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-1
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.

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