JUAN CARLOS ONETTI has taken to his bed for the last 15 years in Madrid, where he has lived since exile from his native Uruguay. 'All I need is to write, to have my whisky and my cigarettes. I'm not a literary person, I'm the complete petit bourgeois,' he told one interviewer recently, with the malicious glee that is also one of the glories of his novels and short stories.
Now in his eighties, Onetti is one of the recognised giants of Latin American literature who has somehow escaped Anglo-Saxon readers. He won the Spanish-speaking world's main literary prize - the Premio Cervantes - in 1980, and was recently the subject of three hours of interviews on French television, but he has not found any niche in Britain or the US outside university courses. In an attempt to rectify this, over the past couple of years Serpent's Tail and Quartet Books have brought out most of his important novels and short stories, which he began to publish in the Forties.
Much of the reticence here arises from the fact that Onetti does not fulfil easy expectations of what a Latin American author 'should' be writing. Onetti writes from a strictly modern urban viewpoint. His subjects are loneliness and the difficulties of life in the big city, an atmosphere much closer to dirty rather than magical realism - with drugs, prostitution, physical and moral sickness everywhere, and a deep- rooted mistrust of anyone and everyone's motives. His work is a rejection of all things baroque, his style one of ironic understatement.
A Brief Life, Onetti's finest novel, begins in bed. Brausen, the main character, is lying there waiting for his wife to return (after her mastectomy). Through the wall, Brausen hears noise and laughter from the woman next door. It is soon obvious that, like all of Onetti's heroes, he prefers what he can imagine on the other side of the wall to the difficult reality he has to face on this.
The hypothesis which sustains A Brief Life is that we are capable of only a brief period of concentration on the horrors of whatever life we find ourselves dumped in, before we struggle to get beyond it, seeking consolation in what for a short while at least seem like the infinite possibilities offered elsewhere. But this escape brings with it lingering doubts, plus a sense of guilt, which infect the imagined world, and convert it into the poisoned reflection
of what we were so desperately trying to flee in the first place.
In his own brief life, Brausen is a failed copywriter in a Buenos Aires advertising firm. At the same time as he has one ear pressed to the wall, he is also busily writing a film script, again in the hope of escaping his grim everyday reality. In this screenplay Brausen invents not just one contiguous life, but that of a whole group in an imaginary town.
At the centre is the doctor Diaz Grey who, in supplying a woman patient with drugs, gradually finds himself sucked into the seamy world she and her husband inhabit. And as Brausen sets off in pursuit of La Queca, the woman beyond his wall, so he sends his characters off in search of the woman's former lover.
By the middle of the book, the reader is drawn into three levels of fiction, which Onetti masterfully conducts in counterpoint. On the first, we find descriptions of Brausen's 'real life' with his by now estranged wife and his few friends in the bars and suburbs of Buenos Aires. Then there is the story of Arce, the character Brausen has invented for himself in order to infiltrate La Queca's life.
Arce / Brausen even moves into an office owned by a person called Onetti - 'the man with the bored face: he didn't smile, wore glasses, and let it be divined that he only had time for vague scatterbrained women or intimate friends' - while he starts to live out the scenario of revenge and self-disgust he has imagined for himself. Events in the screenplay Brausen is writing become increasingly disturbing; by the extraordinary final chapters set during Carnival, all three levels have become so intertwined that the characters of the 'real' fiction mingle with the 'fictional' ones, and the ending of the book is resonantly ambiguous.
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