Tuesday, 17 July 2012

A Brief Life

A Brief Life - Juan Carlos Onetti

I read this for SpanishLitMonth at Richard's Caravana De Recuerdos and Stu's Winstonsdad's Blog. It was not a book that I had any awareness of previous to it being nominated one of the 'set texts' for SpanishLitMonth. Having fallen behind the target of last weekend I will now play more the part of echo than member of the chorus. And an echo is an apt voice in which to discuss the book full of echoes...

It is an interesting book (interesting is one of those words that sounds faintly damning, isn't it?). At first I found it a little difficult to connect to, feeling at times that sentences remained to be translated from awkwardly constructed English.  However this felt less so as the book progressed and I felt more that any obfuscation was deliberate.

There is a dark vision of humanity at play in this book, a disgust which passes itself off as diffidence. The characters, some of whom are nominally real, some of whom are fictional within the fiction, are trapped in an incomplete world, or worlds. Many are impelled to certain acts by a sense of fate, by a sense that they need to arrive at particular points. They are unable to cope with the questions posed by the death latent within them and in all who surround them.

We start with the words "Crazy world" overheard in the apartment next door. It is part of a conversation between a new neighbor (a woman) and a man. The narrator, Juan Maria Brausen -  listening to the sounds (and silences) from next door - begins to imagine the world of that apartment, pressing his ears to the wall, a listening Tom. The day is hot with an almost viscous heat which 'parted' and then 'coalesced again, filled every crack, rested heavily in every room, in the space between stair treads, in the corners of the building.'

His thoughts switch to 'dear Gertrudis', 'known by heart'. Gertrudis is not there. It seems that she is in hospital having a mastectomy. His thoughts sway back and forth between the apartment next door and Gertrudis. He imagines the amputation; the healing of her scar; the healing of the psychological scars, the attempts to get back to where they were before. He seems to see it all as a task, a form of applied pretense.

The chapter ends as the man leaves the apartment next door, and the narrator presses his eye to the peephole in his door to try and see what he can. "I saw the woman; she was not in a bathrobe, instead she wore a tight, dark dress, but her bare arms were white and thick. As she continued to smile at the man, who was now showing me a gray shoulder and the dark brim of the hat on his head, her voice, hesitant, as if pressed into cotton to withstand the tenderness of pain, rose again and again to repeat that nothing could be changed.
"That's how it goes. In the end you just get tired. Isn't that so?"

In the next chapter Gertrudis is home. She is crying, vomiting, taking morphine for the pain... our narrator is thinking of a speculative idea floated by a work colleague, where he is to write a film script. Gradually the characters from this script will take up more of the narrative. The main character is Dr Diaz Grey, a doctor in a grey suit, (see man who was leaving next door at the end of chapter one) who is paid a visit by a young woman he desires and who wants morphine.

Thus are characters refracted and multiplied.

It's not just that characters are born from the detritus of other characters. Onetti emphasizes the instability of the individual character too: "people believe they're condemned to a single life until death. And they are only condemned to a soul, to a manner of being. One can live many times, many more or less long lives." This is very Proustian, the idea that the self we used to be is a very different one from who we are today. It is also, one feels, a useful device for Brausen to escape any sense of responsibility or committment.

He pursues these ideas in a disturbing exploration of Brausen's relationship with Gertrudis' sister, a relationship which seems to have started when she was very young. He tries to capture, in her, the Gertrudis who he fell in love with, a Gertrudis who IS no longer.

It is not just his feelings towards Gertrudis that have changed, but hers towards him. Does not faith in love include a sense of being necessary? But is it that she doesn't need him or that she is letting him go? "If for the great liberation of her death she was substituting the lesser one of not in any sense needing me, it would be possible for me to face my failure without melancholy, to speculate impersonally about how life would have been - not that it matters, I'm going to die anyway - if instead of coming to Buenos Aires with Gertrudis, I had left Montevideo alone, gone north to Brazil, or tried to get a job on a cargo boat when there was still time, when I still had the small faith necessary to do such a thing."

It is as if he lives his life / lives in a constant state of What if?, imagining other possibilities but each with the decay within it that will lead it to fail also. Who can continue to believe in these fictions over the course of a life, even a  brief life? This is one of the questions posed by this book. Are we not all fictions? -  discarding, as we age, our previous fictions. However, they are not easy to discard and will pursue us if we don't destroy them. "The old clothes must be burned, its necessary to destroy them; not for love of fellow man, but because the old suit will drag its new owner along and pursue us. I know of impressive and indisputable examples - vengeful clothes that have crossed continents in order to return their venom. One touch is enough." (This quote reminded me of Paul Auster,'s Travels in The Scriptorium although in Auster's book the character is trying to regain his past, not lose it.)

Brausen is not just losing his relationship, he is also losing his job, an event that hangs over him. He works in an advertising agency, selling cliched lies. He no longer writes the ads; this is now done by his friend Julio Stein, he who has suggested the film script. Julio sees the need/opportunity to make money everywhere. He possesses elements of Brausen's life, writing the ads he once wrote and having had a relationship with Gertrudis in Montevideo. It is as if he passed her on to Brausen.

As well as writing the 'fictional' character Brausen also splits his life yet further by 'becoming' Arce in an increasingly abusive relationship with the woman in the apartment next door. His character arc seems to be heading towards a murder. The woman La Queca (The Queen) has a history of abusive relationships and works as a prostitute, it seems. Of course, this whole interlude may be meant to work as another fictional 'escape' by Brausen, an escape into the id. "But I didn't want to scrub myself, or rid myself of stains, or conceal the dirt with whitewash. I didn't want to deceive myself, I wanted to keep myself vigilant and alert, to nourish Arce with my will and money in allotments of the many peso notes that I had hidden in a small steel box in the basement of a bank, together with the revolver, screws and springs, and bits of glass. I went on knowing I was destined to support Arce in the same way that, after death, my decomposition would feed a plant..." As the story progresses the peso notes are gradually replaced by the "screws and springs, and bits of glass." This imagery seems rich in meaning, the writer moving from advertising to life, the mechanics of storytelling revealed as pieces of scrap.

Another element is that the characters seem emblematic, almost like a personal Tarot deck. This is very apparent when four characters dress up in costumes to mingle with the Carnival crowd.

I could continue to speculate, escaping from one series of speculations into another. I enjoyed this book and although I could see elements of the misogyny which Caroline saw in it I also felt that the character was separated from the author and that one could see the character as misogynistic and the women as projections of his attitudes towards them rather than 'true' representations of their characters.

There is also a playful strain in Onetti's storytelling, nowhere more so than when a character is introduced who Diaz Grey refuses to hear the name of, calling her simply "You." This allows him to appear to address us, the reader, directly and makes us accessories to the fiction.

Near the end the book also moves into the public arena, with an overheard conversation between a group including a small fat man called Junta and a blind man who says "I see." Men in raincoats stand at street corners waiting for someone. Given Onetti's time spent in 1974 in a 'psychiatric institution' for his involvement in printing a short story critical of a junta this seems oddly prophetic. (A Brief Life was published in 1950)

Despite some unpleasant flavors this is a rich and complex meal. You can read more  @ Caravana de Recuerdos. A Brief Life is the first book in a loose trilogy set in the city of Santa Maria, where much of the action of A Brief Life takes place. The second book is The Shipyard, which is on the 1001 Books List so I may try to get my hands on it soon enough.

**it appears (after reading some more) that The Shipyard, although set in the same town, is not part of the trilogy begun by A Brief Life.


  1. Unfortunately the unpleasant flavors turned this into a rather heavy meal for me which I couldn't finish.
    But I thought it had elemenst of interest and beauty and if it had been entirely clear to me that it's Brause being misogynistic and not Onetti, I suppose I would hab ebeen able to finish it.

    1. Hi Caroline - although I can't vouch for Onetti I didn't feel that he looked for sympathy for his characters but presented them as a pretty unpleasant bunch. I thought there was more sordidness than beauty, but much of the world is sordid so I don't consider that a failing.
      However I know that when I start to feel that I'm having opinions I despise pushed down my throat I stop reading also.

  2. One side effect of writing about books is that I have made my peace with the word "interesting."

    1. I tend to be a fan of 'interesting', I don't always want bewitching or fascinating &c. Interesting can involve work. However I realize that the word can be seen as a kind of kiss of death. Glad someone else likes it!

  3. Super happy you found this such "a rich and complex meal," Séamus, esp. after Caroline pushed her plate away so soon. I partic. enjoyed the comment you made connecting Brausen's collected scraps with the mechanics of storytelling, something I missed upon reading this but which seems "obvious" now--thanks! "Junta," by the way, is short for Juntacadáveres (Corpse Collector or Body Snatcher), the main character in two of Onetti's 1960s novels; he obtained the nickname for running whorehouses full of old prostitutes who weren't particularly desirable. Of course, much of what Onetti wrote after A Brief Life also takes place in Santa María, which makes the later novels yet more dream worlds conjured up by Brausen. I love this guy's writing.

    1. Thanks for making the introduction, Richard. I think I'll be returning to Onetti, and Santa Maria again.

  4. I believe that Brausen also made an appearance in Let the Wind Speak, which, too, is set in Santa Maria, at least in part.

    I like your comment about the language which initially seems oddly translated. Like you, I concluded that the translation is faithful and the original is intentionally enigmatic. In fact I see a lot of parallels with the Onetti I read and I would tend to conclude that you have got to grips with his style admirably whereas I will always find him a slippery and evasive character.