With endorsements from Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and his friend Julio Cortázar (who called him “the greatest Latin American novelist”), Uruguay-born Juan Carlos Onetti is an easy sell, especially for fans of the magical realism that he influenced. But the prolific author has long been in the shadows of his more famous peers, and a new collection of his complete short fiction, A Dream Come True, may inadvertently explain why. With prose that in translation is wandering and aimless, the work does have something in common with dream narratives: unfortunately, it’s the frustration, and the recurring sense that after all that agitated mental activity, you really haven’t gotten anywhere at all.

The prolific author spent much of his life in Buenos Aires, where he began writing in the ‘30s. He was exiled to Spain in the ‘70s during Argentina’s military dictatorship, which barely seeps into his stories of that era. Onetti set his creations loose in the fictional city of Santa Maria, and certain characters recur over the more than five decades of prose collected here. But, much to their detriment, the most common trait among Onetti’s people is a swirling and often soporific inner dialogue.

That inner dialogue is a large part of what keeps these stories, which in summary may seem promising, from gathering any kind of narrative momentum. In a brief introduction, translator Katherine Silver quotes Onetti: “A poet is someone who writes things—not necessarily in verse—that arouse in me mysterious sensations.” These stories aren’t without mystery, but they’re so shaggy—the fault of the source more than the translator, one presumes—that they rarely take hold.

Sometimes the author will wander in his typical fog before a vulgar outburst will breathe some all-too-absent life into these pages. The 1944 story “Welcome, Bob” is an effective middle ground, 10 pages of rumination that builds a kind of psychological tension. But for the most part, Onetti hems and haws as the reader snoozes. Take this excerpt from the 1970 story “Matias the Telegraph Operator”: “For me, as you know, the bare facts don’t matter at all. What matters is what they contain or carry, and then to discover what lies beyond that, and then beyond that, till we get to the deepest depths, which we will never reach.” It’s an inelegant, repetitive and frankly sleepy prose that, while it may superficially suggest a mystery, gets lost in redundancy (“contain or carry”) and banality (“deepest depths”).

Nobody expects a dream-weaver to write with the brutal precision of a Donald Westlake, but Onetti is no Proust, either; the fabled French recluse could go on for 40 pages about turning over in bed and make you all too happy to follow (in translation) his ornate mind. Onetti, on the other hand, all too often reads like somebody who might start talking to you on a long bus ride (in pre-quarantined times) and tell you long stories with shambling digressions that make you wish he‘d just cut to the chase already.

Curiously, this meandering story is followed by one of the strongest in the book. From the first sentence of “The Twins,” you can immediately sense something different: “The twins were born half an hour apart, and always argued in their slum dialect about who was older, who younger. I had chosen one, the skinniest, the least merciful. I don’t even remember her name.” Isn’t that intriguing? There’s your mystery, in digestible chunks, with the right amount of detail and ambiguity to both compel the reader and keep them in the dark with just the right kind of bait. This isn’t one of those Onetti stories that make you wish he’d get to the point; here, you have questions for him: What was that slum dialect like? Why was she unmerciful? What happened to them?

That spark is all too rare in A Dream Come True, and rarely lasts even for the length of a story. Over 560 pages, the dream becomes, if not a nightmare, something you’d just as well wake up from.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Remain in Love: by Chris Frantz

It may not be the drummer’s best work, but as a document of his life and enduring love for…