Centrifugal stories, many set in an imaginary city, by the Uruguayan master storyteller.
Ranked alongside Borges and García Márquez, though far less well known, Onetti (1909-1994) exercised much influence over the development of magical realism. In this collection of his short works, the first in English, Onetti himself seems influenced by Poe by way of Baudelaire—but then filtered through William Burroughs, or perhaps B. Traven. The inhabitants of his imagined Santa María, a port city much like his native Montevideo, are a strange bunch, many of them German and Italian immigrants who are nowhere at home. One, Baldi, has money in his pocket from a legal settlement and visions of an Academy of Bliss, “a project that would prove magnificent, with a bold glass edifice rising out of a garden city, full of bars, metal colonnades, orchestras playing next to golden beaches, and thousands of pink billboards.” Alas, the streets are grittier than all that, and, seemingly trying to impress a woman with cash and blarney, he spins a tale that involves racist murder and illegal drugs, “spitting his words out like curses.” Many of Onetti’s characters harbor dreams large and small, most of them abandoned along the way, “ground down under the mindless, constant pressure of so many thousands of unavoidable feet.“ Some, unable to stand up to that pressure, end their lives, as with one 50-year-old woman who finds herself “a slave of the blackness she agreed to sink breathing in for the last time.” Others are blithe in their ignorance or lose their grip, “shamelessly exhibiting an ancient and concealed madness.” Onetti’s stories are enigmatic and elegant, seldom extending more than a few pages; some seem to be only sketches for longer pieces, such as a one-pager in which a stranger plants a kiss on the forehead of a dead man, ”leaving between the horizontality of the three wrinkles a small crimson smudge." All are strange—and mesmerizing.
A welcome, overdue collection by a writer well deserving of his place in the Latin American canon.