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More Read About Than Read

June 26, 1994|Roy Berocay (Reuters), translated from Spanish by Enrique Lopetegui

Creator of asphyxiant worlds in which characters moved about the everyday emptiness, Uruguayan author Juan Carlos Onetti, who died at 85 on May 30, was an atypical participant of the Latin American "boom" of the Sixties.

Away from the media attention given to other writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Onetti, born in Montevideo in 1909, for years preferred to avoid public appearances in order to remain in bed with his two inseparable companions--his wife and a bottle.

Onetti, remembered by his generation colleagues as an almost crude being, who, in his youth, used to stroll aimlessly through the city, began generating almost religious followers after his first short story published in 1932 and his first novel, "El Pozo," in 1939.

Journalistic and mostly sparing in his literary descriptions, Onetti utilized a detached language that achieved something critics couldn't stop praising--the creation of an oppressive yet captivating atmosphere that produced a strange mix of fascination and desperation in the reader.

The author of other books such as "El Astillero" and "Juntacadaveres," which transformed him in a sort of living myth, Onetti abandoned Uruguay in 1974, soon after the military took over, changing his residence to Madrid. He refused to return to his birthplace.

In a famous controversy among writers, Onetti himself defined what he considered his essential method of approaching literary creation. "Some are married to literature, but I'm only her lover," he said in one of the rare interviews he gave.

Even before the colorful appearance of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Macondo in the collective Latin American literary imagination, Onetti had founded the imaginary city of Santa Maria, in which he mixed the fogs, panoramic views and low passions of the inhabitants of Montevideo and Buenos Aires.

Honored in 1980 with the Premio Cervantes, the maximum prize given for Hispanic literature, in occasional articles Onetti liked to remember his stint as editor of prestigious Uruguayan weekly Marcha and as a staff writer for the Reuter news agency.

With his slow and complex style, impenetrable for most, the old surly " el viejo hurano ," as he was affectionately called by Uruguayan writers, finally achieved something that ironically seems taken from his own stories--he was much more respected than read.

"Body Snatcher," translated by Alfred M. Adam, is available from Pantheon. "Goodbyes and Stories," translated by Daniel Balderston, is available from the Texas University Press, "Shipyard" and "Juan Carlos Onetti: A Brief Life" are available from Serpent's Tail.

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