On Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life – La vida breve (1950)

Picture a lazy summer afternoon. The heat is unbearable. You’re in a room with the blinds half down, lying on a bed listening to the voices of complete strangers in the apartment next door. You’re in a languid dreamy mood. Your imagination starts to invent a story based on the snippets of the conversation you hear.  After a while the lives next door seem more real than your own.

Many of the chapters in Juan Carlos Onetti’s famous novel A Brief Life capture this type of mood, describe inertia paired with a vividly active imagination. I liked this, because I like those motionless summer afternoons spend lazily doing nothing else but day-dreaming. I liked the languid and languorous feeling those chapters conveyed. Seeing the narrator Juan María Brausen captivated by his imagination was appealing but the narrator was not. I hated him big time. I rarely if ever use the word “misogynist” but I felt the narrator was exactly that. His wife has just undergone a mastectomy and the way he thinks about her, her pain, her mutilated body, is unfeeling, self-centered and lacking any kind of empathy. It just annoyed me so much that after 150 pages I stopped reading. Because life is indeed very brief, I decided to abandon this novel.

The novel is well written and parts of it had an atmosphere and a mood I liked a lot but it was also confusing at times. It constantly switches from the narrator’s real life to the invented story about a doctor living in the fictional city Santa María. From there it switches to a third narrative strand showing the narrator inventing himself a double life and visiting the woman, a prostitute, who lives next door.

I suppose if the narrator hadn’t annoyed me so much – and not only because he is misogynistic – I would have finished the book as I found the narrative technique interesting.

I was curious to see whether other people had felt the same and googled “Onetti and misogynist”. I’m not sure why I didn’t trust my own impression but I was relieved to see that it was something critics and readers had commented on very often.

Onetti was a Uruguayan writer. He is famous for his novels and his short stories. I’ve read the collection Tan triste como ella a few years back and liked the melancholic tone. Onetti fled to Spain after having spent 6 months incarcerated in a mental hospital by the military government. Onetti was married 4 times (why did that not surprise me?).

I’ve read Onetti’s novel for Spanish Literature Month hosted by Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) and Stu (Winstonsdad’s Blog). It’s part of a readalong. It will be interesting to see what others thought, if they finished it and how they liked it.