Mi obsesión con los cuentos y novelas de Juan Carlos Onetti

Primero que todo, reconozco que ya he escrito más sobre este autor que sobre los demás autores en su conjunto. Me atrevo a decir que las obras de Onetti para mí son como La Perla de Gran Precio de la Biblia; que han llegado a ser de un valor incalculable para mí.

Mi lectura predilecta sin lugar a dudas son las novelas. Prefiero leer una novela a lo largo de una serie de 6 ó 7 etapas en lugar de leer 6 ó 7 cuentos, cada uno por completo a su vez. Pero ya había leído casi todas las novelas escritas por Onetti cuando comencé a leer El viaje a la ficción del escritor Mario Vargas Llosa, Premio Nobel de Literatura 2010. Me llamó la atención cómo elogió varios cuentos de Onetti, sobre todo El infierno tan temible.

Cuando llegó al momento de resumir y criticar éste, Vargas Llosa lo hizo así:

«[L]as pocas páginas de que consta El infierno tan temido son engañosas, pues, aunque la historia parece de entrada claramente inteligible, la verdad es que toda ella está cargada de sobreentendidos, alusiones, pistas, referencias, omisiones y acertijos que permiten lecturas muy diversas y hacen de ella unas suerte de palimpsesto en el que distintos niveles superpuestos de escritura trazan una inquietante descripción de la vocación de crueldad congénita a la condición humana»

Más tarde, en una entrevista hecha por resonancias.org, resumió este cuento de la siguiente manera:

«El infierno tan temido» es uno de los grandes cuentos de la literatura. El consigue mostrar algo que no sabemos definir muy bien: el mal, el pecado original, el instinto tanático. «Las fieras» [ de Roberto Arlt], y desde luego, en «El infierno tan temido», que es un cuento que no sé cuántas veces he leído, me producen siempre una especie de terror metafísico. Uno descubre que también somos eso. Y es también absolutamente extraordinario que, al mismo tiempo, a todo eso se lo pueda llamar una historia de amor. Una historia de amor, digamos, retorcida, perversa, pero hay ahí una especie de entendimiento en esa pareja a través de esos horrores que se hacen.

Poco después de leer estos comentarios compré un ejemplar de Cuentos Completos de Juan Carlos Onetti y leí El infierno tan temible. Lo leí y lo volví a leer. Estoy de acuerdo con lo que dijo Vargas Llosa: estas páginas de hecho son engañosas y éstas no pueden ser desenredados mediante una sola lectura.

Se lo recomiendo, sin reserva alguna,  a todos que lean esta entrada. No será necesario que compren este tomo tan grueso que compré yo, a menos que ya sean aficionados de las obras de Onetti; que, en tal caso, sería una maravillosa adquisición. Este cuento está disponible en forma PDF en varias páginas Web, inclusive en cervantes.com.

Critically Thinking Our Place in the World


One of the criteria I often use to decide whether I want to read more of a novelist’s works is whether he or she has made me stop reading in a heartbeat to re-read and digest a powerful phrase, sentence or brief paragraph before reading further.

I recently wrote about the late British novelist Graham Greene in my post Where’s the Danger and cited a sentence from his Novel The Power and the Glory.


(Above): Graham Greene,as he looked at the approximate age this book was published. He was born in October of 1904 and died at the age of 86 in April of 1991. During his adult life he wrote at least 25 novels, which he divided,by his own subjective criteria into «novels» and «entertainments», the latter being more for enjoyment and temporary escape from daily anxieties.


Novelist Scott Turow told his NPR hosts in 2006 that he had bought The Power and the Glory some 40 years earlier, which would have mad him about 17 at the time of this purchase. He went on to say that he still had this very same book in his library, which should indicate his passion for it. The following quote is from this same interview with him:

The novel captivated me completely. It was a thriller — but also a novel of ideas.514joptq0ol Greene’s elegant use of detail, the author’s profound knowledge of his characters, and his novel’s unrelenting suspense marked the book to me as a work of the highest literary art. [. . .] But I had no question when I read, and then repeatedly re-read, The Power and the Glory, that it was a book I would have simply died to write. —Scott Turow on NPR


The following is  the meat of this blog post—the second quote from the same book that made me stop and reflect on what I felt was a revelation —a poignant insight into our flawed (fallen, for some) human nature.

In our hearts there is a ruthless dictator, ready to contemplate the misery of a thousand strangers if it will ensure the happiness of the few we love.

I leave it without comment. That’s the way I came across it, and I feel any attempt to illustrate or explain it on my part would only detract from it. It was written to stand alone as a strong call for introspection.



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.

¿Qué nos quitamos con cada capa de civilización que nos ponemos?

machiguenga 640x461
Los machiguenga

En el 2008, Mario Vargas Llosa lanzó un nuevo libro de no ficción titulado El viaje a la ficción. El objeto de éste son las obras del escritor uruguayo Juan Carlos Onetti, quien Vargas Llosa reconoce como uno de los fundadores del «Boom» latinoamericano con la publicación en el 1939 de su novela El pozo.


En su prefacio, Vargas Llosa se pregunta sobre los orígenes de la ficción, de los cuentos y fábulas esparcidos por los contadores mucho antes de que fuera inventada la palabra escrita. En cierto sentido, éste es el destino del viaje a la ficción, un viaje hasta el puro comienzo del arte de entretener a algún público mediante historias inventadas o recontadas por un contador ambulante.

Específicamente, el autor se remonta al año 1958, durante el cual tuvo la oportunidad de acompañar a un grupo de investigadores de la Universidad de San Marcos y el Instituto Lingüístico de Verano en una excursión a conocer la comunidad machiguenga que vivía  cerca de Pucallpa, en la Amazonía peruana. Antes de la llegada allí de los esposos Wayne y Betty Snell en el 1951 la comunidad había vivido sin cualquier contacto con la «civilización». A los Snell les costaron mucho tiempo y paciencia para ser aceptados y después alojados por la tribu.

Lo que me llamó mucho la atención fue el anécdota que contó Wayne Snell a Vargas Llosa sobre los sucesos de una noche de ya hacía años, es decir durante el comienzo de su convivencia con los machiguenga. Vargas llosa relata que:

Advirtió [Snell], de pronto, que cundía una agitación inusitada entre la comunidad. ¿Qué ocurriría? ¿Por qué estaban todos, hombres y mujeres, chicos y viejos, tan exaltados? Le explicaron que iba a llegar «el hablador» [. . .]. Este es el momento de su historia que a mí me quitaría el sueño muchas noches, que cientos de veces retrotraería para volverlo a oír o imaginármelo, que sometería a un escrutinio enfermizo, al que, con sólo cerrar los ojos, imaginaría los meses y años futuros de mil maneras diferentes. [. . .] Lo que él recordaba sobre todo era la unción, el fervor, con que todos lo escuchaban, la avidez con que bebían sus palabras y cuánto se alegraban, reían, emocionaban o entristecían con lo que contaba.

A esas alturas, Snell aún no dominaba la lengua de los machiguenga, así que no pudo contarle a Vargas Llosa la esencia de lo que el hablador hubiera dicho a esa multitud tan cautivada por su mera presencia. Profundizando el tema con Snell, el autor recopilaba pisca a pisca los posibles temas de la presentación:

 «. . .aquel monólogo era un verdadero popurrí u olla podrida de cosas disímiles: anécdotas de sus viajes por la selva, y de las familias y aldeas que visitaba, chismografías y noticias de aquellos otros machiguengas dispersos por la inmensidad de las selvas amazónicas, mitos, leyendas, habladurías, seguramente invenciones suyas o ajenas, todo mezclado, enredado, confundido [. . .] Luego, cuando el hablador partió, en toda la comunidad siguieron rememorando su venida muchos días, recordando y repitiendo lo que aquél les contaba.»

No recuerdo historia alguna, verdadera o ficticia, que me haya conmocionado tanto como ésta. Igual que a Vargas Llosa,  me quita el sueño. Es la prueba de que hemos sufrido una pérdida irreversible, una pérdida autoinfligida sin querer. Los procesos del desarrollo humano como dominar el fuego, pastorear ovejas, cultivar maíz, rodar sobre ruedas y volar sobre alas nos han hecho seres diferentes aunque parezcamos iguales.

Me imagino por allá con Snell, acompañando a los machiguenga en la Amazonía peruana en aquél momento en que corría la voz sobre la pronta llegada del hablador. Los veo en su anticipación cada vez más alborotados, en su delirio afanoso de recibir a este simple hablador. De repente me doy cuenta de que no puedo relacionarme con ellos. Nací igual que ellos pero en seguida comenzaron a ponerme capa sobre capa de una naturaleza creada y no natural, que llamamos la civilización. Envuelto así en estas capas de historia y logros humanos no hay casi nada que me penetre el alma.

No creo que exista la persona cuya llegada esta noche me conmocionaría al nivel alcanzado por los machiguenga. Llega Shakira a tocar mi puerta, llega Barak Obama trayendo la pizza que estoy por pedir, llegan Elvis y Frank Sinatra del más allá para presentarse en el parque de en frente.

¿Y eso qué? La naturaleza artificial está al borde de crear la inteligencia artificial y como consecuencia, nuestro dios artificial. Pronto vamos para Marte. Es una lástima que cuando venga el día en que el ser humano pise Marte no cause tanta conmoción como la que causó el hablador al entrar en el territorio de los machiguenga.

The Pleasure of Reading

What’s the point of reading? Is there one? Is it the same for everyone? What follows below is my answer to the first question but, to tone down the suspense, my answers to numbers two and three are simply «yes» and «no», respectively.

To me the most important thing I get from reading is a gradually better understanding of both individual and collective human nature. I get this from reading novels. A good novelist has, above all, a finely tuned sense of what makes the world go round, and what makes the world go round are people in all their individual and affiliated roles. After that what distinguishes a novelist are matters of technique, style and voice. e64600abfac38254652016b1aa6603b4

A good novelist, in my opinion, begins by drawing the reader into a dream of the author’s creation. Once in that dream, the reader should never be shaken into wakefulness by the author’s own affectations or clumsy writing. The writing must never get in the way of the story. A great novelist does all this and adds to it relevant, intense phrases and observations that call the reader to a newer and clearer understanding of something, usually causing him or her to think: Why couldn’t I have said that?

As an example, I offer a small and powerful quote from Don Delillo’s novel Running Dog, which I finished last week. It is one of his lesser known and studied stories, which, to me, makes this find even more pleasurable.

All conspiracies begin with individual self-repression.

Why couldn’t I have said that?

The more I think about it the more I find it to be true. When you decide to conspire with anyone for any reason, you are forced to repress (give up, at least temporarily) a part of yourself. The conspiracy has to be nurtured and eventually become bigger than all the conspirators put together or they would eventually find it tedious.The original cause(s) may be noble, but the conspiracy de-nobilizes the conspirators. It brings me to a question I haven’t yet found the answer to: Can we ever give up a part of ourselves and still be true to anything?

I have the sense that Delillo’s quote could be rephrased to include conspiracy theorists as well as conspiracies themselves. Running Dog was first printed in 1978, well before the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing of  1995 and then 9/11 itself. Conspiracy theories have been raised concerning all three of these events and seem to have grown in number as time passed from one to the next. No doubt the proliferation of Web connections has made it much easier to embellish and foment these theories and the stories behind them; and, let’s not kid ourselves, some relatively small number of them may be true at their core.

So what does a person have to repress in order to promulgate a conspiracy theory? It may be different when different kinds conspiracies are suggested, but in general I would say integrity and a sense of justice are high on the list. We find it easier to blame «outsiders» for just about anything. Just look at all the attempts to connect some level of «foreign power» to the Oklahoma City bombing. Then we had the misguided «Stranger Danger» campaign that effectively took the spotlight of the likely offenders (relatives, neighbors and friends) and turned it full force on «outsiders». Subscribing to unfounded theories can also be an outlet for hatred, prejudice, and fear, mostly of things and people unknown. Whatever value some few of these theories may have, their total can poison a culture, dividing compatriots into factions, and in essence doing the work of an enemy, real or imagined, against ourselves.

«All conspiracies begin with individual self-repression.»

As for reading as pleasure, I’m honored to say that Margaret Atwood has spoken equally for me in her quote found just above the Title. When the reading is pleasurable we learn the most. Strangely enough this quote can be applied across a wide array of readers and readings. I am fully in sync with what Ms. Atwood said, but I can all but guarantee our reading lists are vastly different.

El Gozo de Leer

Si me preguntan, ¿En que consiste una buena obra de ficción?, diría que la mido sobre dos dimensiones: 1) el estilo fluido de escritua que mete al lector en un sueño que nunca sea interrumpido por afectaciones o tropiezos del autor (por ejem. Salon de belleza de Mario Bellatín); y 2) otro estilo más cerebral que detiene el lector a lo largo de su lectura porque llega una frase tan memorable que hay que ponderarla antes de volver a leer lo que la sigue (por ejem. Estrella distante de Roberto Bolaño).

Terminé de leer Éstrella distante esta mañana poco después de desayunar. En el último capítulo el narrador viaja en tren por las afueras de Barcelona con el detective chileno Abel Romero, «uno de los policías más famosos de la época de Allende». Éste comienza a hablar de lo que piensa hacer cuando reciba su considerable pago por el trabajo que los dos  llevan a cabo juntos. Dijo  que sería «empresario de pompas fúnebres», y siguió enumerando las cualidades indispensables del buen director de funeraria. Ahora pasa a lo rentable que puede ser este negocio:

En los ataúdes la ganancia puede llegar a ser del trescientos por ciento. Tengo un compadre en Santiago de los tiempos de la Bridaga que se dedica a hacer sillas. Le hablé el otro día por teléfono del asunto y dijo que de las sillas a los ataúdes hay un solo paso.

Obviamente me eché a reir. A carcajadas primero, pero de golpe las misma palabras me hicieron reconocer mi condición de peregrino sobre esta tierra.

«De las sillas a los ataúdes hay un solo paso.» Concluí con cierta ansiedad que esta frase se realiza más fácilmente en su sentido figurado que en su sentido literal. En el taller, no hay un solo paso que convierta una silla en un ataúd. Dele este trabajo a cualquier carpintero y le dirá que la idea es absurda. Mejor empezar con tablas.

Pero en su sentido figurado, es posible estar sentado en una silla en un momento y estar listo para el ataud en el otro. Ya lo había visto. Sé a ciencia cierta que sucede.

El primer trabajo que conseguí después de graduarme del colegio fue en el departmento del registro de acciones en un banco internacional en todo el centro de Chicago. Un día para almorzar bajé a la cafetería en la planta baja del edificio, pasé por la fila y comencé a llevar la bandeja a una mesa con sillas disponibles. De repente, hubo un ruido, un ruido que no solamente se oía sino también se sentía debajo de los pies sobre el piso de concreto. Un hombre, de camisa blanca y corbata rayada, tambaleaba sobre su silla mientras ésta daba unas vueltas en forma de arco. Después se cayó y dejó de temblar. Todas las personas cercanas formaban un círculo alredador de él, pero a una distancia amplia. Con ganas mórbidas de presenciar todo pero sin suficiente proximidad para ser contagiadas.

La muerte en todas sus formas: temprana, tarde, imprevista, anhelada, inevitable, esperada, reconfortante, espeluznante y más que nada, caprichosa.

«De las sillas a los ataúdes hay un solo paso.» Se ríe primero y se contempla después.

Raymond Carver Revisited

Raymond Carver with the love of his last 11 years, Tess Gallagher

Shortly after these two met, Carver’s doctor told him that his drinking was certainly going to kill him, and he emphasized sooner rather than later. Raymond’s spirits were notably renewed in Tess’ company and shortly after the doctor’s pronouncement he quit drinking and joined AA. Then, after surviving another eight years of life, a different doctor diagnosed him with terminal lung cancer. Almost two years later, on August 3, 1988, Raymond Carver died at the age of 50.

During those last two years this man, much too young to die, came to grips with the death rising up inside him. He and Tess dedicated themselves to compiling a book of his poetry mixed here and there with other poems, mostly by Anton Chekov. Tess and Raymond managed to finish the content of A New Path to the Waterfall before his death, but the task of compiling it all into book form fell to Tess.

In her Introduction to this small book, Tess Gallagher said:

It seems important finally to say that Ray did not regard his poetry as simply a hobby or a pastime he turned to when he wanted a rest from fiction. Poetry was a spiritual necessity.

His poetry written during these last two years was replete with shadows of his impending death. But at first he wrote with touches of humor as he did in «What the Doctor Said»:

What the Doctor Said

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

What a wry response to being told that he had at least thirty-two tumors on one lung:

«I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that»

Then, later, through his poems he confronted reality head on. I can imagine «Through the Boughs» as having been  written on the day that he came to feel more dead than alive, that inevitable time when fight becomes surrender and the present takes on more worth more than the future.

Through the Boughs

Down below the window, on the deck, some ragged-looking

birds gather at the feeder. The same birds, I think,

that come every day to eat and quarrel. Time was, time was,

they cry and strike at each other. It’s nearly time, yes.

The sky stays dark all day, the wind is from the west and

won’t stop blowing.… Give me your hand for a time. Hold on

to mine. That’s right, yes. Squeeze hard. Time was we

thought we had time on our side. Time was, time was,

those ragged birds cry.

Time is at the heart of what Carver expresses here. But time as what? It is time that was before all things changed; time as any day now, any minute, time of the present which seems to stand still while hands are held; and time viewed naïvely as an ally. 

To me it was time cut short. The final silencing of a uniquely talented voice that love had recently strengthened.