In Letters to a Young Novelist, his smart little book on the craft of writing, Mario Vargas Llosa describes A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti as a brilliant example of the Chinese box, a narrative technique using shifts in space, time and reality to create stories within stories.
“From a technical point of view,” says Vargas Llosa, “this magnificent novel, one of the subtlest and most artful ever written in Spanish, revolves entirely around the artifice of the Chinese box, which Onetti manipulates masterfully to create a world of delicate superimposed and intersecting planes, in which the boundary between fiction and reality (between life and dreams or desires) is dissolved.”
High praise from such a well-versed master of narrative form (who used the same technique to create his own delightful intersections in Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter).
Published in 1950 after seven years of labor, Onetti’s breakthrough masterpiece is a dark, complex and compelling urban novel that takes place in Buenos Aires, Montevideo and the fictional town of Santa María. The middle-aged central narrator, Juan María Brausen, is facing the triple psychological shock of his wife’s breast cancer, their failing marriage and the loss of his job at an advertising agency. But that is only the surface reality.
Alone in his apartment while his wife recovers in hospital, Brausen eavesdrops through his bedroom wall on the woman next door, a prostitute named La Queca. Becoming obsessed with what he hears and imagines, he invents a false identity as the thuggish pimp Juan María Arce in order to enter La Queca’s life. It’s never made clear if this action by Brausen as Arce is real or imagined, but it most certainly seems real.
Here he is, sneaking into her apartment one night:
“La Queca’s apartment door was open, the key ring was hanging in the lock, the light from the hallway streamed in and died against the legs of an armchair and the design of a small carpet. I didn’t know what I was doing until it was done.”
Brausen may not know what he’s doing, but Onetti certainly does. He achieves the creepy voyeuristic reality of Brausen’s action by amassing physical detail: “the bathroom door was open and the greenish color of tiles gleamed smooth and liquid”…“there was a crumpled girdle on the floor between the balcony door and the table”…“the big bed, same as mine, placed like an extension of the bed in which Gertrudis [his wife] was sleeping, seemed prepared for night.”
Onetti ups the tension of this watershed moment and further enhances the new reality (and elaborates the novel’s theme) by precisely documenting Brausen’s sensations as he advances into the room: “I began to move across the waxed floor, without noise or anxiety, feeling contact with a small happiness at each slow step. I was calm and excited each time my foot touched the floor, believing that I was moving into a brief life in which there was not enough time to become involved, to repent, or to age.”
Meanwhile, in need of money, Brausen is also developing a screenplay, and as its plot takes form, he enters the mind of his principal character, Díaz Grey, a doctor in Santa María who, enamored of a deceitful married woman named Elena Sala, enables her morphine addiction.
In her critical essay “A Mirror Game: Diffraction of Identity in La vida breve,” Linda S. Maier notes that Onetti’s novel mimics Borges’ description of life as “an eternal and confused tragicomedy in which the roles and masks change, but not the actors.” Indeed, as Brausen explains to Gertrudis, who struggles to comprehend the state of their marriage and her husband’s growing physical and psychological distance: “It’s something else, it’s that 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.”
As Brausen is beginning to recognize, he may be able to live other, invented lives, but his despairing soul is “condemned” to remain the same, and in Onetti’s world there is no comedy to relieve this soul’s tragic trajectory.
In the second part of the book, Brausen the narrator gradually disappears as his alter-egos assume a greater and greater presence in a plot that thickens with lies, murder and suicide; the mirror of invention reflects back a nightmare of psychic oblivion. By the last chapter it is Díaz Grey who is narrating the story.
Born in Montevideo, Onetti was one of the Generation of ’45, a group of writers known for its nihilism that emerged in Uruguay and Argentina during the politically tumultuous 1930s-40s. All of Onetti’s novels contain a bleak existentialism, but the technically complex narrative and noir atmosphere of A Brief Life create a kind of morphine-dream confusion, a disorientation that becomes frightening as Brausen slides into his other lives.
Because of its despairing darkness, it took me six months to finish A Brief Life. Brausen’s world (or is it Onetti’s?) is a loveless, hopeless, violent, sadomasochistic, and misogynistic prison without reprieve. As a reader, I could only live in it briefly. But the book’s brilliant structure and narrative drive, Onetti’s technical mastery and nuanced commentary on the mirrorlike relationship between art and reality, between the artist and his creation, compelled me to stay with it to its troubling end.