Saturday, December 08, 2012

Brothel, with Orchestra

I borrowed a copy of this brief study of the Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti because I was curious to see what Mario Vargas Llosa would have to say about Los adioses, the peculiar, ambiguous novella that is the only Onetti of any length I've read. As it turns out, he devotes only a few paragraphs to it, and I'm going to put off reading the rest of El viaje a la ficción until I've had a chance to read more Onetti, but in the meantime I did dip into a few sections, including the book's somewhat eccentric twenty-page preface, in which Onetti is not referred to at all until the final sentence.

I also came across a few gossipy literary anecdotes, such as the one in which Onetti, while reading Cortázar's "El perseguidor," reportedly smashed a windowpane with his fist when he read of the death of Johnny Carter's little daughter; and the following, in which Vargas Llosa speaks of his own encounters with the Uruguayan:
Only in San Francisco did I have a chance to chat with him a bit, in the smoky, dark little bars in the vicinity of the hotel. It took some effort to provoke him to talk, but when he did it he said intelligent things, though impregnated with corrosive irony or ferocious sarcasm to be sure. He avoided talking about his books. At the same time, behind his gruffness and lapidary jokes, there appeared something vulnerable, someone who, in spite of his culture and his imagination, was unprepared to face the brutality of a life which he distrusted and feared. One night when we were discussing our working methods, he was scandalized that I worked in a disciplined manner and with a schedule. Working that way, he declared, he would not have written a line. He wrote in gusts and impulses, without forethought, on loose sheets at times, very slowly, word by word, letter by letter — years later Dolly Onetti confirmed that this was exactly the case, and that while he worked he sipped glasses of red wine diluted with water — in periods of great concentration separated by long parentheses of sterility. And then he pronounced that sentence which I would repeat many times afterwards: that the difference between us was that I had a matrimonial relationship with literature and he an adulterous one.
A footnote appends two briefer and possibly apocryphal anecdotes to the above. In one, Vargas Llosa writes that "when my novel The Green House won the Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1966, and [Onetti's] Body Snatcher was a finalist — two novels that centered around whorehouses — Onetti is said to have declared that it was to be expected that I would win, because my brothel had an orchestra and his did not." Onetti is also said to have told an interviewer for a French television program, who seemed fascinated by the fact that the Uruguayan had only one tooth remaining in his mouth, "At one time I had a magnificent set of teeth, but I gave them to Mario Vargas Llosa."

(The translations are mine.)

Update: A passage in one of Cortázar's letters supports the anecdote about "El perseguidor": "Speaking of Montevideo, I had one of the greatest rewards of my life: a letter from Onetti in which he says that 'El perseguidor' had him in a bad way for fifteen days (lo tuvo quince días a mal traer)." (Letter to Francisco Porrúa, August 14, 1961, from the 2000 edition of Cartas, Volume I.)

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