Where’s the Danger?


In 1940, British novelist Graham Greene published The Power and the Glory, set in Mexico about the clandestine sacramental activities of the «whisky priest» at a time when Catholicism was prohibited in the State of Tabasco. We come to realize that he is the only cleric who has dared to stay and serve those he feels are in need of him. As daring as this is, he only ever seems to focus on his shortcomings: the fact that he once fathered a child there; his drinking; and the fact that he has to hide all that he does.

He is a man who will never know safety unless and until he leaves the state. Whether out of duty or compulsion he chooses to live in danger.

But Greene didn’t see it that way and I have come to agree with him. In one of the two quotes I cherish from this novel he says:

The argument of danger only applies to those who live in relative safety.

I can think of dozens of times where these worlds would have expressed my feelings so much better than my own. For instance, I used to live in Brooklyn and work a block from Grand Central Station in Manhattan. The majority of my coworkers lived outside the city—mainly upstate, Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey.


Sometimes I was asked how I got to work and my answer was that I always took the subway. «The subway?» came the answer, «but it’s so dangerous down there.»

I generally replied with this question, «When was the last time you took a subway?» The answer, almost always, in so many words: «I never do. It’s not safe down there.»

So those who live in relative safety usually do so in a restricted, and often privileged, environment. Anywhere else is met with the «argument of danger.»

As a final example, while living and working here in Chicago, I customarily vacationed in Colombia. The president of the company took me aside, on one of the few occasions we ever exchanged words, and told me I was «reckless and foolhardy» to go to such a dangerous place. I didn’t follow with my usual question because I didn’t feel well-off enough to retire on the spot.

Down in Colombia, and later in other countries, I met some truly marginalized people who seemed to have no options in life. They had to deal with each day as it came, and then went and did what they had to and never spoke of danger.

This was the lot of the whisky priest. In the novel he only feels true danger at one particular point in the story. To say more would spoil it for any would-be reader.


As Life Passes Us By

The Latin American «Boom» in literature seemed to spring forth almost simultaneously in various countries of North, Central, and South America, beginning in the 1950s. The authors most commonly included as «founding members» of the group are: Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia; Julio Cortázar, Ernesto Sábato and Jorge Luis Borges, all from Argentina; Alejo Carpentier, Cuba; José Donoso, Chile; Miguel Ángel Asturias, Guatemala; Juan Rulfo and Carlos Fuentes, México; Augusto Roa Bastos, Paraguay; César Vallejo and Mario Vargas Llosa from Perú; Juan Carlos Onetti, Uruguay.

All these authors have had novels translated into English and other languages, and some are readily recognizable to avid readers of fiction. García Márquez, Asturias, and Vargas Llosa have all subsequently been named Nobel Laureates.

In 2011, Vargas Llosa published a book of essays, El viaje a la ficción (English: A Flight into Fiction), dealing exclusively with Uruguayan author Juan Carlos Onetti and his novels. Vargas Llosa considers them much more deserving of availability and serious attention than they have gotten. He has personally lauded Onetti as “el primer narrador moderno de nuestra lengua” (English: the premier modern narrator of our language). Carlos Fuentes has said, «Las novelas y cuentos de Onetti son las piedras de fundación de nuestra modernidad» (English: His novels and short stories are the cornerstones of our modernity). Finally, Julio Cortázar simply called Onetti «el más grande novelista latinoamericano (English: the greatest Latin American novelist).

Onetti’s seminal novel, La vida breve (English: A Brief Life) published in 1950 is widely considered a foundational work of the Latin American Boom

Juan Carlos Onetti

In essence, this «Boom» heralded a change in Latin American fiction from a focus on colonialism, dictatorships and other regional themes to the universal works of human nature and its conditions, often within an aura of magical realism which also emerged during the Boom. In this work, Onetti highlights what he considered the universal human trait of fleeing from reality to imagination and fiction as the way to deal with the lives we are born to lead.

Now to the heart of the matter. With this novel now well underway, we suddenly read the following:

«Lo malo no está en que la vida promete cosas que nunca nos da; lo malo es que siempre las da y deja de darlas.»

(English: «What is bad is not that life promises us things it never gives us; what’s bad is that it always gives them and then stops giving them.»)

I would say there is nothing more typical of human nature than to desire things we do not have while underappreciating all the things  life has given us. Then, especially as we age, we begin to lose the things we have taken for granted, things like jobs, relationships, physical strength and agility, the ease with which we can hope and plan for the future, independence, our worth to the larger society, and many other tangibles and intangibles depending on our individual circumstances. In this country we even take for granted «life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness» because we are taught that we’re entitled to them. And yet, when studied seriously, it is possibly the most egregious example of human overreach ever uttered.

It can be sad to lose what we haven’t appreciated enough. We all know related aphorisms and quotes like «You don’t know what you have until you lose it» and «The Lord (life) gives, and the Lord takes away», but we tend to remain blissfully unaffected by them, largely due, I would say, to the effort we expend in denying our own mortality

The flight from life into a fictional refuge remained the central theme of Onetti’s most important novels. We can count and name his characters who undertook it. We can also find them in the mirror if we look objectively enough. The flight from life into fiction is the flight from mortality to immortality, and one way or another we all undertake it.