Juan Carlos Onetti
The Snot of Subjectivity
"The human soul is a madhouse of the grotesque" Fernando Pessoa proposed, adding "if a soul were able to reveal itself truthfully...then it would be...a well, but a sinister well full of murky echoes and inhabited by abhorrent creatures, slimy non-beings, lifeless things, the snot of subjectivity." Pessoa could be describing Santa Maria, the fictionalised town in South America populated by the characters created by Juan Carlos Onetti (whose first novel was called The Well) in his collected short stories, A Dream Come True. His relative obscurity is well noted by Michael Wood: "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 Garca Mrquez's Macondo, but he filled it with obliquities and ironies rather than miracles." (London Review of Books) At the same time, Onetti's work seems to deny success the way others' invite it. There is in the hyperbole of Marquez, in the enthusiasms of Rushdie, in the narrational exaggerations of Kurt Vonnegut a will to succeed, diegetic content pushing the writer beyond the words he puts down on the page towards success. Everything about Onetti's work suggests failure. Santa Maria isn't the magical and fecund world of Macondo but a drab, monotonous place where dreams are for those too tired to live them, and hope is rarely offered a seat when despair can take up a table for four. The places and spaces are often not described in Onetti's stories, as if he doesn't wish to bring a place vividly to life but slowly put it to sleep. The brilliance rests on a fictional universe consistently coughed up like phlegm. There is here a residue of metaphysical preoccupation that helps us to understand the sinuous ungraspability of Onetti's prose. Here are a couple of passages from 'As Sad As She'. The first comes after a man takes out of his pocket some roses with broken stems. "She wasn't mistrustful: and the only thing the tired eyes of the old man did was open the way to an ancient desire to cry, a desire no longer connected to her current life, to herself." In the same story, we see that "the man became skinnier every day and the colour in his grey eyes was fading, diluting, a long way away now from curiosity and entreaty. It had never occurred to him to cry, and the years, thirty-two, had at least taught him the futility of all renunciation, of all hope for understanding." This story, ostensibly about a married couple with a baby and where workers are employed to dig a well, keeps slipping into a dreamy insubstantiality. The narrator parenthetically intrudes not to impose himself upon the story but to question any control he may have over it: "as for the narrator, he is only authorised to attempt calculations in time. He can repeat, at dawn, in vain, the forbidden name of a woman. He can beg for explanations, he is allowed to fail and upon waking wipe away his tears, his snot and his curses."
In story after story, Onetti sets the scene and denies the scenic, giving us a vivid sense of place without a place becoming manifest as a consequence. If time and place are the coordinates of our existence, they are usually also the coordinates of fictional comprehension, with the writer offering a contract that might take place in a world that isn't real but acknowledges to varying degrees the reality it has created. Many a writer creates a fictional world in a factual place: Dickens' London or Joyce's Dublin. Others create a fictional world in a place that is made up but not so hard to find on a map, like Hardy's Wessex or Marquez's Macondo. Nobody reading Hardy is likely to go looking for it even in Yorkshire or Tyneside let alone the South of France or Bavaria. It is very specifically the south-west of England. Ditto the inland town of Macondo, not far from the Caribbean coast. Still others, create a world fantastic enough to have little relation with our own and appears a combination of different geographies that might at best lead to a generalisation: Lord of the Rings for example, which wouldn't pass for the Mediterranean or the tropical for sure, but could pass for Celtic and Nordic.
Then there are others, who create metaphysical locations and in quite different ways Kafka and Borges are the masters of places we couldn't only fail to find on a map, but couldn't locate in the world, as if they have been conjured up to exist for the duration of the story and to disappear from existence the moment the tale concludes. We may admit that Borges still carries the casual air of a Latin American as he sometimes invokes Buenos Aires or the gauchos, just as Kafka possesses a Mittel-European sensibility. Insisting the brilliant Kafka short story 'Fellowship' (about five friends rejecting a sixth person) is an allegory of anti-semitic sentiment in Europe is all very well but such a take on the story would be a reading that the story itself gives no evidence for, just as Borges (more given to peppering his outlandish tales with proper names) might be seen to offer, in 'Funes the Memorius', a story about the problem of remembering that might play well into the hands of the colonialist who reckons to forget is better so that a country can move on rather than dwell on its past, but that isn't what the story is about even if someone wishes to use it for such allegorical purposes. In such instances, one offers an extraneous rather than an intrinsic relationship with the story. Yet at the same time, the abstract qualities Kafka and Borges stories possess lend themselves well to numerous way of utilising them. Yet one's approach shouldn't be that here is a Kafka story that is an allegory of anti-semitism but here is a Kafka story that among many other things can tell us something about the anti-semitic. How one couches it reveals whether one sees it is a multidimensional work with many meanings, or a flattened allegory possessing chiefly one. It is perhaps the danger of a certain type of writing, where the concrete gives way to the abstract, where character and place become figures and topologies for thoughts and feelings. Onetti's topology is closer to Kafka's and Borges's than to Hardy's and Marquez's: they seem impossible to find on a map even if at the same time they are made up of a combination of places on the map. Wood notes, "Santa Mara, [is] a ramshackle town that has just become a city - a place built, as Emir Rodrguez 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." (London Review of Books). But when Wood says that "Onetti has invented this place in the way Flaubert invented his Normandy: imagined it as an intricately specified reality", we would disagree. Flaubert is both realist and nominalist: he wants the scenic details and to name names Normandy very much exists.
To understand an aspect of Onetti's work is to comprehend a tension between the concrete and the abstract, between telling stories that don't seem to have a particular point as we find in the allegorical, the moral tale and the fable, but don't quite feel like they are slices of life either. They seem closer to slices of life sandwiched between pieces of a dream narrated by someone who doesn't quite have the energy to tell it properly.
Onetti's stories can appear like the work of a man who wants to tell you his dream but who is still too bleary-eyed to recall it with precision, someone who wishes to tell a tale to fill the time he has to spare but that the reader might not. The narrator in 'On the Thirty First' says, "at the very moment the entire city became aware that midnight had finally arrived, I was alone and almost in the dark, looking at the river and the light of the streetlamp from the coolness of the window while I smoked and again endeavoured to find a memory that would thrill me, a reason to feel sorry for myself or blame the world, contemplate with some kind of exhilarating hatred the lights of the city that were advancing to my left." (325) The 'Twins' opens: "the twins were born half an hour apart, and they always argued in their slum dialect about who was older, who younger. I had chosen one, the skinniest, the least merciful. I don't even remember her name." Why would we want to listen to a narrator who will tell us a story to feed his self-pity and alleviate his boredom, or one about a girl whose name he cannot even recall? There are various potential answers but one may rest on the freedom narrative lassitude gives to the perceptual possibilities in sacrificing narration to the tortuousness of the caustically observed detail. Onetti's work is full of cruel insights that simultaneously indicate the pathetic nature of the person he describes but also revealing the nature too of the person making those observations. It isn't just that there are characters in Onetti's stories who lack energy, purpose and fairness Santa Maria is a place that doesn't allow such virtues to exist. The best one can do is be lucid in the face of that despair and judge yourself as you might judge others. At the beginning of 'The Cat', the narrator says: "many unpleasant things can be said or imagined about John. But I never suspected him of lying; he had too much disdain for others to invent a fable that would put him in a favourable light." There is a virtue to be had from such a perspective and so often we find that Onetti's purpose is to offer up a world where self-hatred is the closest one gets to a belief, as if turning Pascal against himself when the famous philosopher and theologian says: "the true and only virtue is therefore to hate ourselves, for our concupiscence makes us hateful, and to seek for a being really worthy of love in order to love him. But as we cannot love what is outside us, we just love a being who is within us but is not our own self..now only the universal being is of this kind: the Kingdom of God is within us..." (Pensees) Onetti offers an atheistic version of this state; if there is no higher being within us then what is in us and in others too?Onetti takes further a comment by Nietzsche concerning what really is in us, or at least in others. There isn't some metaphysical surplus that rescues us in our hour of need but a body hopelessly lost in its corporeal condition. Nietzsche offers this with the arrogance and disdain of his chosen persona in Ecce Homo: "I possess a perfectly uncanny sensitivity of the instinct of cleanliness, so that I perceive physiologically smell the proximity or what am I saying the innermost parts, the 'entrails' of every soul...all the concealed dirt at the bottom of many a nature, one perhaps conditioned by bad blood but whitewashed by education, is known to me almost on first contact." Nietzsche goes on to talk of finding heights by which he can escape the rabble. "For this our height and our home; we live too nobly and boldly for all unclean men and their thirsts." If Pascal suggests one escapes disgust through acknowledging the higher being within us, and Nietzsche a higher state away from the rabble, Onetti says there is no higher being and no place of escape. Santa Maria is a metaphysical place that asks no more than that those in it acknowledge their disgust and the disgust of others. Santa Maria doesn't suggest the higher glories of Nietzsche's favourite altitude, Sils Maria, but the lower depths of his fictional sea-level port, Santa Maria.
Though Onetti's characters are usually stuck in this fictional abode sometimes they are passing through, coming from actual places on the map but drawn into the town's lethargy and despair. In one of Onetti's longest and finest stories, 'Jacob von Oppen', an East German wrestler has fought and defeated people in the ring all over the world earning for himself nicknames like The Buffalo of Arkansas, The Crusher of Liege, Mihura de Granada. But he arrives in Santa Maria looking like a has-been while a young challenger looks impressive indeed. His manager Orsini has seen the challenger and looking at the 100 kilos of muscle and bone, Orsini had "already breathed in the faint and acrid smell of defeat, had already calculated the Turk's unworn youth, the perfection with which his hundred kilos were distributed around his body. There's not a gram of excess fat, or a gram of intelligence or sensitivity, there's no hope. Three minutes; poor Jacob van Oppen." Later Orsini speaks to Jacob about his chances as Orsini has tried to convince the challenger to back off, but with the young Turk unwilling to do so Orsini reckons they should leave the town before the match. As Jacob wonders if the Turk has any chance Orsini doesn't want to shatter the wrestler's pride (which could lead Jacob to shattering poor Orsini's bones) but he does say: "the man won't last three minutes. But I'm sure he'll last more than one. And these days a temporary situation but still indisputable, the world champion doesn't have the breath to fight for more than a minute...that monster won't be thrown in a minute. That's why we have to take the bus at four in the morning." The story is told with suspense (who will win?) even if the ambiguous opening to the story gives us enough information for us to work out who won the fight: there is a reference to the kid and to a woman kicking "the soon-to-be-corpse." The victim hasn't been able to "move or moan, he started swelling up like a balloon, ribs in the lungs, a tibia sticking out, concussion almost for sure. But he fell on his back over two chairs, so if you'll excuse me, the problem must be in the spine." Here we have a defeat foretold but we are inclined to forget these briefest of details; while we might know a terrible defeat will take place we might not know whose it will happen to be: the Turk's or Jacob's. Though the story details the build-up with a strong sense of foreboding, the fear it generates is more for Jacob's pride than for the Turk's life, as if the pessimism Orsini brings to Santa Maria meets with the despair of the place itself. The town is the sort of place people come to die, at various speeds, where dreams depart and despair takes on a democratic value, one in which everyone can share.
'Jacob and the Other' has six parts but only three are consciously narrated: the first which has the doctor in first-person discussing what has just happened; that a man has been brought in with multiple injuries. Then we have the narrator's account and before the end of the story Orsini in the first person as well; the other three are uncredited. Yet for all the convolutions in the tale, the seediness of the environment and the stakes involved in the fight are constantly clear, paradoxically because the story is as much metaphysical as physical. Anyone interested in myth and symbolism will be inclined to see that Jacob is fighting with the Turk but the story also suggests he is fighting with the angels of hope and hopelessness as well. Wrestling might seem one of the most debased of sports, a competition that lacks the grace of boxing, but painters from Gustave Dore to Paul Gaugain, Rembrandt to Delacroix, have been drawn if not to the sport then the theological tussle taking place when man fights the angels of his better self. In the story, Jacob is a wreck. While Orsini sees an oncoming defeat the irony lies in the fact that even a marvellous physical specimen like the Turk is of little consequence next to the struggles that Jacob faces with his own will and personality. Is the 'other', a Sartrean term if ever there was one, the people he batters around the ring or a self that is enveloped in the shame of his existence? When Sartre says "shame is a unitary apprehension with three dimensions: "I am ashamed of myself before the Other" he also goes on to say: "if, however, I conceive of the 'they' as a subject before whom I am ashamed, then it cannot become an object without being scattered into a plurality of Others; and if I posit it as the absolute unity of the subject which can in no way become an object, I thereby posit the serenity of my being-as-a-object and so perpetuate my shame. This shame before God; that is recognition of my being-an-object before a subject which can never become an object." (The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre) Santa Maria offers a halfway house between the triangulated shame Sartre proposes in the shame of I, myself and the other, and the abstract shame before God, with Onetti creating a lower-case shame that doesn't quite have a subject and object but first and foremost a milieu. The town is a purgatorial place that leaves people without much point or purpose; self-loathing without knowing why, slothful without quite being lazy, exhausted without being tired, the people of Santa Maria can only hope for a lucid self-consciousness that acknowledges the Nietzschean smell that nobody can rise above. Yet at least 'Jacob and the Other' manages within this despair to generate a surprising amount of narrative tension in the process. Most of the time any hint of a story is defeated by the ennui of the environment and its inhabitants.
Thus, throughout the stories, one finds formulations that kill plot rather than initiate it, descriptions of others that contain in them often a self-disdain too, as if the point and purpose of the story isn't to suggest a point from a to b but the pointlessness of moving at all, and in turn the futility of narration itself. In 'Matias The Telegraph Operator', we are informed "the incident, which is not a tale and doesn't even brush against the literary goes, more or less, as follows: for me, as you know, the bare facts don't matter all. What matters is what they contain or carry and then to discover what lies beyond that, and then beyond that, till we get to the deepest depths, which we will never reach." In 'The Twins' we are told "Castro was born in Granada, and he didn't need to wear those ridiculous tight black plants, nor his white hair greasy and plastered down over one temple to prove it. He must have died of a liver ailment, of low blood pressure, of Wilson's disease, or simply, of Spain." The Kidnapped Bride opens, "there was nothing happening in Santa Maria; it was Autumn, with just a touch of the bright sweetness of a moribund, punctual, slowly extinguishing sun. There was nothing happening for a whole range of people of Santa Maria, who looked up at the sky and down at the earth before consenting to the suitable futility of work." If the literary theorist Tsvitzan Todorov can speak of 'narrative men' Onetti's work suggests 'narrativeless' men. Todorov reckons, "in a nineteenth-century novel, the proposition X is jealous of Y can lead to X withdraws from society," "X commits suicide," X courts Y. In The Arabian Nights, there is only one possibility: X is jealous of Y X hurts Y." The 19th-century novel generates more options than The Arabian Nights and slows the narrative down as various possibilities are entertained. But what if the formulation is closer to X doesn't know if he is jealous of Y, and if he is thinking of committing suicide it might have nothing at all to do with Y but because of various other reason he can't quite name or might not care to try to name. When in Emma the narrator says "Mr Elton had only drunken wine enough to elevate his spirits, not at all to confuse his intellects we are in no doubt what his feelings are for the titular character and the there is no feelings of reciprocity from Emma. There will be plot machinations and nobody more than Emma is in denial over what she actually feels but the novel will work through the permutations of feeling so that however many options are available they work to further rather than impede the plot. If Emma decided she wasn't much of a matchmaker and she knew all along that Mr Knightley was for her there wouldn't be much of a novel, but if Emma couldn't leave her room due to lassitude, self-hatred and an existential ennui there wouldn't be much of a novel either. The 19th- century work will usually generate more possibilities than the rigorous narration of a fairy tale but narration there very much will be. Another Emma, too, Emma Bovary might not know quite what she wants but desires she has aplenty. These are narrative women.
However, Onetti's narrativeless men (and they are usually men) desire little and value less; they wish perhaps most of all to be left alone so that no narrative will harden around them. Narrative can look an awful lot like action and they don't want too much to do with that. If memory has a strong presence in the work it partly rests on past action; it needn't interfere with present lassitude. "When Diaz Grey [a frequent figure in his work] with sheer indifference accepted being left alone, he began to play the game of recognising himself in the only memory, shifting, by now undated, that he wished to retain. He saw the images from this memory and carried it around and made corrections to it to prevent from dying..." ('The House in the Sand') "At the very moment the entire city became aware that midnight had finally arrived, I was alone and almost in the dark, looking at the river and the light of the streetlamp from the coolness of the window while I smoked and once again endeavoured to find a memory that would thrill me." ('On The Thirty First') 'In the House in the Sand', a doctor has the briefest of assignations with a friend's lover while his colleague is detained elsewhere. What exactly happens between Diaz and Molly remains vague and what the colleague Dr Quinteros is detained by remains enigmatic too, but how could it be otherwise since this is both a figment of Diaz's imagination and a moment of recall? When Diaz says he makes corrections to it we may wonder whether these are corrections or fantasies as near the end of the story he talks of the preferred end of his memory", suggesting there are others less preferred. In 'On the Thirty First', it is very hard to relate the action of the story since we have, first of all, to assume action has taken place: that the realm of the actual has been manifest. Ostensibly a story about a New Year's Eve assignation with a woman called Frieda, who has dance students and a dress shop, the narrator says "it wasn't happiness but it was the least possible amount of effort. Frieda would arrive, though she didn't, before the New Year. We would eat something and we would spend our time, expertly putting things off so as not to ruin them..." It seems she isn't there before midnight because she gets into a fight with another lover, a "miscarried fetus of tubercular parents, dark-skinned and wearing a skirt, her head miraculously enlarged by a day of work in a cheap beauty salon." Frieda's had a parade of other lovers, but this information is told in such a way that memory remains stronger than actuality. "Since time lacks importance, since simultaneity is a detail that depends on the whims of memory, it was easy for me to recall nights when the apartment where Frieda allowed me to live was inhabited by numerous women she'd brought from the street, from the bars in the port..." The stories keep telling us not that they are fictional artifices (Onetti has little in common with post-modern work or meta-fiction) but that memory itself is a fictional artifice, constantly in the process of changing its mind because it is a product of mind. When the narrator in 'The Album' says "nocturnal solitude, in the water or along the banks of the river, can, I suppose, offer memory or nothingness, or a willed future..." it isn't the writer calling attention to the prose but to the human condition. Certainly, words as words are invoked, evident when in 'Death and The Girl' the narrator says "to use words I don't like and serve no purpose, I will say that the man was serene..." but based on the stories, and novels like 'Let the Wind Speak', the self-reflexivity of the prose seems a secondary question.
This isn't quite how others see it. seeing "the reflexivity of the narrative anecdote rendered unrealized, defeated or ambiguous", Bart L. Lewis reckons in Onetti's work there is "an overt focus on textual construction that had accompanied the birth and early development of the novel" ('Onetti and the Auto-Referential Text') but had been lost in the realist 19th-century. Yet there is in Onetti less the playful desire to point- up form, than the existential exhaustion of generating content, as if storytelling itself is a type of optimism an Onetti narrator cannot quite assume. Yet Lewis is surely correct when quoting Patrica Waugh saying that the emphasis is on the development of the modernist concern of consciousness rather than the post-modernist one of fictionality." The question Onetti's work asks is what type of consciousness fails to narrate, an absurd but understandable question if we realise that there is no fundamental reason why a work of fiction should have a story. Onetti wouldn't pretend that he isn't making things up; it is just that the conjuring of thoughts, deeds and memories needn't accumulate in a manner that a story can harden around them. In 'The Kidnapped Bride', the narrator tells us that nothing had been happening in Santa Maria not just once but three times in the first three paragraphs; near the end of it a woman will take her own life with the aid of Seconal - "bored of breathing". But some wished to claim the woman died of a heart attack and such believers won: "there wouldn't be an autopsy. This is perhaps why the doctor hesitated between the obvious truth and the hypocrisy of posterity. He preferred, almost at once, to give himself over to absurd love, to inexplicable loyalty, to any form of loyalty capable of engendering misunderstanding." When T. S. Eliot famously said of Henry James that "he had a mind so fine no idea could violate it" ('The Complete Prose of TS Eliot') this was the modernist consciousness in exemplary form. In turn, we may say that Onetti too has a mind so fine that no story can coagulate around it; that narration is consciousness constrained rather than released and instead Onetti wants constantly to reveal the exhausted consciousness. If a poor storyteller sometimes seems like they are spending too much time clearing their throat. Onetti takes the image much further by suggesting congestion of the lungs: any story is a wheezing act of narrative consumption.
Santa Maria is thus the opposite of a place to go as a means of improving one's health: a spa town or a seaside location. It is as if Onetti wanted to create an environment that wouldn't be a location of adventure and where tales could originate, as we find in Marquez's Macondo, but instead a place of lassitude where rumours would gather. Stories aren't produced out of breathless excitement but futile spite and indifference. If the point and purpose of storytelling has so often been to produce a moral, Onetti's work suggests that the flipside of this type of narration is the gossip and rumour that people offer to while away time. This is storytelling too but serving the function of alleviation rather than catharsis, boredom temporarily stilled rather than imagination activated. "Over a career spanning 50 years" Ratik Asokan says "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." (New York Times) Onetti's stories "are set in a fictional town called Santa Mara, which is populated with jaded eccentrics, castaways, and addled dreamers. In Onetti's fiction," Jonathan Blitzer says, "characters are forever in limbo, between the world they actually inhabit and the one they'd prefer to imagine for themselves." (New Yorker) It allows Onetti to create a world not as a possibility but of impossibility, and out of this impossibility fiction will be created even if storytelling can't quite be generated. This is why consciousness is so important to Onetti's oeuvre and why the sense of place can never be the geographical alternative Wessex happens to be in Hardy. It needs to be an environment which could never quite be configured on a map. Topologically, there are bars, pubs and restaurants, the hospital and the newspaper El Liberal, but topology usually gives way to the vagaries of minds that don't move through space but through time or through the prism of consciousness. Thus when Onetti sets the scene he gives it his very own version of pathetic fallacy, simile and personification. "Two or three months of mellow and ochre Autumn crawled through the leafless streets of Santa Maria." ('Death and the Girl') "When night falls we are left without a river, and the sirens that resound at the port turn into the bellowing of lost cows, and the eddies in the water sound like a dry wind in the wheat fields over bowed mountains." ('The Album') "Carried aloft upon the capricious breeze by seeds shrouded in silky white threads, the news reached Santa Maria." ('Dogs Will Have Their Day') Respectively, personification, simile and pathetic fallacy are brought to bear less on describing nature than the feelings of those who observe it. The Autumn crawls through the streets but while this may be personification as it gives animation to the seasons, it reflects the general sensibility of a place and a people where nothing moves in a hurry. In the use of simile, the possible purple nature of the prose is turned into Onetti-esque exaggeration: it isn't enough for the sirens to suggest the bellowing fo lost cows, we also have one desolate image replaced by another: from the port as the bellowing of lost cows to the dry wind on the wheatfields. Certainly capricious can be used to describe non-human states without much difficulty but there is in Onetti's use a sense that nature is as mercurial as a moody person, and the people of Santa Maria cannot expect a weather report to give them anything more than an account of a wayward individual. Onetti doesn't so much personify nature or give human feelings to the inanimate, he generates a world that indicates forces play on us in myriad ways. When the narrator says in 'Album' that "nocturnal solitude, in the water or along the banks of the river, I suppose, offer memory, or nothingness, or a willed future; night on the prairie that spreads, punctual and indomitable only allows us to encounter ourselves, lucid and in the present tense", the sentence keeps retreating from itself, finding and losing meaning simultaneously. Categories like personification, simile and pathetic fallacy seem too assertive technical tools to describe Onetti's language because they all have to pass through the tangled existential condition of characters that can't quite escape the places they are in, and places that can't help but impose their atmosphere upon character. Few authors exemplified Pessoa's claim that " a landscape of abdications unfolds in my oblivious soul: walkways lined by abandoned gestures, high flower beds of dreams that weren't even well dreamed...suppositions like old pools whose fountains are broken. It all gets entangled and squalidly looms in the disarray of my confused sensations." (The Book of Disquiet)
© Tony McKibbin