THE SHIPYARD BY JUAN CARLOS ONETTI

For sale: babies shoes, never worn.

The above is described as a six-word novel, and is often said to have been written by Ernest Hemingway, although I have also seen it attributed to F Scott Fitzgerald. Regardless of the identity of the author, it’s an clever little thing. It is designed to make one ask questions, such as Why were the shoes never worn? Why are they for sale? and so on. One is meant to read the novel and speculate; one is meant to be intrigued.

When I came to review The Shipyard by the Uruguayan author Juan Carlos Onetti I set down the following as the beginning of a brief synopsis:

A former pimp, Larsen, returns after an unexplained exile to a fictional South American town.

And I looked at that and felt as though those words contained something like the ‘babies shoes’ sense of mystery. Why a former pimp? Why had he been exiled? Why is he returning now? That such few words could raise so many interesting questions, could excite me even though I’ve already read the book, goes, I hope, some way to highlighting the power of Onetti’s short novel.

Larsen makes his entrance into Santa Maria ‘just after the rain had stopped, maybe heavier than before, more squat, apparently tamed, no different from anyone else.’ He is, one could say, a normal man, a man, as Onetti has it, who is no different from anyone else; and yet what happens to him, and more specifically, his own behaviour, is not normal at all. The real clue to the novel is in that word tamed. It’s a sad word, in my opinion. To be tamed one must, of course, have once been untamed; it is, then, a word that signals defeat, or submission, at least. It is this sense of being tamed or defeated that motivates Larsen to do the strange, possibly insane things that he does. What does he do? Well, he starts to pursue a local woman, Angelica Ines, almost for the sake of it, but, more importantly, he takes a job at a local shipyard. This shipyard, however, has been out of business for some time. Bizarrely, no one wants to acknowledge this fact, including the owner and his co-workers, and so Larsen continues to go to work; he makes plans for the business, he takes check of the stock, he fights for a competitive wage [a wage that he will never be paid].

At heart, this pretence, this act, this fiction, is merely a way of attempting to convince himself that his purposeless life has a purpose, that it may have a meaningful future, that his best, brightest days haven’t already been pissed into the wind and that it isn’t the case that all that remains is a long and tedious crawl towards death. He is now tamed, yes, but he is fighting to persuade himself that it isn’t the end of the world, that he still has something to live for. All of which sounds kind of depressing, I guess, and also kind of humorous [to me, at least]. But, be warned, Onetti is possibly the most straight-faced writer I have ever encountered. He doesn’t play for laughs. Someone like Nikolai Gogol, and others, would have teased out the comedy of this set-up by pitching a heroically sane Larsen into a river of stupidity, by surrounding him with morons, by making his responses to this stupidity and these morons increasingly frantic, increasingly exasperated. Not Onetti! Oh no, he sees your potential giggle and stamps on it, as though it were a spider.

In the other novel I have read by him, A Brief Life, the po-faced attitude, or authorial voice, feels oppressive, is actually dispiriting and tiring. The Shipyard works, however, because of the wonderful balance between that absurd set-up and the very serious treatment of it.

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