by Juan Carlos Onetti
Onetti's book talk--I hesitate to call it criticism--almost always strikes me as hurried but loaded with insight with the caveat that "loaded with insight" sometimes means accompanied by the perfect anecdote. Here's a good example of one such piece I've been wanting to share for a while. "Felisberto Hernández fue uno de los más importantes escritores de su país" ["Felisberto Hernández was one of the most important writers in his country"], he begins. "Muy poco conocido en España --según estoy comprobando--. Esto no debe preocupar, cuanto la ignorancia de su obra es también comprobable en el Uruguay" ["Hardly known in Spain--as I'm finding out. This needn't concern us insofar as the ignorance of his work is also ascertainable in Uruguay"]. After this set-up, Onetti suggests that "factores políticos" ["political factors"] might have had something to do with his fellow Uruguayan's lack of celebrity because "Felisberto --siempre se le llamó así-- era conservador, hombre de extrema derecha" ["Felisberto--as he was always called--was a conservative, a man of the far right"] taken to arguing out loud about politics in gatherings during World War II and its aftermath. Although Onetti is quick to make clear that it's Felisberto the writer rather than "Felisberto político" ["political Felisberto"] who interests us here, he adds that an anecdote or two which will help us to understand Felisberto better or to reassess him are on the other hand fair game. Unsurprisingly, this is where things start to get good. Onetti reveals that he first met Felisberto early on at a time when his countryman was so lacking in confidence about the "pequeños libros" ["little books"] that he'd published that he told Onetti he couldn't even think up new themes to pursue. "En aquellos tiempos" ["In those days"], Onetti explains, "Felisberto se ganaba la vida golpeando pianos en ciudades o pueblos del interior de la república, acompañando a un recitador de poemas. Es fácil imaginar sus públicos" ["Felisberto earned a living thumping pianos in the cities and small towns of Uruguay's interior, accompanying a reciter of poems. It's easy to imagine their audiences"]. Given the musical subject matter of so much of Felisberto's output, Onetti then makes the rather startling claim that he suggested that Felisberto's piano tours through Uruguay's backwaters might make a good source of material, something which the piano man thanked him for but seemed undecided about, as if he weren't sure that Onetti wasn't putting him on or blowing him off. Fast forwarding a bit, Onetti then recalls his first encounter with Felisberto the writer when, due to a friendship with one of the author's family members, he was able to get his hands on one of Felisberto's hard to find earliest books, 1931's La envenenada: "Digo libro generosamente: había sido impreso en alguno de los agujeros donde Felisberto pulsaba pianos que ya venían desafinados desde su origen. El papel era el que se usa para la venta de fideos; la impresión, tipográfica, estaba lista para ganar cualquier curso de fe de erratas; el cosido había sido hecho con recortes de alambrado. Pero el libro, apenas un cuento, me deslumbró" ["I say book generously: it had been printed in one of the holes where Felisberto played pianos that were permanently out of tune. The paper was the kind that was used to sell pasta in; the printing was fit to win a typo contest; the binding had been stitched with pieces of wire. But the book, barely a short story, amazed me"]. Why? "Porque el autor no se parecía a nadie que yo conociera... Y era díficil --e inútil-- encontrar allí lo que llamamos literatura, estilo o técnica" ["Because the author didn't seem like anyone else I knew... And it was difficult--and useless--to find what we'd call literature, style or technique there"]. In much of what follows, Onetti traces his subject's later trajectory in pursuit of the idea that "Felisberto, sabiéndolo o no, perseguía el malentendido llamado fama" ["Felisberto, knowingly or not, was pursuing the misunderstanding called fame"]. Contrasting the quality of 1942's Por los tiempos de Clemente Calling [Around the Time of Clemente Calling] with 1960's La casa inundada [The Flooded House], Onetti casts the latter as a stylistically inferior example of the author's deliberate attempt to "conservar la pureza, la sinceridad de sus primeros libros" ["preserve the purity, the sincerity of his first books"] given the so-called "naïfismo" ["naiveté-ism"] for which he'd become known among a small but vocal circle of friends and admirers. Onetti ends his appreciation with an unhurried and unexpectedy corrosive critical double whammy first saying that his personal admiration for Felisberto's work on balance still remains strong "pese a los avatares mencionados" ["in spite of the ups and downs mentioned"] and then attributing a couple of mischievous references to Felisberto's late life morbid obesity and string of broken marriages as a "homenaje al malhumor de Sainte-Beuve, que estropeaba cada lunes el apetito de los Goncourt y sostenía que era imposible hacer buena crítica sin conocer la vida íntima de cada víctima" ["homage to the ill humor of Sainte-Beuve, who ruined the Goncourt brothers' appetites each Monday and maintained that it was impossible to give a good review without knowing the private life of each victim"]. Ouch!
Felisberto Hernández (1902-1964, top) & Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994, here pictured in Madrid in 1975 in a photo by Dolly Onetti, bottom)
"Felisberto, el 'naïf'" can be found on pp. 532-535 of Onetti's Obras Completas III. Cuentos, artículos y miscelánea (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2009).