Juan Carlos Onetti (oh-NEHT-tee) was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1909, the second of three children. He grew up in a stable, middle-class family, and he remembered his childhood as a happy one. His father, Carlos Onetti, was a customs official, and his mother, Borges de Onetti, was a descendant of wealthy Brazilian landowners. In 1930, he married his cousin, María Amalia Onetti, and left for Buenos Aires, Argentina. His first job in Buenos Aires was that of a salesman for a firm selling calculators. In 1933, he published his first short story, “Avenida de Mayo-Diagonal-Avenida de Mayo” (“May Avenue-Diagonal-May Avenue”) in La Prensa of Buenos Aires. While he was making some headway in his literary career, however, his personal life was not going well. After the breakup of his first marriage, he returned to Montevideo. He remarried; his second wife was María Julia Onetti, the sister of his first wife.
In 1939 he helped to found and became chief editor of Marcha, which went on to become one of the most prestigious cultural weeklies in Latin America. Under the enlightened direction of luminaries such as Emir Rodríguez Monegal, Angel Rama, and Jorge Ruffinelli, its cultural section established Uruguay as a cultural center in the Third World. In December, 1939, Onetti published The Pit. This novella constituted a break with the previous conventions of the genre. It is narrated by a middle-aged man who is disillusioned with life. He lives in squalor and loneliness, separated from his wife, and his isolation is made all the worse by his sense that his country, Uruguay, lacks a cultural tradition able to sustain the individual spiritually. The novel offers a jaundiced view of the fragmentation of life in a modern urban environment; it may well be seen as a projection of Onetti’s own experience of city life. In 1941, Onetti moved back to Buenos Aires (where he was to remain until 1954) and began working for the British news agency Reuters. He subsequently went on to become editor of various periodicals. In 1941, his novel Tierra de nadie (no man’s land) was published by the prestigious publishing house Losada of Buenos Aires. Like his previous work, this novel focuses on the disjointed, and ultimately aimless, lives of people struggling to find some dignity for themselves in a hostile urban environment.
Onetti’s second marriage also broke up, and in 1945, he was married for the third time, this time to Elizabeth María Pekelhering. In 1950, he published his masterpiece, A Brief Life, which won him international fame. Like most of his fiction, it expresses in poignant fashion the spiritual anguish of life in the modern city. The following year, his wife gave birth to a daughter, Isabel María. In 1953, Onetti’s novella Goodbyes appeared; the following year, he returned to Montevideo to live. There, he worked for a publicity firm and later for the periodical Acción. In 1957, largely as a result of his literary success, he was elected director of the municipal library system in Montevideo. In the same year, he became a member of the board of directors of the Comedia Nacional. In 1961, he published The Shipyard, which offers a grim view of life in midcentury Uruguay. The narrator is Larsen, who had appeared in Tierra de nadie; Larsen describes his desperate attempts to breathe new commercial life into a shipyard. Yet there are no ships, no work, and no orders. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the shipyard symbolizes the futility of humanity’s attempt to make sense of life. In 1963, Onetti was awarded the Premio National de Literature, Uruguay’s national literary prize. In the same year, The Shipyard was distinguished by receiving the William Faulkner Foundation Certificate of Merit. His novel Body Snatcher was published in 1964 and three years later was runner-up in competition for the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize, which is given every five years to the best novel written in Spanish. Like The Shipyard, it is set in the imaginary city of Santa María and features the same character, Larsen. It focuses on the plan entertained by a number of the residents to establish a brothel in Santa María; the project eventually ends in failure as a result of the opposition of a number of women. More important than the plot itself is the opportunity it provides for the narrative voice to provide a violently satiric vision of the sordidness of people’s lives. In 1968 a translation of The Shipyard was published in New York and brought Onetti’s work a great deal of international recognition. In 1970 an edition of his complete works was published, although his career as a novelist was by no means over.
In 1974 Onetti was involved in a literary scandal, made all the more painful since he was by then a public figure on the Uruguayan literary scene. Uruguay had been witness to an alarming growth of political radicalization in the late 1960’s and 1970’s; the terrorist organization Tupamaros, named after the sixteenth century Indian leader Tupac Amaru, had been involved in a bitter and ruthless war with the state. In 1973 the military toppled the civilian government, which had by then been discredited, and seized power. Marcha, which had been founded by Onetti many years before and had been a forceful independent cultural voice of Uruguay for more than thirty years, was closed down by the military establishment in 1974. Journal archives were burned, historical research was prohibited, and many of the country’s works of literature, as well as works by contemporary European and U.S. writers, were banned from library bookshelves. These were shocking events, especially in a country that had prided itself on being the “Switzerland of Latin America.”
Onetti, understandably, became embroiled in these events. In 1974 when the military repressiveness was at its height, a literary prize was awarded to a work that was critical of the military regime, and Onetti was unlucky enough to be one of the judges who voted for the award to be made. He was imprisoned as a result; however, because of his poor health and the public and international outcry that followed the decision to imprison him, he was released. In 1975 The Shipyard was awarded Italy’s prize for best foreign work translated into Italian that year. Onetti, who had been under increasing pressure from the military authorities, was refused leave to attend the awards ceremony. At this point Onetti felt that he had no choice but to leave his native country. He resigned his library post and traveled to Europe. He subsequently took up residence in Madrid with his wife, and he remained in self-imposed exile until his death; he eventually became a Spanish citizen. Onetti was awarded the Cervantes Prize, Spain’s most prestigious literary honor, in 1980. He died in Madrid in the spring of 1994.