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In an interview with The
Barcelona Review Scottish writer Alan Warner said of Juan Carlos Onetti:
"I consider him one of the giants of the 20th century, certainly doing
things in 1937/38 way before Beckett and Camus." Onetti was not a familiar
name to us so interviewer Graham Thomson - a huge Beckett fan - read some
short stories (in Spanish) and was impressed. A few months later we discovered
the article that appears translated and edited below. The original, published
in Uruguayan magazine Posdata (August 1997) served to introduce Warner
to that country via the success of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting film
and novel. Welsh himself says of Warner that he is "one of the most
talented, original and interesting voices around". A rather nice touch
in the original was Gustavo San Román's translation of sections from
Warner's Morvern Callar and These Demented Lands into River
Plate Spanish, thus taking Warner's influences back home.
Alan Warner was born in 1964 in Oban, a small coastal town in the Western Highlands of Scotland. In a conference I organised about Onetti in St Andrews in 1995, Warner declared he felt isolated as a budding writer in this rural, coastal world. Later, when he went to Ibiza in search of a change of atmosphere and worked as a doorman in a nightclub, one of the regulars gave him a copy of The Shipyard. Having only just begun to learn Spanish, Warner was defeated by Onetti's prose, but once back in Britain he looked for a translation and finally discovered the excellent Nick Caistor version. It affected him profoundly and he began to read everything that had been translated, which nowadays is fortunately most of Onetti's work. Warner's latest novel, These Demented Lands (1997), is dedicated not only to Mark Richard (The Ice at the Bottom of the World) and Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), but also to "Juan Carlos Onetti (1909-1994)". The title is reminiscent of No Man's Land (1941), Onetti's kaleidoscopic view of the Buenos Aires underworld.
Warner's first novel Morvern Callar (due to appear as a film made by the BBC) portrays the eponymous 21-year-old heroine, first seen living with her boyfriend on a cheap housing estate and working in a supermarket in a coastal town reminiscent of Warner's Oban. The story begins with Morvern finding the dead body of her anonymous boyfriend, whom she refers to as "He" throughout the novel. Morvern will not be told what to do by anybody and does just as she pleases, although the reader is never given any explanation for her actions or intentions, as Warner does not construct her inner psychology in an explicit way. Her characterisation is always external: we come to learn what Morvern is like through her behaviour and her senses, along with the odd frugal comment made to her friends; she comes across to the reader, and to the other characters, as an enigmatic, fascinating person. She herself admits she doesn't like talking, that she's taciturn, not just with others but even with herself. Hence the apt surname, pronounced "collar" but which has an etymological significance Morvern discovers when she goes on holiday to a Spanish Club-Med resort. ["Callar" in Spanish means "to keep quiet about"]. As for her first name, Morvern is also the name of the peninsula northwest of Oban, between the Straits of Mull and Loch Linnhe.
Callar opens with the disturbing scene in which she coolly describes
her boyfriend's suicide. Its reverberations dominate the plot until the
very end although there is never a clear resolution.
He was bare and dead face-down on the scullery lino with blood round. The Christmas tree lights were on then off. You could change the speed those ones flashed at. Over and over you saw Him stretched out then the pitch dark with His computer screen still on.
I started the greeting on account of all the presents under our tree and Him dead. Useless little presents always made me sad. I start for me then move on to everybody when I greet about the sad things. Her from Corran Road with all sons drowned off the boats. She bubbled till she lost an eye. I greeted in heaves and my nose was running.
I dropped the Silk Cut and it burned to the filter on a varnished floorboard. I stopped the greeting cause I couldnt breathe and was perished cold. I slowed down the speed of the flashing Christmas tree lights. I put on the scullery light then the immersion heater then the bar fire but I didnt put a record on.
I supposed I was stewing over going out to the box by the garage to phone police or ambulance or whoever took things to the next stage. Then all in the port would know. They'd print a photo in the paper. His old dad who lived away in a country would have to be told. My fosterdad and the railway and all in the superstore would know.
That immersion heater took a half hour and it. was eightish on the video. I needed to boil the kettle to get the mess offof my face, what with the greeting and that.
I couldnt get past Him without stepping in His blood and I was scared to go too nearish so's I got my things in the bedroom. I took the last pill in that cycle.
I came back towards the scullery then took a running jump over the dead body. The sink was full of dishes so I had to give them all a good rinse. The face was by my bare foot. I fitted the kettle spout under the tap. Then I put my underwear over the spout and tugged the elastic round the sides. When the kettle boiled I put the warm knickies on. I jumped back over Him ready to throw the kettle away, after all you don't want to scald your legs. My foot came down in blood. I stepped forward and swore out loud. I wiped my foot on the rug.
I washed my face in the sort of burnt-smell kettle water then I needed toilet.
Sitting there I saw I'd locked the door even though He was dead. I did a number-one then a number-two remembering always to wipe backwards. Though He was dead I used the air freshener spray.
For sake of something to do I tidied away all the presents for Him, Red Hanna, Vanessa the Depresser and Lanna into the boiler cupboard. I lit a Silk Cut. I lined up the presents from Him to me then just tore them all open one after another like apple boxes at the work: a polished steerhide jacket, a packet of yellowish low denier stockings, a lighter that looked goldish, a basque thing all silky and a dear- looking Walkman with batteries in. I started to greet again as I stepped in the blood and knelt. I ended up touching His hair cause the rest was cold. All floor-blood had a sort of skin on. When I saw it burnt down I pushed the Silk Cut butt in the blood and it hissed snubbing out.
I'd been greeting so long the water would be hot. Bits of the blood-skin hung from my legs when I stood up and fresh drops came off. My bare feet left blackish foot-prints across the floorboards. I wiped the footprints into smears with the shiny Christmas wrapping paper.
I kneeled in the bath. I washed my knees and legs and in me. I got my legs warm so there were no goosebumps then shaved them and that. I gave my shin a wee nick with the razor and blood lifted in a bubble then trickled quick. I put in a splash of the bubblebath and filled the tub. The water was too burny so I put in cold.
The bathing is significant, suggesting a constant preoccupation in the novel with sensory experience. Morvern is attracted to modern music, the changing morning light, the consistency of the snow or mud in a river in the Highlands, and the various sensations she feels swimming by night in the Mediterranean. There is a certain echo of the nouveau roman in this sensual world with little psychological depth, which gives us the impression we should not try to analyse Morvern, just as she never tries to analyse what is happening around her. Morvern's response to the world is sensual rather than cerebral and verbal.
These Demented Lands
As in Onetti's Santa Maria saga, Morvern Callar has its sequel in These Demented Lands. Morvern accepts the suggestion made by a girl she met upon returning home pregnant and penniless at the end of the first novel. The girl tells her that a friend of her uncle has a hotel on an "island" by an airstrip where Morvern could probably get work. The ferry to the island, which is in fact Mull which faces Oban on the actual map of Scotland, sinks at the beginning of the second novel. This time the plot and structure of the text are considerably more complicated. There are three large sections: 'First Text, Part One,' and then 'First Text, Part Two.' Each text has a second manuscript, with editor's notes. The last section is 'The Letter,' signed by Morvern Callar whose name does not actually appear until the final page. While in the first novel the viewpoint and narrative voice were always Morvern's, in the second they vary, and the number of important characters increases.
These Demented Lands echoes Onetti in places, particularly the Uruguayan's last novel, Past Caring? In general both texts are complex, fragmented and non-linear, but the trite label of "post-modernist" would not be a correct definition, given the explicit repulsion for the term in both books. In the second paragraph of Onetti's novel, the narrator tells of how hungry he and his wife were. He then continues: "Sometimes we found consolation in meals close friends invited us to, when we gossiped, argued over Sartre, structuralism and the scam the right wishes was universal, whose faithful they reward so well and which they've baptized post-modernism."
Compare this with Morvern's words in a letter to her foster father: "I had a conversation about post-modernism! It's true. I actually said the ridiculous word and even held my sandwiches with two fingers. That was at a university."
This scorn for post-modernism also has a political dimension in both books, as capitalism and totalitarianism are harshly criticised.
The letter in the final section of These Demented Lands is quite specifically reminiscent of Onetti. Although the reader knows that Morvern is still on the island, she says she is writing from a "Secret Address. Let's say Tierra del Fuego."
The choice of place is a vague reference to the Onettian world. More explicit is the similar tone and some of the content of Morvern's letter and the one which Elvirita sends to Carr in Past Caring? which also appears at the end of the novel. The letter received by Carr makes him sad and pensive: "Time and again I look at the envelope where there's no sender's name. The green and yellow postmark says Agua Branca. That's in Săo Paulo, Brazil. The letter was written in Haiti, on paper of a bewitched colour, almost purple, but not quite. A colour chosen to hurt the eyes. I can also recognize Maria Elvira in that."
is part of the letter:
As for Morvern's letter, we presume it is destined for her foster father, Red Hanna, who in the first novel ends up sleeping with Morvern's best friend, Lanna. Lanna, in turn, had slept with Him, a big disappointment to Morvern when she found out. The whole tone of the letter confirms Morvern's disenchantment with both of them and with her birthplace, a disenchantment which compels her to embark on a journey to nowhere, like an exile. This is very similar to Past Caring? Onetti, ever-mindful of his physical decline, combined this last-testament novel with the theme of exile, as realized in the main character, Juan Carr(los Onetti). Another relevant aspect is the prevalence of religious echoes, which also appear in Onetti's work. Morvern's letter begins as follows:
There is another Onetti echo in These Demented Lands, this time from Let the Wind Speak. As in Onetti's novel, Warner's ends in a conflagration. The various narrative threads tie up in this devastating finale:
Warner and Onetti
Although originality is a distinction critics are quick to attribute to Warner's novels, one can identify traits which relate them to Onetti. While it is true that Warner's characterization is implicit, external and not voiced - seemingly in contrast to the self-analysis practised by the great Onettian characters (Brausen in A Brief Life, Larsen in The Shipyard and Body Snatcher and Jorge Malabia or Díaz Grey, among others, in A Grave with No Name) - it is important to note that Onetti also has characters similar in spirit to Morvern. In The Pit, for example, written in the first person like Morvern Callar, Eladio Linacero rejects any sensible ideas or explanations of things. Something similar happens with the sick basketball player in Goodbyes: although described externally by the storekeeper, he guards his inner thoughts like a puzzle until the very end. As for Morvern Callar's sex, one is reminded of the similarly taciturn female protagonists in Tan triste como ella and La novia robada. A second example of the variances between the two authors can be seen in their use of humour: Warner employs it rather freely, whereas Onetti is better known for his use of irony and sarcasm.
Yet the young Scot himself openly admits he has been influenced by the Uruguayan. I believe this is most clearly seen in two general areas. The first is the authors' capacity to create a drama with non-heroic characters, based on a similar concept of realism: both writers manage to give a view of the context and the aspirations of the people in their respective societies with a high degree of precision and verisimilitude. The world of the young working class in Oban is incredibly true to real life, as is the world of the lower middle class in Onetti's Santa Maria. But this is not realism in the antiquated sense of creating a stereotype character of a certain period and class. Morvern and her neighbours or pals are actors or witnesses of an original, curious world, although it is within realistic parameters. We are not dealing with unlikely events or characters so much as with eccentric ones. And through that eccentricity we view the world from a wholly different perspective. Consider these scenes: His suicide and the way in which Morvern disposes of the body (burying small pieces in the mountains just outside the town); the women's anecdotes in the pub about the barbaric behaviour of men (like the one about the man who defecated on a woman's stomach, because she had come back from the discotheque so drunk that she fell asleep without making love); or the drug and alcohol inspired damage caused by the young Brits whom Morvern meets on the Costa del Sol (let's see who has the worst sunburn). Consider, too, the shyness of Morvern and the intense relationship she had with Him; the social pressures which are brought to bear on the role of the sexes; the fragility of a young world with scarcely any moral boundaries. These experiences illustrate an unusual perspective on reality and they are illuminating for just that.
Something comparable happens with certain of Onetti's characters. In A Grave with No Name Jorge Malabia pursues his personal mission to bury the former servant and prostitute Rita, accompanied by the goat who had been the pretext for getting clients; in Body Snatcher and The Shipyard we see Larsen and his dreams of setting up a brothel in the former and of reviving a floundering firm and winning the love of Petrus' idiot daughter in the latter. These goals represent idiosyncratic and enriching visions for human hope in a hostile world.
In a fine article Warner wrote on Onetti for the daily Edinburgh newspaper The Scotsman, he comments that poverty is an essential trait in the Uruguayan's characters. He also says that Onetti's greatness lies in his ability to create characters who are memorable though morally ambiguous. I believe the young Scottish writer is comparable with his Uruguayan predecessor in both respects. Morvern, although not aspiring to a goal that will make her respected or famous like Larsen, does share with the Onettian characters a tendency towards fairly illegal activities and manages to pass herself off as the author of His novel, the publication of which gives her a breather financially. It also seems obvious to me that in Morvern Callar, Warner has created a character who will stand the test of time.
the second similarity: just as Onetti spoke openly and fearlessly about
the influences which had marked him (Faulkner, Céline, Conrad and
others) he also knew how to produce his very own literature. Warner's work
has qualities which distinguish him as an original, while he too acknowledges
his debt to a master. It is all further proof that in literature all connections
are possible, even between two such seemingly different worlds as Santa
Maria in the 50s and the west of Scotland in the 90s.
Onetti translations: © Peter Bush, London:
Quartet Books, 1995
This article, in its edited version, was reprinted from
the original with kind permission of the author and Posdata.
Book covers © Jonathan Cape.
Goodbyes & Stories [Los adioses y Cuentos]. Trad. Daniel Balderston.
The Pit & Tonight [El pozo y Para esta noche]. Trad. Peter
Body Snatcher [Juntacadáveres]. Trad. Alfred MacAdam. London: Quartet, 1991.
The Shipyard [El astillero]. Trad. Nick Caistor. London: Serpent's Tail, 1992
Farewells & A Grave with No Name [Los adioses y Para una tumba
A Brief Life [La vida breve]. Trad. Hortense Carpentier. London: Serpent's Tail, 1993.
No Man's Land [Tierra de nadie]. Trad. Peter Bush. London: Quartet, 1994.
Past Caring? [Cuando ya no importe]. Trad. Peter Bush. Londres: Quartet, 1995.
Let the Wind Speak [Dejemos hablar al viento]. Trad. Helen Lane. Londres: Serpent's Tail, 1996.
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