Sunday 21 December 2014

The Shipyard

The Shipyard - Juan Carlos Onetti
(Translated by Nick Caistor)

"Many people swear they saw him that lunchtime in the dying days of autumn. Some claim he looked like his old self resurrected in the exaggerated way, almost caricatured, that he was trying to recapture the indolence, the irony, the sparse disdain of the postures and expressions he had employed five years before; they recall how keen he was to be noticed and identified, his two fingers ready to rise jerkily to the brim of his hat at the slightest hint of greeting, at any look which remotely suggested surprise at seeing him again. Others on the contrary remember him as indifferent, hostile, resting his elbows on the table, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, parallel to the drenched Artigas Avenue, as he peered into the faces of those coming in for no other reason than to keep a personal tally of loyalties and betrayals, acknowledging either response with the same easy, fleeting smile, the same involuntary twitch of the mouth."

Larsen, the focus of this novel, is banished from the city and his return is brief. On a journey to a nearby town he meets the "idiot girl" of local industrialist Jeremias Petrus and later gets a job managing the shipyard of the book's title. The shipyard is in an advanced and advancing state of decay and Larsen and the two other staff (Galvez and Kunz) who work there are involved in a sort of self-delusion that alone can give any meaning to turning up to plan for the future of a clearly ruinous and derelict facility. They are not paid, although they have contracts and nominal salaries. Ends are made to meet by selling off a load of the rusting equipment in the sheds to scrap merchants once a month. Galvez and Kunz live in the shipyard, Galvez with his pregnant wife in "an enlarged version of a dog kennel", Kunz in a "doorless, abandoned office, with wooden planks for walls."
The world the three men have created has turned it's back on the 'real world' and they live in a self contained world which suggests a theatrical set more than anything else, the set for a play by Beckett or Pinter. There is also a fictional echo of Don Quixote, with Larsen playing a paunchy Sancha Panza and Petrus, gaunt and bearded, tilting at various windmills which will, he seems convinced, return the shipyard to its former glory. He is always on the trail of a deal, although the scent seems cold and dead.

The world outside the shipyard is strange, with the characters resembling ghosts. I have included the quote above as an example of Onetti's narrative style which shifts perspectives and substance, simultaneously drawing the character and erasing him. The narrative voice is reminiscent of hardboiled noir, with the narrator often referring to reports from many people as if they had been interviewed by a detective. But this apparent search for the truth is really a red herring. It is really a novel about faith. In order to give some sort of form to their lives, Larsen, and his two fellow workers Galvez and Kunz run through the motions of work, like atheists going to mass. The shipyard is a rotting cathedral of commerce and Jeremias Petrus a sham deity, or perhaps more akin to the great tempter. Here is Larsen's response to Petrus' spiel fantasising that the shipyard is some kind of going concern, that "We are adrift and listing, but this is not yet a shipwreck."- "Shivering with cold, unable to rouse himself to indignation or astonishment, Larsen found himself nodding agreement during the pauses in Petrus' immortal speech which months or years before Galvez, Kunz and dozens of other wretched men had listened to hopefully, gratefully - all of them now dispersed, disappeared, some of them dead, all of them phantoms - finding in the drawn-out, carefully articulated sentences, the variable and fascinating offer, a corroboration of God's existence, of their good fortune, of justice that was tardy but true."

The clash between Petrus' vision and the actual shipyard couldn't be more jarring: "He glanced at the two rusty cranes, the grey cube of the shipyard building looming up out of the flat landscape, its huge lettering so rotten that it seemed like some hoarse giant reduced to whispering the words JEREMIAS PETRUS LTD." "ancient iron cranes that would surely grind themselves to dust if ever anyone tried to start them up." We know that there will not be a Lazarus moment. Indeed we are given many hints that everything that Larsen undertakes is hopeless, including his attempt to woo Petrus' idiot daughter: "he was given a token of greater humiliations to come, of ultimate failure, a warning light, an invitation to give up that he was unable to interpret."

It is a meeting with the daughter and her maid that is the apparent motivation behind Larsen chasing the job in the shipyard and his aspiration to enter Petrus' house, which again Onetti gives a religious aspect to. "Screwing up one eye to get a better view, Larsen saw the house as the empty shape of heaven he coveted and had been promised; as the gates of a city he longed to enter once and for all, where he could spend the rest of his days enjoying revenge without suffering, sensuality without effort, an unheeded narcissistic power."

There is a very striking description of Petrus' daughter: "She had big buck teeth and whenever she laughed her face shook astonished and watchful at the same time, as though she were ridding herself of her laughter." Laughter here appears as a form of affliction. The maid is the person who Larsen targets first:"He spent long evenings exchanging ambiguous, nostalgic, professional whispers with the maid. She was thirty, had been brought up by Petrus' now deceased wife, and was wasting her life in a game of adoration, fellow-feeling, domination, revenge, in which "the child' and her imbecility were at one and the same time the object, the incentive, and the opponent." Everything that people do in this novel seems doomed to failure, and is entered into in a spirit of spite, or greed: something less than hopeful, or virtuous.

It is also a novel of rampant entropy. The sheds are full of innumerable objects in some kind of arrangement: "the monotonous geometrical shapes of the racks full of heaps of tools that stretched on and on, filthy and uninvolved, up to the ceiling beyond sight, beyond the top step of any conceivable ladder." However, these objects are slowly being sold off and are, on closer inspection rusting and ruinous: "Everything rots in the long run." The energy that keeps the characters motivated dissipates as the novel progresses, and there is a sense that most of it has dissipated before the novel even begins. The buildings to, and the objects within them are losing whatever purpose they had. There does not even seem to be enough left to inspire hatred. "Larsen again gauged the hostility and mockery on the immobile faces of the two waiting men. To challenge and repay hatred might give his life a meaning, a habit, some pleasure; almost anything would be better than this roof with its leaky sheet iron, these dusty, lopsided desks, the heaps of files and folders stacked against the walls, the thorny vines winding themselves round the iron bars of the gaping window, the exasperating, hysterical farce of work, enterprise, and prosperity that the furniture spoke of (though now it was vanquished by use and moths, rushing towards its destiny as firewood); the documents made filthy by rain, sun and footprints, the rolls of blueprints stacked in pyramids all torn and tattered on the walls."

There is often a strange confusion between opposites in the book. Here, when Larsen reappears for the second time, after his initial return he is portrayed as almost heroically passive: "He reappeared in public that Sunday noon, inviting ridicule, doing nothing to defend himself from it.  He stood there, stiff and calm, his bulk straining against the dark, tight fitting overcoat, indifferent, alone, yielding like a statue to everyone's gaze, to the bad weather, to the birds, to the spiteful words they would never dare say to his face." The phrase "yielding like a statue" is particularly striking.

There is a sense that the shipyard is a kind of purgatory, with "an atmosphere of epilogue". Larsen imagines the judgement that his younger self would have passed upon his older self; going through the motions of being general manager: "That poor little fat man, that corpse without a tomb, that busy little ant." Physical feelings have become abstracted: "His hunger was not so much a desire to eat as a sadness at being alone and hungry." There is even a 'hell', a small jerry built bar called El Chamemé which somehow attracts customers from who knows where. "Perhaps it even crossed his mind that El Chamemé forever at midnight on a Saturday, endlessly repeated, without musicians who were mortal and stopped playing at dawn to claim their steak and eggs, was the hell that had been set aside for him from the beginning of time".

It is also true that the shipyard exists in a world that includes other places, and there is even movement between them:  "Larsen".."found himself standing in the wind and the rain, realising to his astonishment, annoyance and irrepressible excitement, that the fact that the shipyard had become a complete, totally isolated and independent world, in no way precluded the existence of this other world, the one he was now immersed in, the one where he had once lived." There is a sense that you could leave the shipyard, although little sense that any of its denizens will escape it.

It is like an exploration of depression, with the moments where the depression lifts only serving to highlight the depths of despair. The very world outside that might save Larsen is presented as just as illusory and untrue. "Then, slowly and cautiously, Larsen began to accept the possibility of combining the illusory management of Petrus Ltd., with other illusions, other kind of lies he had sworn never to hide behind again." The world without illusion is presented as a very bleak place: "Beyond the farce he had accepted as a job, there was nothing but the winter, old age, nowhere to go, the possibility of death."

The only sign of life in the novel is Galvez's wife's pregnancy, although it seems as likely to bring death as new life. Larsen, or is it the narrator, imagines at one point a life with Petrus' daughter, a life with children but this never seems like a possibility. Larsen's relations with women are always overshadowed by his past as a pimp, a past which is seen in his walk, in some glances into his memory, in his "professional" approach to seducing the maid, Petrus' daughter and even Galvez's wife. He wonders which "technique of seduction" to use "to avoid any horror or hysteria", "which long forgotten Maria or Gladys" the daughter "corresponded to". However he finds that "she's crazier than anyone I can remember".  The women are even less agents of their own destiny than the men, with Galvez's wife in particular sunk about as low as you can go, unwashed and poverty stricken, her life choices made by a man who cares little for her and pays less attention.

But in the end my memory of this book will be the atmosphere, the 'sets'. Each chapter is named for the locations where it takes place, heightening the sense of theatricality. The buildings dwarf the characters and it is as if they can only lose their way in their dark spreading shadows: "After a few months, these last scraps of proof that the shipyard existed in the real world, for someone apart from the phantom managers it still sheltered, trailed off altogether. So Kunz gradually lost his faith, swept up in the universal scepticism. The huge derelict building became the abandoned temple of an extinct religion." And when characters leave the shipyard, they don't seem able to survive away from it....

I look forward to reading Onetti's Juntacadáveres (Body Snatcher) soon, having invested in it on the recommendation of Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos and the desire to spend more time in these winding, labyrinthine miasmas of Onetti. It outlines some of Larsen's earlier life.

This reading itself was inspired in part by Richard's 2014 Argentinian (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom.
Here is a link to Richard's post on The Shipyard -


  1. I read this book almost 5 years ago now, Séamus, and so although my memory about it shouldn't be trusted too much, I remember responding to the hazy atmosphere and the crisp writing more than the plot. It sounds like you might have had something of a similar reaction? I also remember the 3rd person narrator incorporating Larsen's story into something approximating local legend, local history or myth--which I now know isn't unusual for Onetti but which struck me as quite unusual at the time. Did you notice anything like that? I prefer the follow-up/prequel by Onetti that you'll read next, but I'd like to revisit this one some day all the same.

    1. Yes, there is this use of the middle distance in the narration all the time, as if the information has been gathered by a researcher, although at times it is more like an omniscient narrator, at time revealing the total unreliability of his knowledge and that what happens is supposition. On a couple of occasions he offers two divergent narratives, undermining any sense of realism.
      The writing too, as you remember, is superb, with many, many more quotes marked for inclusion in this post as I read the book.
      And then there are the Bolaño like appearances of characters shared with his other books. I hope to read "the follow-up/prequel" while this one is still quite fresh in my mind.

  2. This novel sounds very familiar to me, but I can't recall where I might have seen it before. It's not a book I've read, but I can sense the ghostly, melancholy atmosphere from your review. There's something very eerie in what you say about the shipyard, a feeling of alienation and abandonment. This sounds like a deep read, one that will linger in the mind for some time..

    1. Yes Jacqui, the setting is very memorable. There is something of the dark fairy tale about it also, something primal. I had meant to introduce Sleeping beauty after the quote above that mentions the thorny vines around the windows and all the furniture and files turning to firewood and dust. It's as if the spell of sleep was cast on the shipyard but it wasn't preserved and there is no prince to awaken it.

  3. Hey, just stumbled on your blog! I might check this book out, since I am into Latin American Lit and Onetti is considered to be one of the finest writers of the 60s "Boom" period. However, I recall disliking his other novel, A Brief Life, which felt too cruel and not empathetic enough. The Shipyard appears to be different though, and I might like it more.