Analysis of Juan Carlos Onetti’s A Brief Life

A Brief Life is the first major novel by Juan Carlos Onetti (1909–94), although the work is fourth in chronological order when placed with his related novels. It marks a watershed in the Uruguay-born Onetti’s career as well as in Latin American novels. Onetti seemed well aware that the previous path of nativism was no longer acceptable and that the Latin American novel had to follow the path of modernization. A Brief Life, among other things, must be regarded as a central contribution to the coming of birth of a new novelistic pattern.

A Brief Life’s main character is Juan María Brausen. The setting is Buenos Aires, where Brausen witnesses the arrival of the prostitute La Queca in the flat next to his, as well as the removal of his wife Gertrudis’s left breast. This prompts a series of reflections about his life and his marriage. Gertrudis’s operation and subsequent problems emphasize the split between the couple, and she eventually returns permanently to her mother in Temperley. As a consequence, Brausen begins a new relationship with La Queca and evolves a new identity, that of Arce. He then begins to imagine and write the story of Doctor Díaz Grey in Santa María. These two narratives interweave and run parallel throughout the rest of the novel.


When he loses his job, Brausen devotes himself to both projects. He visits Montevideo with La Queca and sees Gertrudis’s sister, with whom he becomes involved, though he abandons her in the end. In this trip his identity as Arce develops and grows stronger. When they return to Buenos Aires, Brausen plans to murder La Queca in order to avoid the routine of their relationship. Meanwhile, the story of Díaz Grey has been developing from an initial scene to an adulterous relationship with the fictional Elena Sala. During Díaz Grey’s search for Elena, he meets the young Annie Glaeson. Meanwhile Brausen has met Ernesto, one of La Queca’s former lovers, and kills La Queca. Brausen and Ernesto flee to Santa María and are discovered by the police. In the final chapter, narrated by Díaz Grey himself, there is a confrontation with the police, but Díaz Grey and Annie seem to walk away unhindered.

As in most of his novels and short stories, Onetti shows that failure is an overwhelming pattern in A Brief Life. As some critics have argued, the novel deals with the issues of the uncertainty of the real and the process of degradation of the universe, which eventually means a lack of hope and of trust in humankind. Onetti is not concerned with the condition of Latin Americans. That is the reason why he does not involve himself in the dialectics of nativism versus civilization. His objective is the disillusioned analysis of universal humankind rooted in concrete characters and settings.

Central to Onetti’s literary aim is the writing of a novel that goes beyond concrete realism. His are not fantastic novels, nor are his works realistic in a strict sense of the term. Onetti shared with the esteemed short story writer Jorge Luis Borges a concern for discrediting concrete reality and creating a vision that may oppose it. This is what may be clearly seen in A Brief Life. Naturally, to achieve his purpose the author had to reject traditional ways of storytelling and had to learn new narrative devices from authors other than Uruguayan (or Spanish-speaking) writers. The main narrative device present in the novel, as well as in the majority of the novels of his mature period, is the story filtered through various subjective narrators, which accounts for the ultimate subjectivity and unreality of the story. Onetti’s other devices are the lack of a strict chronological sequence in the telling; an ultimate uncertainty about human personality, motive, or even events themselves; and the use of irony, ambivalence, paradox, and oxymoron. He acquired his narrative devices from the British and American modernists, namely Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner.

There is a more complex pattern of the narrative voice in A Brief Life than in the previous long narratives. Brausen is the main narrator of his own story, though when recalling past moments, the older Brausen acts as the primary storyteller. Díaz Grey’s narrative is subordinated to Brausen’s and is narrated mostly by Brausen, although at the end of the novel (part II, chapter XVII), Díaz Grey loses his subordinate status as a narrator and narrates the story himself while serving as a character as well.

Brausen’s role as a narrator helps create the novel’s fictional world. It introduces conjecture and speculative assertion in the world, while Brausen reacts against the world around him. Brausen’s analysis of his own behavior and that of others does not lead to a psychological novel. In fact, Onetti’s attempt is to move away from the psychological novel as practiced in the 19th century and establish a new sort of literary realism that may confront traditional realism and contemporary society. That is the final reason for the catalogue of misdemeanors that compound A Brief Life.

A Brief Life seems to be the resolution of the first novels in the chronology of Onetti’s novels. If each protagonist in the previous novels struggles against dilemmas and problems, eventually Brausen has produced a resolution, and this may make the novel the culmination of Onetti’s early writing.

Analysis of Juan Carlos Onetti’s The Body Snatchers

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Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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