Obituary: Juan Carlos Onetti

Andrew Graham-Youll
Tuesday 31 May 1994 23:02 BST

Juan Carlos Onetti, writer: born Montevideo 1 July 1909; four times married (one son); died Madrid 30 May 1994.

JUAN CARLOS ONETTI was among the great writers of Latin America. And although he spent much of the last decade in bed, drunken, depressed, bad-tempered and irritable, he will be remembered for some of the best Latin American novels of this century.

He was born in Montevideo in 1909, and spent much of his life there until 1975, when he went to Madrid as an exile and swore he would never again go to Uruguay. But that angry promise was one of the causes of his depression, and helped to keep him bed-ridden. He became a Spanish citizen in 1978.

His stories created a River Plate that was part Montevideo and part Buenos Aires, and partly neither, but very much both. His writing subjected the tradition of naturalism to a peculiarly wry, Latin American existentialist scrutiny. He was aware of man's desire for 'authenticity', but never for a moment presented him as being near to the attainment of it, said the British critic Martin Seymour- Smith. Michael Wood wrote in the London Review of Books that

it is not easy to say what Onetti's fiction is about, and perhaps not entirely appropriate to try. It centres not so much on plot or theme or character as on an erratic but insistent inquisitiveness about the stories people step into or trail behind.

The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called him the founder of the 'new Latin American novel'.

His novels and stories are all outstanding, but for many years only Astellero (1961) was translated (The Shipyard, 1968). His 'discovery' by English-language readers began only a few years ago.

His first published novel was The Pit (El pozo), in 1939, and as he travelled between Montevideo and Buenos Aires, looking for the bigger publishers on the big-city side of the river, his fiction developed. He worked at the Reuters news agency for a time in the 1930s, and contributed articles to magazines. His first short story was published in the Buenos Aires newspaper La Prensa, in 1933. He was also the head of the Uruguay Library Service, which was one of the best- equipped and most progressive in the continent. In the 1960s he was appointed editor of Marcha, a highly regarded left-wing weekly which perhaps could only have existed in the once-free and questioning atmosphere of the Uruguay intelligentsia. He had joined the weekly in 1940 as news editor.

His best-known books are A Grave With No Name (Para una tumba sin nombre, 1959), The Shipyard, and Bodysnatcher (Juntaradaveres, 1965). His last book was What's the Use (Cuando ya no importe), published in 1990. In 1974, he was briefly arrested along with most of the editors of Marcha, for awarding the magazine's fiction prize to Nelson Marra, for a story which depicted the chief of police as a torturer. Uruguay, like most of the continent, was under a military dictatorship which had very little sense of humour and not much understanding of 'rebel' fiction. Onetti, held in a hospital for the insane, was released after three months, but he felt so humiliated by the experience he decided to leave Montevideo for good.

He took up residence in Madrid, where in 1980 he was awarded the Cervantes prize - the Nobel of the Spanish-speaking world - by King Juan Carlos. It was one of the few occasions in which he left his bed, and flat. His speech of thanks won a standing ovation. The old recluse could still show charm.

His quiet end was in sharp contrast to his life. A notorious womaniser, Onetti was married four times. His fourth wife, Dorothea (Dolly) Muhr, a violinist with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, and his son, Jorge, also a writer, had cared for him through his last decade of infirmity.

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