Overview of Novelist Juan Carlos Onetti at the Nation

The Nation has an excellent overview of Juan Carlos Onetti, his works and his place in Latin American Literature. I have been thinking of reading him, especially after Horacio Castellanos Moya called him an unlucky writer, someone who never quite got the respect he was due. Calling him a mix of Faulkner and Celine who writes stories that are fantastical, but not magical realism is intriguing.

Born in 1909 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Onetti was one of the most idiosyncratic and virtuosic Latin American writers of the twentieth century. His readers in Spanish know this. In his later decades, after years of writing in relative obscurity, he earned a reputation as a quirky, cosmopolitan Modernist–a South American Faulkner who also enjoyed an aesthetic kinship with Borges and Céline (an unlikely pairing that only Onetti could provoke). In 1980 Onetti won the Premio Cervantes. He also became known as a writer’s writer. Mario Vargas Llosa, Roberto Bolaño, Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar and Antonio Muñoz Molina are among his admirers, all of them better-known (and very different) masters who have acknowledged, always in intensely personal terms, the debt they owe Onetti. Bolaño, who attempted to interview Onetti in Mexico in 1975, once joked that he was himself a terrible writer by comparison. Vargas Llosa, for his part, said no other modern writer has grasped the human need for fiction “with more force or originality” than Onetti.

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When not treated with utter disinterest or disregard, Onetti’s literary output was–and still is, you might say–beset by critical misunderstandings. The latest example comes from the admiring Vargas Llosa, whose as yet untranslated book on Onetti, El viaje a la ficción, appeared in 2008. Even though Onetti liberated Latin American fiction from parochial literary traditions, Vargas Llosa argues, he nevertheless represents a Latin America of “failure and underdevelopment,” a world whose exigencies breed an author almost congenitally inclined to stage fantasies and flights from reality. Vargas Llosa casts Onetti’s work as the inevitable product of a universal Latin American experience that forces its literary denizens into the counterfactual and heady realm of fiction. Such an appraisal, though, doesn’t clarify the Uruguayan’s work. In one sense, Vargas Llosa is clearly trying to affix Onetti to the Latin American literary firmament, where there is already a richly ennobling tradition of masterly fantasizing and defiance of realism. And yet, in another way, Vargas Llosa propounds an ill-fitting essentialism, something that obscures rather than illuminates the particularities of Onetti’s visions, which have at least as much in common with Sartre and Camus as with his towering Latin American counterparts.

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