A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti and Hortense Carpentier

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A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti and Hortense Carpentier

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Paul McNulty
Reviewed by Paul McNulty
Summary: A difficult and sometimes frustrating book, although as one of the first examples of magic realism, it might be of interest to students of Latin American literature.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 300 Date: December 2008
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1852429782

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A scriptwriter, Juan Maria Brausen, sits in vigil over his sick wife, Gertrudis. She is recuperating following a mastectomy and associated surgical complications. He longs for her to be well again, and pines for their lost times together. As he haunts their small Buenos Aires dwelling, he becomes aware of voices from the next apartment. He begins to listen, and despite himself, he becomes caught up in the life of his neighbour and her lover, vicariously constructing contexts for their conversations, imagining their dress and gestures, animating their interrupted staccato utterances as part of a grand narrative with him at the centre. At the same time, his mind wandering further, he constructs an imaginary town called Santa Maria, and a doctor called Diaz-Gray, who lives there, who is, again, an alternate version of himself.

These mental meanderings of the stricken husband constitute the entire narrative of Onetti's extraordinary book. There is very little plot, and the dreamlike merging of the three narratives - Gertrudis' recovery, the neighbour's eavesdropped romances and the adventures of the serious-minded doctor, Diaz Grey - make it difficult to be sure of what's happening at times. This dissociative effect is quite deliberate, as Onetti is describing the trajectory of a man who is slowly losing his mind.

Onetti was a Urugauyan author who moved to Argentina in his early twenties. He was a leading figure in 'Magic Realism', and his style of writing is comparable with that of Marquez or Fuentes, but quite distinct from both. A Brief Life was his second book - the first of a trilogy about the mythical 'Santa Maria' - published in 1950, when Latin American literature was just beginning to be exposed to a wider international audience.

This book is a difficult one, there can be no argument about that.

Onetti's prose is sometimes quite opaque, and there are few markers (particularly in the latter half) as to which of the three narratives Brausen is musing on. I found that my attitude to the narrator's psychological peregrinations depended on my state of mind at the time I was reading. Sometimes I found the linguistic pyrotechnics irritating and distracting, and at others I felt that I had on some level 'got it' and was carried along with the stream of conciousness.

Overall, though, there is a pervasive gloom about Onetti's prose that is really quite enervating. Readers with an interest in Latin American literature would do better to start with Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or even Isabel Allende.

Further reading suggestions: The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa; The Sum of Our Days by Isabel Allende

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Buy A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti and Hortense Carpentier at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti and Hortense Carpentier at Amazon.com.


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