Juan Carlos Onetti - World Literature

World Literature

Juan Carlos Onetti


BORN: 1909, Montevideo, Uruguay

DIED: 1994, Madrid, Spain

NATIONALITY:      Uruguayan, Spanish


The Pit (1930)

A Brief Life (1950)

The Shipyard (1961)



Juan Carlos Onetti. Onetti, Juan Carlos, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.



Juan Carlos Onetti is an Uruguayan novelist and short- story writer whose works were available only in limited editions and were read by only a few of his compatriots for many years. When South American writers gained international recognition during the Latin American Boom of the 1960s, Onetti was recognized as an important voice in the development of modern Latin American literature. Along with such contemporaries as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Onetti contributed to the genre of magic realism with his use of innovative points of view, fantastic events, and existentialist themes.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

From Dropout to Literary Star. Juan Carlos Onetti was born on July 1, 1909, in Montevideo, Uruguay. Because his father, a customs worker, moved the family often, Onetti received a sporadic education and eventually dropped out of high school. Although he spent much of his spare time reading, he made his living by working a series of odd jobs—waiter, doorman, and grain inspector, among others—before moving to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he began writing for periodicals and the Reuters news agency in both Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Around this time, he also began writing fiction.

Concerned about government corruption and cultural materialism, Onetti openly supported progressive reforms and, returning to Montevideo, founded the influential journal Marcha in 1939 with a group of other intellectuals. After working as a manager at an advertising firm in Montevideo, he took a position as the director of municipal libraries in 1957, simultaneously publishing fiction expressing his social and political concerns. As his fame as an author grew, Onetti was awarded a number of literary prizes, including the Iberian-American Award from the William Faulkner Foundation in 1963.

Exile Onetti lived during politically unstable times in his native country. Economic hardship throughout the mid-twentieth century led to a militant group known as the Tupamaros opposing the government. This group rose to prominence when President Jorge Pacheco Areco declared a state of emergency in Uruguay in 1968, which led to an erosion of individual rights. The situation became progressively worse for Uruguayan citizens, especially after a military coup in 1973 led to an outright dictatorship instead of a democratically elected government. The regime became infamous for its use of torture and its high rate of political imprisonment.

Despite his activist ideas, Onetti avoided problems with the government until 1974, when he served as a judge for a literary contest. The judges awarded a prize to a short story that the Uruguayan government considered pornographic and subversive, and Onetti was briefly jailed before being exiled to Madrid, where he began publishing internationally acclaimed works. In 1975, he became a Spanish citizen and, in 1980, won the Cervantes Prize, which is widely considered the most prestigious award for literature in the Spanish language. Even though Uruguay had become a democracy by the time he received the National Literary Award in 1985, Onetti refused to return to his homeland, prompting the president of Uruguay to travel to Spain to present the award. Onetti died in Spain on May 30, 1994.


Works in Literary Context

Scholars have often cited the influence of American writer William Faulkner on Onetti’s work. Indeed, Onetti’s imaginary setting of Santa Marla, a coastal town appearing in several of his books, was inspired by Faulkner’s invented Yoknapatawpha County. Even Onetti’s characters have been compared with those of Faulkner, for both authors create ‘‘desperate characters without dreams but who are not lacking in humanity,’’ says Jorge Campos in an essay in Onetti and Others: Comparative Essays on a Major Figure in Latin American Literature. Additional sources of inspiration for Onetti include French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine for his powerful use of language and Jorge Luis Borges for fiction that blends the fantastic with everyday life.

Alternate Realities. In addition to social and political concerns, Onetti explores such existentialist themes as alienation, isolation, and the creation of one’s own reality through fiction. Many of his novels contain characters who seek to create satisfying lives for themselves through writing, thereby escaping into their own imaginations. In The Pit, for example, Eladio Linacero attempts to gain satisfaction by giving meaning and order to his life through writing his memoirs; however, these recollections prove to be nothing more than stories of the fantasy life he wishes he had lived.

With the publication of A Brief Life, another novel in which a character escapes into his imagination, Onetti introduced the fictional town of Santa Marla, which would appear in several subsequent works. In A Brief Life, Juan Brausen, faced with financial troubles and an unhappy marriage, escapes into his conception of an ideal world, complete with two alter egos, Dr. Diaz Grey and Arce. The adventures of Brausen’s fictional characters intermingle with his own everyday experiences in the real world until Dr. Grey and Arce finally break away from the control of their creator. Because the narration switches back and forth among characters, readers must decide if the narrators are telling the truth, as their stories are entirely based on subjective observations. Thus, the meaning of the story varies according to the characters’ accounts of events, as well as the readers’ interpretation of the stories and their trust in the characters’ narrative reliability.

Impact of the Boom. As a writer during the Latin American Boom, Onetti helped change the way the world viewed Latin American culture. The boom writers achieved commercial success when their works were translated, opening them up to a much larger audience, and the major authors of this movement continued to produce best sellers for decades. The most enduring impact of the boom, however, is seen in the works of not only Latin American writers such as Isabel Allende, but also writers from around the world who credit Onetti, Garcia Marquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa as their inspiration.



Onetti's famous contemporaries include:

Saul Bellow (1915-2005): Author whose novels deal with man's isolation, spiritual alienation, and potential for awakening.

J. D. Salinger (1919-): Author of The Catcher in the Rye, a novel about sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield's experiences in New York after being expelled from an elite private school; this book is renowned for the frankness of its first-person narration.

Arthur Miller (1915-2005): This American dramatist wrote many celebrated plays, including The Crucible and Death of a Salesman.

Richard Nixon (1913-1994): Nixon, the thirty-seventh president of the United States (1969-1974), improved U.S. relations with the USSR and China. However, the Watergate scandal ultimately led to his resignation in disgrace.

Walt Disney (1901-1966): Film producer, director, screenwriter, and animator, Disney was one of the most innovative and influential figures in the world of twentieth-century entertainment.



Recurrent themes in Onetti's novels center around man's alienation and isolation, themes born from existentialism. What distinguishes Onetti from traditional existentialists, however, is that his characters attempt to create their own realities through literary production, a technique many writers have used in their own works. Listed below are examples of other works whose main characters escape reality through writing:

The Glass Menagerie (1944), a play by Tennessee Williams. In this play, Tom is unable to live in reality. He retreats into his own world of writing poetry, while other characters have their own methods to escape from the real world.

Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence (1991), fiction by Nick Bantock. After the exchange of postcards and letters with Sabine, a fellow artist from a fictional group of South Pacific islands, Griffin concludes that Sabine is a figment of his imagination that he created out of loneliness.

A Fast and Brutal Wing (2004), a novel by Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson. The fantasy world of two troubled siblings is revealed through Emmet's journal entries written in a psych ward and Niki's short story about animal transformation, both of which expose conflicting details about the disappearance of a famous local writer.


Works in Critical Context

After many years of being ignored by scholars, Onetti’s work began to receive critical attention in the 1960s during the Latin American Boom. Nevertheless, he did not receive widespread notice until he moved to Madrid and his works were translated for an international audience. The recipient of many literary awards and honors, Onetti is considered to be an important voice in Latin American fiction.

The Pit. The first of Onetti’s works to be approached critically was 1939’s The Pit, which, according to M. Ian Adams, ‘‘marked a new stage in Uruguayan literature.’’ In regard to the cultural context of The Pit, scholar Angel Rama comments, ‘‘From 1938 to 1940 a fracture occurs in Uruguayan culture that opens, through the course of a new interpretation of ethical and artistic values, a creative period that, after intense struggle, will control the intellectual life of the country. This fracture coincides with the rise of a generation of writers who vary between twenty and thirty years of age, who in part provoke it, and whose action is projected on the particularly disordered background of national and international life of those years.’’ Because Onetti used such modernist techniques as stream-of-consciousness narration and inner experience—including memories, dreams, and fantasies—The Pit is recognized by most scholars as a work of fiction that introduced a new narrative method in Latin American literature.

Difficult Meaning and a Tense Universe. In 1983 Jack Murray noted that many Onetti critics, including Ivonne Bordelois, suggested that Onetti forced his readers to untangle the meaning of his stories; in other words, his work was not simple or direct in its delivery. Instead, Onetti often relied on symbols to get his ideas across, kept information from his readers, and purposely constructed the text in a piecemeal fashion. Yet, Murray ultimately concluded that Onetti ‘‘succeeded’’ with this style, even providing a ‘‘unified and coherent picture’’ through the fragmented construction. In 1994, following Onetti’s death, Fernando Ainsa referenced the fragmentation of Onetti’s fictional worlds and characters. He wrote that Onetti ‘‘establishes a formal, tense universe, a world closed existentially on itself, rigorous in style and without concessions yet saved by the act of writing placed at the disposal of its antiheroes. Disoriented beings (when not frustrated), uprooted nonconformists, outsiders, and marginal figures face the difficulty of communicating with others and feel that authenticity is repressed by society.’’ David Butler, in 2005, echoed Ainsa’s ideas and focused an entire study on how ‘‘the body is foregrounded, fragmented, and estranged’’ in Onetti’s novels.


Responses to Literature

1. Onetti served on a panel of judges that awarded a literature prize to writer Nelson Marra, whose short story was declared pornographic and offensive by the Uruguayan military dictatorship. Write an informal essay addressing the following situation: If you had been a judge with Onetti, would you have chosen Marra’s story to win the contest, even if you knew the government would object? How might the panel of judges have avoided conflict while still honoring Marra?

2. Research the Latin American Boom in literature during the 1960s. Create a poster or computer presentation that includes major writers and characteristics of the movement, along with details about what initiated the boom and how it affected literature worldwide.

3. Based on textual evidence, create a map of Santa Maria, Onetti’s imaginary coastal town. Use the computer program of your choice or draw the map by hand. On the back of your map, write a short advertisement inviting tourists to visit Santa Maria, highlighting specific areas of interest and why they are important.

4. Many of Onetti’s characters are afflicted by despair and alienation and yearn for meaning in their lives. In The Shipyard, for example, Larsen undertakes the restoration of a decrepit shipyard, which gives him the illusion that his life has dignity. With a group of your classmates, discuss the following: What do you feel gives a person’s life dignity? What makes an individual’s existence complete? Do you think people should ever reach a point of satisfaction?




Adams, M. Ian. Three Authors of Alienation: Bombal, Onetti, Carpentier. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975.

Harss, Luis, and Barbara Dohmann. Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers. New York: Harper, 1967.

Kadir, Dejal. Juan Carlos Onetti. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

Rama, Angel. ‘‘Origen de un novelistay de una generacion literaria. In Onetti’s El Pozo. Translated by M. Ian Adams. Montevideo, Uruguay: Arca, 1965.

San Roman, Gustavo, ed. Onetti and Others: Comparative Essays on a Major Figure in Latin American Literature Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.


Prego, Omar. ‘‘William Faulkner and Juan Carlos Onetti: Revisiting Some Critical Approaches About a Literary Affinity.’’ Faulkner Journal 11, nos. 1-2 (Spring 1996): 360-71.

Shaw, Donald L. ‘‘Which Was the First Novel of the Boom?’’ Modern Language Review 89, no. 2 (April 1994): 360-71.