The Body Snatchers is arguably the masterwork of Uruguay-born Juan Carlos Onetti (1909–94), a distinction that ranks it above many other great novels. It was written at the margins of the so-called Latin American Boom— a period of intense literary creativity that spread throughout the continent for over a decade—and marks a break with tradition in terms of rejection of social and literary values. The fragmented and elusive narrative implies a split with conventional realism and its underlying assumptions.
Onetti’s narrative is the story of the character Larsen, who is called to set up a brothel. He has been associated on and off with the world of prostitution, and his nickname Juntacadáveres (body snatcher) derives from this association. Barthé, the town councillor in Santa María, wishes to start the brothel as a legal institution. He has called on Larsen several times in the past to set up the brothel, but each time his plans have been frustrated by opposition within the town. When he finally has the permission, Barthé asks Díaz Grey to trace Larsen and to invite him to try again. When Díaz Grey finds him, he discovers that Larsen has long since given up his interest in the brothel and has taken a regular job with the local newspaper. Díaz Grey puts the offer to Larsen, who is at first sceptical. However, he finally accepts the job and finds three girls to work in the brothel. The entry of Larsen and the prostitutes in Santa María is not accepted by the populace, who finally expel Larsen and the girls from the town.
Jorge Malabia is an adolescent who is at the train station when Larsen and the prostitutes arrive. He accepts the brothel, although he is not one of the first to go there because he is involved in a relationship with his sister-in-law, Julita. At first Julita treats him as a substitute for her dead husband, Federico, but little by little Jorge manages to establish his own identity. Curiously enough, when Jorge and Julita initiate a sexual relationship, he seems able to go to the brothel.
Since Federico’s death, Julita has been living in a hermetic world of her own as she tries to maintain the sense of fulfillment she had experienced with him. This rejection of the outer world is associated with madness. Her only contact is Jorge, and as she gradually accepts him as an individual person, his contact with Federico vanishes, and a closer relation with the reality of the world is established.
Jorge, meanwhile, is preoccupied with his relationship with the others since he is an outcast, despite their attempts to make him fit into their own moulds. His parents, who want him to take over the family newspaper when he grows up, try to prevent his going to the brothel. Jorge’s independence is signalled by his visit there, which coincides with the official order for its closure. He associates with Larsen and the three prostitutes and goes to the station with them. He is about to get on the train when Padre Bergner prevents him from doing so by telling him that Julita has committed suicide. Though he returns to her wake, he still feels apart from everyone there.
The Body Snatchers is a novel in which heterogeneity is overly present. It derives from the number of central characters, whose links are mostly circumstantial. There are certain metonymic links between them, however. They all live in Santa María at the same time, and they all react to the arrival of the brothel. But there is no unifying theme that binds them together. Larsen, whose nickname gives title to the novel, is not the central character, since Jorge and Díaz Grey are as important or even more so than he is. There is hardly a sense of characters changing in response to a situation; rather, they respond by reflecting inwardly and not by acting outwardly.
The heterogeneity is further emphasized by the lack of a global, linear narrative. There are very few consecutive chapters, and Onetti frequently switches between events and interjects flashbacks that relate past events. However, despite the heterogeneity, there is a certain consistency in the novel that derives from the individual narratives. The five main characters appear and reappear and constitute a focus of attention.
Some critics have argued that the sense of the break with tradition is a core concern of the novel, as seen in the multiplicity of main characters. This break is also brought out by sexuality and desire. In The Body Snatchers, the social nucleus is not the family but the brothel, which is presented as an outside threat to the order of the local community. Moreover, both Larsen and Jorge are essentially inverted representations of the hero of the 19th-century novel. Larsen, for instance, who had always dreamed of having a brothel, is doomed to failure from the very beginning, which makes the temporal accomplishment of his dream ironic. In all cases, the inversion of the ideal indicates a break with the assumptions of order and established values that underlie the realist tradition.
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