Despite his literary reputation in South America, only one of Onetti's novels, The Shipyard, has appeared in English and that one is out of print. Onetti is Uruguayan, but after his recent release from imprisonment due to his involvement with a literary cause celebre, he has gone into exile abroad. He is not, however, an actively political novelist. One of the characters of A Brief Life, for instance, makes a mockery of longhairs who take the easy way out by pinning the failure of faith in the modern age on the capitalist structure. Onetti is a much more disturbing writer than that because he does not assign guilt or even identify the source for our despair. It simply pervades everywhere and suffering is the very fabric of existence for his hero Juan Maria Brausen. A small but irreversible act of fate sets the events of his story in motion--his wife's nightmare mastectomy. Brausen's marriage is destroyed by the trauma while in another one of those common happenstances, he's fired from his publicity job. Thus begins a conscious quest for meaning and for identity which takes the form of three alternating narratives: Brausen's experiences and dialogue with his wife, his ugly affair under an alias with the stupid whore next door, and a self-generating screenplay about a doctor's passion for an addict-patient. All--and yet none--are the true Brausen. The novel is both talky and fragmented because this really is, as the whore reiterates at every turn, a ""crazy world"" which Onetti is meeting head-on, on its own nonredemptive terms. A Brief Life was published in Spanish 25 years ago, at the postwar time when the dark emptiness was just descending. But its central problem--that of the terrible brevity of what is at best futile and the equally terrible imminence of death--is not about to go out of fashion. This is a powerful philosophical novel by a writer of stature and one not to be missed.