruguay’s most distinguished modern writer, and his colleagues at Marcha, a prominent weekly in Montevideo, had a run-in with the dictatorship of Juan María Bordaberry, then in its second year. Their mistake was to award the magazine’s literary prize to a story about a murderous Uruguayan police inspector; when it was published, several staff members were summarily imprisoned. For six weeks Onetti languished in a mental institution. It took a campaign led by international writers — including Onetti’s admirers Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa — to persuade his jailers to set him free. Soon after his release Onetti moved to Madrid, where he remained until his death, despite a personal visit from Bordaberry’s first democratically elected successor, Julio María Sanguinetti, who flew to Spain in 1985 to present him with the Uruguayan National Literature prize.
Over a career spanning 50 years Onetti depicted Uruguay in short stories and novels as a place marked by pettiness, idiocy and squalor — a Gogolian province in the tropics — and populated by characters who are by and large unhinged. However unflattering, his portrait of his country was one in which Uruguayans recognized something of themselves. As President Sanguinetti, resigned to Onetti’s refusal to return home from exile, put it in 1985, “Fortunately, many years ago we Uruguayans entered his novels, became his characters and read ourselves in him.” Onetti’s contemporaries agreed, describing him as a kind of visionary who saw into the heart of Latin America. “Nobody has found adjectives to describe our world with such an exact evil,” the young Argentine novelist Andrés Neuman has written. “In life there are days, or atmospheres, or images, of which one can only think, it’s as if Onetti wrote this.” His friend Julio Cortázar called him “the greatest Latin American novelist.”
Onetti was best known for his short stories, and his strange qualities are on abundant display in A DREAM COME TRUE (Archipelago, paper, $26), translated by Katherine Silver, which brings together all Onetti’s short fiction into English for the first time. Most of these stories take place in Santa María, a fictional town — loosely based on Montevideo, but incorporating elements of other places from the Río de la Plata region — that was Onetti’s most famous invention.
Lovingly realized, it is nevertheless hardly an inviting place. The very opposite of García Márquez’s Macondo, with which it is sometimes compared, Santa María is a kind of ghost town haunted by all it lacks: a history, great families, dreams and passions, meaningful politics, a viable source of development. “The Shipyard” (1961), perhaps Onetti’s most famous novel, is set in the town; it tells the story of a man who spends his days “managing” a long derelict shipyard. As the narrator sighs at the opening of “The Kidnapped Bride,” an emblematic story in the collection, “There was nothing happening in Santa María.” And though that’s not strictly true — things, even strange things, happen there — the sentiment conveys the overwhelming listlessness that weighs Onetti’s characters down.
This listlessness is his great theme, and it gives his stories their unusual shape. Rather than dramatize events, Onetti shows people recalling and reflecting on the nonevents of their lives, or, more usually, the lives of others, trying to give them meaning and glamour. In “The Kidnapped Bride,” the doctor Díaz Grey — a kind of Marlow figure who crops up in most of Onetti’s books — tries to piece together the story of one Moncha Insaurralde, a young woman who, sent from Santa María to Europe in order to separate her from her lover, returns to find him dead, which does nothing to dampen her resolve to marry him. Grey’s inquiry, which grows more and more obsessive, gets nowhere, but in the process Onetti casts a light on a society made up of nosy, restless, insecure people who take a malevolent interest in others only because they have given up on themselves. As Larsen, the antihero of Onetti’s novel “Body Snatcher” (1964), observes, none of Santa María’s citizens have “time to live because they’re always watching everybody else live.”
When Onetti began publishing in the 1930s, fiction in South America had been largely plot-driven, action-packed, set in the provinces. Part of what made his books so exciting to his contemporaries was that he turned away from this kind of drama to focus on reflection and mood. He took a particular interest in the psychology of alienated urban people, and his characters’ malaise often borders on the existential. “There were no experiences anymore,” the narrator reflects in the famous story “Welcome, Bob,” about an elderly man ruing a botched romantic encounter from his youth. “Only habits and repetitions, withered names to attach to things and bit by bit create them.” Striking passages like this one prompted Vargas Llosa, who published a study of Onetti, to describe him as “the first modern writer in our language.”
In his quest to explore modern forms of being, Onetti also broke new formal ground. His books are complex (and sometimes messy) feats of storytelling, often involving dreams, extended reveries, unreliable narrators — or a combination of all three — so that reality itself devolves into a game of telephone. Perhaps the most notorious example of his method comes from Onetti’s novel “A Brief Life” (1950), about a lonely, depressed man, Juan María Brausen, who dreams up an entire fictional city to keep him company. At the end of the novel he moves to the city; it happens to be Santa María. In a nice touch, a statue of Brausen, the city “founder,” appears in Santa María in Onetti’s later work, though it’s not clear who erected it.
There are several stories in “A Dream Come True” with similarly dizzying plotlines. But most memorable are those in which he abandons the narrative games and ennui to write violent, direct tales filled with intrigue and doom in the best manner of Conrad (the writer he most resembles) and even Faulkner (his great hero). “Jacob and the Other,” a minor masterpiece, follows an oafish, over-the-hill European wrestler and his scheming manager, as they piece together one final prizefight in the backwaters of Santa María. Rarely have the harshness and nagging absurdity of thwarted lives been so pungently evoked.
Though all but two of his novels have made it into English and generally received good reviews, Onetti has not caught on in the Anglophone world, unlike his disciples, such as Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. This might be because his dense, abstraction-heavy prose comes out better in Spanish. Or perhaps the particular malaise of underdevelopment he taps into is simply too foreign. Either way, the loss is ours. “The worst thing I can say about your poems is that they’re good,” one character tells another in “Body Snatcher.” “I mean that they’re bad because they’re good. From a person your age and in this year and in this town, I would have preferred a shout, an incomprehensible grimace, some form of madness.” It was this kind of resonant madness that Onetti tried to express all his life; in the process he ushered Spanish-language fiction into the modern era.