The Dog Will Have Its Day

30/01/2024

   'The Dog Will Have Its Day' is an infuriatingly nuanced tale of a wealthy landowner arranging for someone to be dispatched and, at the same time, a story playing up the conventions of a world-weary detective coming up against power and wealth, knowing that the person responsible for the killing will get away with murder. The story begins with the overseer and the landowner feeding four hungry Dobermans at the kennels. This will be them fed for the last time till Saturday; they can have as much water as they like but the food will have to wait. The landowner, whose name turns out to be Don Jeremias Petrus, has the murder well-planned. He will go away to Buenos Aires for the weekend, all the peasants will be paid off to provide a decent alibi, and the dogs will tear apart the man he wishes dead. 

     When the commissioner, Medina, comes to investigate the crime, he knows Petrus is responsible, but though there are flaws in the deed, the perpetrators of the offence will not confess. “Case closed because the dead man was inside your house, your land, your sacred private property. And because it wasn’t you that murdered him. It was the dogs. And I tried, Don Jeremias, I tried, but your dogs refuse to testify.” 

       The commissioner doesn’t come into the story until halfway through but he is the Onettian character, the one who can see through others without being able to help himself, who knows that crimes can be solved theoretically but doesn’t expect much justice to come out of their resolution, and usually wishes for a quieter life the greed and ambition of others deny. Petrus, on the other hand, is a figure of comfort and wealth: a European who has settled into colonial South America, having taken with him “furniture, a wife, a whore and buggy from Europe.” These men have known each other for some years, and while Medina interrogates Petrus over the crime, much of the discussion consists of reminiscences as they recall “ruined harvests, staggering harvests, rises and falls in the price of cattle; they had reminded each other of long-gone summers and winters, so worn and polished by time as to have become unreal…”

    The story could be called a crime thriller but it doesn’t read like one even if some attempt at a synopsis reveals it to be exactly that. It is as if instead Onetti wished to create an atmosphere and premise it on a murder, to suggest that any curiosity over the crime is weak next to the cruel, callous and desperate world he wishes to show. During their discussion, Petrus is worried that the peasants whom he has bought off have betrayed him. Medina says, “no one double-crossed, no one cheated you out of a single peso. They swore on their fear, on the bible, on the ashes of their whoring mothers.” But this doesn’t mean they did a good job. They were supposed to make the man unrecognisable, make sure he couldn’t be identified so that it looked like some chicken thief had broken in and the dogs went for him. Instead, this was a man from Buenos Aires, and Medina is well aware that there is much more to this story than meets the eye. However, if the percipient eye is usually in detective fiction the private eye, someone who will dedicate time and attention to working out the causes and consequences of the murder, here and in other Onetti stories they are more jaundiced than inquisitive. The investigator accepts that finding out all the facts won’t do much to change the world, so why not leave the world as it is? Locking up the odd criminal will fill the prisons, but is it likely to make humanity any better?

   If Onetti’s story is maddeningly vague, a tale that can just about be pieced together even if we might wish to know more about the man from Buenos Aires, Petrus’s wife and Petrus’s mistress, this only passes for a failing if our interest is chiefly in detective fiction (or deductive fiction) rather than in the world Onetti insistently invokes. Instead of trying to understand the story, let us try and understand Onetti, while musing over what it means to comprehend a writer. This usually doesn’t mean paying too much attention to their biography even if in some instances the details are hard to ignore in writers whose lives are so catastrophic, or whose work is so autobiographical. When we talk of grasping the work this may have nothing to do with the author’s intentions at all, have little to do with the reality they have lived or even the writers they have read. It may of course incorporate all three but not as a necessary means of comprehension. We can accept just a little Roland Barthes’s claim that “…we know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” (‘Death of the Author’) Onetti may say “my oeuvre… 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.” (The Nation) But one way of looking at the death of the author is as the birth of character: that the writer doesn’t want to write about his life since he is busy living that however well, badly or dully. What they aren’t living are the worlds they are creating. 

    Such worlds are as likely to come from literature as from life, to be part of the accumulated tissue of literary possibilities rather than immaculate authorial conceptions. No author is an island, and yet to predicate the life over literature, to see meaning in a person’s lived existence over the creative environment in which the work exists, is to misunderstand the work in the process of trying to understand the writer. We are saying nothing new and it even has a term: the biographical fallacy. But if we aren’t to understand Onetti’s work through his life, how are we to do so? Here are two: his interest in a constructed world, and in what we will call despondent deduction.  

      Much of Onetti’s work takes place in or around a fictional world called Santa Maria. Like Hardy, Faulkner and Marquez, with Wessex, Yoknapatawpha County, and Macondo, Onetti’s is a fictively created world but it isn’t a fantastical one, like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, Barrie’s Neverland, Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or Baum’s Oz. Its purpose isn’t to transport us to another place but to insist on the specificity of the world we are in while acknowledging it is shaped by the writer’s sensibility. This helps explain Onetti’s remark about the only thing mattering to him was his own self. Yet many might insist that Dickens’ London, Balzac’s Paris and Joyce’s Dublin are just as much a product of the imagination as Onetti’s, if not more so, and certainly more famously the case. Yet even Joyce is not bigger than Dublin and Dickens and Balzac couldn’t hope to be larger than those most famous of capital cities where much of their work is set. By creating a world based on the imagination no matter how it might resemble coastal Columbia, the Mississippi or a Uruguayan port, the writer makes it their own. Onetti may be far from internationally famous, but whatever fame Santa Maria possesses it owes to Onetti. As translator Katherine Silver says, Santa Maria exists only “on the map of Juan Carlos Onetti’s imagination and that of his devoted readers.” (A Dream Come True

   Who lives in this fictive port and its surrounding environs? Whores, certainly, alcoholics without a doubt. “Sitting down at a table, he started to drink, the first glass for anxiety, the rest for pleasure, thereby initiating a three-day drinking binge.” (‘Presencia’) “But lately there had been an abundance of insolent and filthy mestiza women, with burning cigarettes hanging from their foul mouths.” (‘On The Thirty-First’) In Onetti’s stories, people kill time in coffee houses and smell strongly of cologne. Some sleep badly and others stay up all night. Onetti describes them vividly, and often without much compassion. “He was still the same as always: ten years older than me, long nose, restless eyes, the thin and twisted mouth of a thief, of a trickster, of an addicted liar, small, fragile, with a smooth and downturned mustache.” (‘Matias The Telegraph Operator’) His characters are rarely optimistic and accept the most abject of destinies. One is “amazed at the incessant triumph of injustice and incomprehension she looked for…” (‘On the Thirty-First’) Another story ends, “the murderer set off towards his punishment.”  

   The work often feels not so much knocked off as reluctantly offered and unburnished by literature: “the incident, which is not a tale and doesn’t even brush against the literary, goes, more or less, as follows.” (‘Matias The Telegraph Operator’) While a forceful element in modernism has been the difficulty in telling a story out of the manifold complexity of modern existence, Onetti creates a deliberately small world and offers narrators who can hardly work up the energy to tell the tale. After all, the story isn’t about very much and the characters aren’t worth much. Yet another aspect of not just modernist but modern literature is the inconsequential. This isn’t only because most of the great modern writing is no longer so often about kings and queens, aristocrats and their land. It rests more on the inconsequentiality of lives presented in modern fiction as opposed to older forms and tales. Amongst the greatest of 19th-and 20th-century novels, we have a spendthrift provincial who yearns for Paris (Madame Bovary), a persecuted clerk in Prague (The Trial), an orphan looking for a decent home (Oliver Twist) and a bloke trying to scrounge together enough cash on any given day to pursue a hedonistic bohemian existence (Tropic of Cancer). Their lives are of little consequence socially or spiritually — their deaths won’t transform a kingdom and their existence isn’t suffused with a transcendent purpose. E. M. Cioran puts it well: “the novel would have been inconceivable in a period of metaphysical prosperity: we can hardly imagine it flourishing in the Middle Ages, or in classical Greece, India or China. For the metaphysical experience, abandoning the chronology and modalities of our being, lives in the intimacy of the absolute…” (The Temptation to Exist) If the novel (and by extension the modern short story) is the antithesis of this claim, in Cioran’s view, then how far from that metaphysical prosperity may a writer find themselves? Few, perhaps, further from it than Onetti. Santa Maria is a world of metaphysical impoverishment, a fictional creation all the better to pursue a dispirited humanity.

   This returns us to the deductive despondency in Onetti’s work, that his stories are often detective tales that care little for the consequences of justice. If so often in Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes manages to solve the crime and yet leave the perpetrator free, well aware the infraction won’t be repeated and where reason has proved triumphant, Onetti’s work suggests that the story needn’t be told because the crime will be covered up and, even if the person doesn’t commit another one, it won’t matter much since somebody else will anyway. Doyle is interested in crime and its resolution; Onetti is often fascinated by the criminal milieu and irresolution. Adrian Nathan West says, ”for Onetti crime is a pretext for exposing the emptiness of human life, the unbridgeable distance between people.” (Washington Examiner) And even if far from all of the stories are detective tales, it as though they could be, with a sort of venal, selfish, impoverished society awaiting its criminality. And if a crime does take place, there is a good chance everyone will be too “exhausted by incomprehension” (‘Death and the Girl’) to do much about it.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

The Dog Will Have Its Day

'The Dog Will Have Its Day' is an infuriatingly nuanced tale of a wealthy landowner arranging for someone to be dispatched and, at the same time, a story playing up the conventions of a world-weary detective coming up against power and wealth, knowing that the person responsible for the killing will get away with murder. The story begins with the overseer and the landowner feeding four hungry Dobermans at the kennels. This will be them fed for the last time till Saturday; they can have as much water as they like but the food will have to wait. The landowner, whose name turns out to be Don Jeremias Petrus, has the murder well-planned. He will go away to Buenos Aires for the weekend, all the peasants will be paid off to provide a decent alibi, and the dogs will tear apart the man he wishes dead.

When the commissioner, Medina, comes to investigate the crime, he knows Petrus is responsible, but though there are flaws in the deed, the perpetrators of the offence will not confess. "Case closed because the dead man was inside your house, your land, your sacred private property. And because it wasn't you that murdered him. It was the dogs. And I tried, Don Jeremias, I tried, but your dogs refuse to testify."

The commissioner doesn't come into the story until halfway through but he is the Onettian character, the one who can see through others without being able to help himself, who knows that crimes can be solved theoretically but doesn't expect much justice to come out of their resolution, and usually wishes for a quieter life the greed and ambition of others deny. Petrus, on the other hand, is a figure of comfort and wealth: a European who has settled into colonial South America, having taken with him "furniture, a wife, a whore and buggy from Europe." These men have known each other for some years, and while Medina interrogates Petrus over the crime, much of the discussion consists of reminiscences as they recall "ruined harvests, staggering harvests, rises and falls in the price of cattle; they had reminded each other of long-gone summers and winters, so worn and polished by time as to have become unreal..."

The story could be called a crime thriller but it doesn't read like one even if some attempt at a synopsis reveals it to be exactly that. It is as if instead Onetti wished to create an atmosphere and premise it on a murder, to suggest that any curiosity over the crime is weak next to the cruel, callous and desperate world he wishes to show. During their discussion, Petrus is worried that the peasants whom he has bought off have betrayed him. Medina says, "no one double-crossed, no one cheated you out of a single peso. They swore on their fear, on the bible, on the ashes of their whoring mothers." But this doesn't mean they did a good job. They were supposed to make the man unrecognisable, make sure he couldn't be identified so that it looked like some chicken thief had broken in and the dogs went for him. Instead, this was a man from Buenos Aires, and Medina is well aware that there is much more to this story than meets the eye. However, if the percipient eye is usually in detective fiction the private eye, someone who will dedicate time and attention to working out the causes and consequences of the murder, here and in other Onetti stories they are more jaundiced than inquisitive. The investigator accepts that finding out all the facts won't do much to change the world, so why not leave the world as it is? Locking up the odd criminal will fill the prisons, but is it likely to make humanity any better?

If Onetti's story is maddeningly vague, a tale that can just about be pieced together even if we might wish to know more about the man from Buenos Aires, Petrus's wife and Petrus's mistress, this only passes for a failing if our interest is chiefly in detective fiction (or deductive fiction) rather than in the world Onetti insistently invokes. Instead of trying to understand the story, let us try and understand Onetti, while musing over what it means to comprehend a writer. This usually doesn't mean paying too much attention to their biography even if in some instances the details are hard to ignore in writers whose lives are so catastrophic, or whose work is so autobiographical. When we talk of grasping the work this may have nothing to do with the author's intentions at all, have little to do with the reality they have lived or even the writers they have read. It may of course incorporate all three but not as a necessary means of comprehension. We can accept just a little Roland Barthes's claim that "...we know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash." ('Death of the Author') Onetti may say "my oeuvre... 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." (The Nation) But one way of looking at the death of the author is as the birth of character: that the writer doesn't want to write about his life since he is busy living that however well, badly or dully. What they aren't living are the worlds they are creating.

Such worlds are as likely to come from literature as from life, to be part of the accumulated tissue of literary possibilities rather than immaculate authorial conceptions. No author is an island, and yet to predicate the life over literature, to see meaning in a person's lived existence over the creative environment in which the work exists, is to misunderstand the work in the process of trying to understand the writer. We are saying nothing new and it even has a term: the biographical fallacy. But if we aren't to understand Onetti's work through his life, how are we to do so? Here are two: his interest in a constructed world, and in what we will call despondent deduction.

Much of Onetti's work takes place in or around a fictional world called Santa Maria. Like Hardy, Faulkner and Marquez, with Wessex, Yoknapatawpha County, and Macondo, Onetti's is a fictively created world but it isn't a fantastical one, like C.S. Lewis's Narnia, Barrie's Neverland, Tolkien's Middle-Earth or Baum's Oz. Its purpose isn't to transport us to another place but to insist on the specificity of the world we are in while acknowledging it is shaped by the writer's sensibility. This helps explain Onetti's remark about the only thing mattering to him was his own self. Yet many might insist that Dickens' London, Balzac's Paris and Joyce's Dublin are just as much a product of the imagination as Onetti's, if not more so, and certainly more famously the case. Yet even Joyce is not bigger than Dublin and Dickens and Balzac couldn't hope to be larger than those most famous of capital cities where much of their work is set. By creating a world based on the imagination no matter how it might resemble coastal Columbia, the Mississippi or a Uruguayan port, the writer makes it their own. Onetti may be far from internationally famous, but whatever fame Santa Maria possesses it owes to Onetti. As translator Katherine Silver says, Santa Maria exists only "on the map of Juan Carlos Onetti's imagination and that of his devoted readers." (A Dream Come True)

Who lives in this fictive port and its surrounding environs? Whores, certainly, alcoholics without a doubt. "Sitting down at a table, he started to drink, the first glass for anxiety, the rest for pleasure, thereby initiating a three-day drinking binge." ('Presencia') "But lately there had been an abundance of insolent and filthy mestiza women, with burning cigarettes hanging from their foul mouths." ('On The Thirty-First') In Onetti's stories, people kill time in coffee houses and smell strongly of cologne. Some sleep badly and others stay up all night. Onetti describes them vividly, and often without much compassion. "He was still the same as always: ten years older than me, long nose, restless eyes, the thin and twisted mouth of a thief, of a trickster, of an addicted liar, small, fragile, with a smooth and downturned mustache." ('Matias The Telegraph Operator') His characters are rarely optimistic and accept the most abject of destinies. One is "amazed at the incessant triumph of injustice and incomprehension she looked for..." ('On the Thirty-First') Another story ends, "the murderer set off towards his punishment."

The work often feels not so much knocked off as reluctantly offered and unburnished by literature: "the incident, which is not a tale and doesn't even brush against the literary, goes, more or less, as follows." ('Matias The Telegraph Operator') While a forceful element in modernism has been the difficulty in telling a story out of the manifold complexity of modern existence, Onetti creates a deliberately small world and offers narrators who can hardly work up the energy to tell the tale. After all, the story isn't about very much and the characters aren't worth much. Yet another aspect of not just modernist but modern literature is the inconsequential. This isn't only because most of the great modern writing is no longer so often about kings and queens, aristocrats and their land. It rests more on the inconsequentiality of lives presented in modern fiction as opposed to older forms and tales. Amongst the greatest of 19th-and 20th-century novels, we have a spendthrift provincial who yearns for Paris (Madame Bovary), a persecuted clerk in Prague (The Trial), an orphan looking for a decent home (Oliver Twist) and a bloke trying to scrounge together enough cash on any given day to pursue a hedonistic bohemian existence (Tropic of Cancer). Their lives are of little consequence socially or spiritually their deaths won't transform a kingdom and their existence isn't suffused with a transcendent purpose. E. M. Cioran puts it well: "the novel would have been inconceivable in a period of metaphysical prosperity: we can hardly imagine it flourishing in the Middle Ages, or in classical Greece, India or China. For the metaphysical experience, abandoning the chronology and modalities of our being, lives in the intimacy of the absolute..." (The Temptation to Exist) If the novel (and by extension the modern short story) is the antithesis of this claim, in Cioran's view, then how far from that metaphysical prosperity may a writer find themselves? Few, perhaps, further from it than Onetti. Santa Maria is a world of metaphysical impoverishment, a fictional creation all the better to pursue a dispirited humanity.

This returns us to the deductive despondency in Onetti's work, that his stories are often detective tales that care little for the consequences of justice. If so often in Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes manages to solve the crime and yet leave the perpetrator free, well aware the infraction won't be repeated and where reason has proved triumphant, Onetti's work suggests that the story needn't be told because the crime will be covered up and, even if the person doesn't commit another one, it won't matter much since somebody else will anyway. Doyle is interested in crime and its resolution; Onetti is often fascinated by the criminal milieu and irresolution. Adrian Nathan West says, "for Onetti crime is a pretext for exposing the emptiness of human life, the unbridgeable distance between people." (Washington Examiner) And even if far from all of the stories are detective tales, it as though they could be, with a sort of venal, selfish, impoverished society awaiting its criminality. And if a crime does take place, there is a good chance everyone will be too "exhausted by incomprehension" ('Death and the Girl') to do much about it.


© Tony McKibbin