I first read the Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti in December 2007, when I spent three weeks in the hospital due to an appendectomy gone wrong. Between doses of antibiotics, I asked my father to bring me a book that had just been published, of Onetti’s complete short stories. Before long, I came to one entitled “Convalescence,” which seemed appropriate given my situation. A woman is recovering from an illness in a hotel by the sea. Onetti doesn’t tell us what the illness is. A man keeps calling her on the phone, making threats, insisting she return to the city. I knew it might not be the best idea to read Onetti while laid up in a hospital bed—he’s not exactly the most upbeat writer. But the feeling that came over me as I turned the pages was one of joy.
Back then, I used to go on diving trips with a couple of friends. I was really into it—getting away from São Paulo and heading down to Ubatuba or some other town on the coast, spending the weekend in the water, going out at night to drink acai juice and chat in a sandwich shop or some beach bar, wondering what the next day’s adventures had in store. As my friends exchanged long emails, hammering out the details for their next so-called expedition, like a pair of Jacques Cousteaus setting sail on those windy, unpredictable mornings in the silvery sunshine of our little patch of lush South American coastline, a nurse was changing the dressings on my right abdomen and adjusting the IV in my arm.
I had had two general anesthesias, an infection, two operations. Throughout my entire recovery, I kept reading Onetti. Rather than revolving around a desire to pick apart and reconstruct meaning, these stories seemed to be aimed at revealing something else. It was as if Onetti were saying to me, It’s impossible to have access to everything, a narrator may actually exist to throw us off, and there’s always something we can’t see.
Soon, I had a favorite: “Esbjerg by the Sea.” The narrator situates the reader right off the bat: a couple, Kirsten and Montes, walks along the docks of Buenos Aires and watches the ships depart. The narrator claims to have heard the story, “without understanding it,” one morning when Montes showed up, humiliated, and confessed to stealing from the narrator. At the narrator’s office, Montes, “a pathetic man, a bad friend, a bastard,” explained that he’d concealed a series of bets, planning to cover them himself, so that he could raise money for Kirsten to travel to her native country, Denmark. But his plan didn’t work, and now he was unable to pay back what he’d lost.
“I think he told me the story,” the narrator says, “or almost all of it, that first day, Monday, when he came to see me, cowering like a dog, his face green, revolting, cold sweat shining on his forehead and down the sides of his nose.” More than just signaling the narrator’s one-sided perspective—“I heard the story, without understanding it”; “I think he told me the story, or almost all of it”—Onetti makes this lack of transparency, and everything the reader can’t see or understand, the secret theme of the story.
Esbjerg is a seaport town in Denmark. In the story, it’s presented as an obscure place. Kirsten is always miserable, but she won’t say why. She fills the house with photographs of her home country, landscapes with cows and mountains. One day, letters start to arrive from Denmark. Montes doesn’t understand a word of them, and Kirsten says that “she’d written to some distant relatives and these were their replies, though the news wasn’t very good.” There’s a sentence, in Danish, that Kirsten keeps repeating, and this is what impacts Montes the most. He doesn’t understand those words (neither does the reader), but something in Kirsten’s voice makes him want to cry. “It must have been, I think, because the sentence he couldn’t understand was the most remote, most foreign, and it came from the part of her he didn’t know,” the narrator speculates.
After Montes’s plan goes awry, Kirsten begins leaving the house constantly, never saying a word. One day, Montes follows her. Kirsten goes to the port, where she stands for hours, stiff, looking out over the water. The story ends with Kirsten and Montes, side by side, watching the ships depart, “each with his or her own hidden and distinctive thoughts”: a feeling that “each is alone, which always turns out to be surprising when we stop to think about it.”
In the end, the couple’s story hangs like a veil of murky water between us and the narrator, someone who ultimately just makes everything more unclear. What sets in is a feeling of being at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by schooling fish, octopuses parading their tentacles in the dark, and Onetti saying, You’ll have to excuse me, but you won’t be able to see much here, even up close it will be impossible to make out much of anything besides the uncertainty of another’s thoughts, and you won’t get any satisfactory answers.
“When moving, use extra care not to disturb the sediment” is one of the commandments of sport diving on shipwrecks. If a diver’s fin grazes any surface of the boat, it will stir up silt, muddying the water. The same goes for cave diving. Visibility can be reduced to almost zero, so you have to use ropes and cables and be prepared to make a blind ascent. In the Coral Sea, off the coast of Australia, it’s the opposite: the waters there are some of the most crystal clear in the world. Sixty meters of visibility, lending an illusion of total control over your surroundings.
What governs visibility underwater is a concept in physics known as opacity, the measure of how penetrable or impenetrable a given medium is to a wave, electromagnetic or otherwise. For example, an opaque medium doesn’t allow light to pass directly through it; it absorbs, refracts, or reflects. Consequently, the intensity of the beam of light is reduced, and it fails to reach the other side. On Ilha das Palmas, an island south of Ubatuba, underwater visibility is about eight meters, and the seabed is rocky. Thanks to ocean currents, the area is frequently visited by a variety of fish: moray eels, parrotfish, starfish, and sand dollars. That was where we used to go, dreaming of the Coral Sea or the Andros Barrier in the Bahamas, where we’d finally be able to see everything.
I encountered this hope for seeing things clearly in the work of the French surrealist Michel Leiris, whom I’d also started reading at that time. Compared with Onetti, Leiris was a much different diving instructor, so to speak. Leiris promised so much more, with the confidence of someone who’d take us to see reef sharks and dolphins swimming in infinite blue waters. Leiris, who was Onetti’s contemporary, said that literary activity’s “only justification is to illuminate certain matters for oneself at the same time as one makes them communicable to others.” In the essay “De la littérature considérée comme une tauromachie” (“Literature Considered as a Bullfight”), a sort of introduction to his confessional autobiography, he wrote that he “intended to elucidate certain still obscure things for which psychoanalysis had attracted my attention when I experienced it as a patient.”
Words like illuminate, communicate, and elucidate gave an idea of how Leiris’s thought interacted with his language (clear, not overdone, ostensibly nonliterary). But while Leiris had wanted to “elucidate,” the interaction between Onetti’s ideas and his language (murky, disjointed, nonlinear) produced an altogether different effect: the search for answers or clarification didn’t exist. The stories I was discovering from my hospital bed seemed to lead the characters (and the reader) into even greater darkness. We could think about our world, a world of shipwrecks and wasted dreams, where visibility, for the most part, was brutally low. And how might we give shape to this world? How much could we really know someone or even ourselves? How might we dive into those murky waters, more saturated with sediment by the day, and communicate this state?
My friends kept exchanging emails, listing dream destinations, equipment, water conditions. It’s important to note that opacity is not absolute—that is, what is opaque for some wave frequencies can be translucent for others. There’s a kind of glass that is transparent to normal light waves (you can see through it) but completely opaque to ultraviolet waves (the ones that burn your skin on a beach in the Bahamas or the Australian Coral Sea). Generally speaking, this has to do with the interaction between the frequency of the medium and the frequency of the wave that’s trying to travel through it. Depending on the degree of syntony between these frequencies, the wave will either pass through or be stopped in its tracks.
One of Leiris’s mantras is to “reject all fable” and “admit as materials only actual facts, and not only probable facts, as in the classical novel.” Leiris wanted to set in motion a kind of realism that was “not feigned, as in most novels,” but made up of “things experienced and presented without the least disguise.” In some way, this felt connected to another world, one that would show itself more and more over the coming years: autofiction, stories where the use of real or biographical events was a value in its own right, an interest in private life, diaries on public display, confessional storytelling, Instagram stories, our painstakingly psychoanalyzed life (the epic of subjectivity), the assumption that there’s a correlation between our perception of the world (“our truths”) and the world itself, the desire to “make clear,” to understand oneself, to see how things “really” are; the belief in the illusion of transparency—when we go to update our Facebook status, the little box prompts us to share, asking, “What’s on your mind?”
While there may be many paths that lead us to transparency (a watering down of Leiris’s confident gesture), Onetti is a kind of Zen master of opacity, a diving instructor who takes us to spots where we can see very little. His own image reinforces this: lying in bed, smoking, scribbling on bits of paper, bedsheets reeking of gin. In Onetti, the entrance to this murky-watered world isn’t through the fantastic or the magical, like some of his Latin American contemporaries. Or at least, not only that. His most unforgettable and sorrowful stories—“A Dream Come True,” “Most Dreaded Hell,” “The Face of Disgrace”—are realist narratives that seem to crush the modern hope of seeing everything. There’s a play between the affirmation and negation of reality—a subterranean current that seems to connect his work to Bolaño’s short stories. This is mainly because in Onetti’s stories, these mechanisms of memory, invention, and partial ignorance are contained within what is being told.
When we read, we’re often looking for things to be made clear. We want that beam of light to reach the other side. We want to see and to understand, both of which give us an unmistakable feeling of comfort and happiness. This is what makes us forge ahead in a novel: the search for a reason, a rationale, a purpose. Life, in general, also works like this. But inevitably, there are things we can’t see. All along the way are blind spots, hazards, twists and turns. Like those mornings and afternoons spent diving—when we were immeasurably happy and then all of a sudden, out of the darkness, came some staggering revelation—everything happens somewhere between opacity and transparency. We can compare and contrast these categories for all practical purposes, but the truth is that one does not exist against the other; unbeknownst to us, they’ve been coexisting the whole time. It may seem paradoxical, but Onetti, despite the blurred timelines of his stories—or perhaps because of them—is a transparent writer. He is transparent in his endeavors to produce opacity. His writing lets us see precisely what we cannot.
—Translated from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry
Emilio Fraia was born in São Paulo in 1982. His English-language debut, Sevastopol, translated by Zoë Perry, was recently published by New Directions in the U.S. and Lolli Editions in the UK. Fraia was named one of Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Writers. In English his fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Grand Journal, and Two Lines 19: Passageways.
Zoë Perry’s translations of contemporary Brazilian literature have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Words without Borders, and The White Review. She is a founding member of the Starling Bureau, a literary translators’ collective, and was selected for a Banff International Literary Translation Centre residency for her translation of Emilio Fraia’s Sevastopol.
All Juan Carlo Onetti quotations from A Dream Come True: The Collected Stories of Juan Carlos Onetti, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver and published by Archipelago Books. Courtesy of the translator and publisher.