It’s About The Love

cross posted from The Dream Antilles


Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994)

A continuation of an idea.  Remember my essay that mentioned the Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti?  I thought not.  It’s OK. It was about what happened to various writers when their countries decided that what they wrote was unacceptable.  The piece was an inquiry about whether that kind of police state might be growing in the US.    

Here’s an excerpt:

[Onetti] went on to become one of Latin America’s most distinguished writers, earning Uruguay’s National Prize in literature in 1962. In 1974, he and some of his colleagues were imprisoned by the military dictatorship. Their crime: as members of the jury, they had chosen Nelson Marra’s short story El guardaespaldas (i.e. “The bodyguard”) as the winner of Marcha’s annual literary contest. Due to a series of misunderstandings (and the need to fill some space in the following day’s edition), El guardaespaldas was published in Marcha, although it had been widely agreed among them that they shouldn’t and wouldn’t do so, knowing this would be the perfect excuse for the military to intervene Marcha, considering the subject of the story (the interior monologue of a top-rank military officer who recounts his murders and atrocious behavior, much as it was happening with the functioning regime).

Onetti left his native country (and his much-loved city of Montevideo) after being imprisoned for 6 months in Colonia Etchepare, a mental institution. A long list of world-famous writers-including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Mario Benedetti-signed open letters addressed to the military government of Uruguay, which was unaware of the talented (and completely harmless) writer it had imprisoned and humiliated.

As soon as he was released, Onetti fled to Spain with his wife, violin player Dorotea Mühr.

Join me in Spain.

Apparently, printing the offending story greatly displeased those in power, and the government responded aggressively with summary imprisonment and ultimately with exile.  It could have responded with disappearance, kidnapping, and murder. Until the Marcha story was printed Onetti, evidently, was willing to try to co-exist with a military government, one like the fictional one in Lavanda:

One of the last communiques of the government of Lavanda had forbidden, with plausible whereases and wherefores, anyone to write “eyes the shape of hazelnuts” or “hazel-colored.” Just as it was forbidden to surround, to highlight, a form with an outline in white or black.  Clever painters use cobalt blue or greenish smears that bring diapers to mind.

Confronted with this, Onetti didn’t pack up his typewriter, strap it on his back and cross the border to Brazil, or find solace with other South American ex-pats in the cafes of Barcelona (that’s another, long essay entirely), or seek asylum in Mexico like so many Chilean’s who later confronted Pinochet’s similar, repressive government.  No, his love of place let him, required him to stay.  Despite an unacceptable government.  Despite unacceptable censorship.  Despite unacceptable restraints on his vital freedom of expression.  His staying was a manifestation of love.    

Onetti has frequently been compared with William Faulkner.  Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Onetti’s Santa Maria, a city resembling Montevideo, was alive in his pre-exile stories, and like Faulkner’s, many of Onetti’s characters migrate from one novel to another.  The pharmacist who is instrumental in helping to open a brothel in Santa Maria in one story turns up again in several others.  The doctor who provides an abortion in one novel has nightly soirees in another at his unusual home built on stilts.  The novels and stories merge into a place, Santa Maria.  The reader becomes unsure how s/he knows so much about the character or the place, but recognizes the familiarity, the connections.

When Onetti was driven into exile, his heart broke, and he could no longer return to Montevideo.

Onetti’s first novel after his flight from Uruguay was Let the Wind Speak.  It was written in Spain in 1979.  And it’s a novel of coming of age, nostalgia, recollection, and sadness, set in Lavanda, a city across the river from Santa Maria, a city deeply loved but forbidden to the narrator.  The narrator, by turns a phoney doctor, a painter, a police chief, reminisces, and his stories are imbued with his love for his native Santa Maria.  And the writing, in this narration by the painter, is extraordinarily evocative, even in translation into English:

Frieda and I listened, in the pauses, to music on the radio.  It was, I believe, a German before Bach and the man, his music, were always right.  They told me that the only thing that mattered was to paint.  That it was necessary, even for the hygiene of the soul, to do without women, friends and money, to lose all interest in landscapes and oceans, never to accept, never to take seriously the meaninglessness of a world, of a life that I didn’t make myself, that were forced on me, that are there, outside and inside, implacable each time upon awakening, without anyone’s having had the courtesy to consult me, to ask my opinion, at least, about some petty, and apparently, unimportant detail.

I forgot my answers, my objections almost immediately.  The man playing music on the radio proceeded from one phrase to another, from one tempo to another, invariably being right and saying so in a miraculous way.

 (page 75).

This is all about love, and its negation, its being thwarted.  Here, the love of a city to which entrance is denied.  The love of old friends, who can no longer be seen.  The love of a life that no longer exists.  Memories that cannot be replicated. A tangible feeling of remembered but spoiled love.

I read Let The Wind Speak on a long airplane trip, with many landings and take-offs, from the west coast of the US to the east.  I had lots of time to think about it as I bounced around the August sky.  And I wondered why I and so many others had apparently ceded love of country to the bullies and the loudmouths and the brown shirts and the radio bloviators and the politicians.  Why, for example, did I think that most people proclaiming their love of the US were hypocrites, liars, fakers, and totalitarians of various stripes?  Didn’t I, too, love the country?  Well, yes, but not like them.  Never like them.  Their “love” disgusts me.

So I wondered whether I could find a love of my country that was more like Onetti’s.  I wondered if I could feel how deeply I love it, but at the same time, how all of its many imperfections, its lunatic, criminal government, its appetite for violence and waste and war and greediness and empire repel me.  Could I feel these feelings simultaneously?  I don’t want to skip over these ideas and feelings.  And rush on to politics. No.  What I’d prefer is to see whether I can feel all of these feelings of love and despair and sadness and fear deeply, before doing anything, before planning anything.

For now I just want to feel the love and its many complications.      


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  1. Thanks for reading.  And, of course, thanks for keeping the lights on here while I was traveling sans computer.  

    • Robyn on August 8, 2008 at 00:43

    …I used to say, when asked, that Arkansas was a beautiful place, except for the people who lived there.  I sometimes feel the same way about our country…except I may have come to the point where I can cut some of the people some slack.

    May be time to go out and see if I can spot the quail and sneak a picture before they disappear again.  The quail don’t care that they are American quail.


    • kj on August 8, 2008 at 02:13

    thank you very much for writing this essay about this author and this story, both new to me.

    second:  i used to feel the love, quite overwhelming at times.  that feeling hasn’t made itself known for several years. i don’t think it was any one thing or even a certain combination of things, it just vanished. maybe i realized it was just an illusion- a combination of family memory and a human being’s attachment to specific vistas, a hope that the ‘better angels’ of nature would rise to the top.  whatever it was, it’s gone.  it might come back, but as The Painter said:  “ They told me that the only thing that mattered was to paint. ”  well, not literally.  i’m a lousy painter.  but that’s the gist, for me.

    but i wonder what the quail will say to Robyn.

  2. in the Woody Guthrie ‘this land is my land,.. your land ‘  manner, in the ‘and crown thy hood with brother hood, from sea to shining sea’ way. I don’t confuse my love of country, place, with patriotism or nationalism two odious form of love? to me. To leave because of the ugly turn we as a culture have taken seems to me a hard thing to do.

    It also seems irrelevant as our vitriolic brand of nationalism and capitalism has infected the world via globalism and knows no boarders. No where to run or hide. I feel that if all of the people who see and loath what’s happening leave it only throws the balance further to the dark and feeds our national sickness. I too remain on hold about this, love it or leave it, seems to me a loaded statement and even calls into question the meaning of love.            

  3. . . . of what is so often forgotten (by me), that you can still love a country without loving any of the thugs and criminals who are laboring under the delusion that they “run” it.

    We have no quail here, but the tree in our front yard is alive with bright green hummingbirds today!

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