Exile colours Let the Wind Speak
by Juan Carlos Onetti despite the
Uruguayan author’s obsessive return
to a fictional homeland
Let the Wind Speak
Juan Carlos Onetti, translated by Helen Lane
1996/2008, Serpent’s Tail
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
PERHAPS IT was Spain, or perhaps it was just old age, but Juan Carlos Onetti’s self-imposed exile after his inexplicable incarceration in Uruguay left its footprint in the increasingly dry soil of a once fertile career.
Short stories abound as the writing process takes precedence, plot defers to mood and artistic opportunity, and collisions between fantasy and reality grow messy and hint at a more fundamental existential angst.
Most importantly, an anguished belief in the lonely futility of relationships becomes more apparent, and nowhere is this more so than in Let the Wind Speak (Dejemos hablar al viento) the Uruguayan author’s first novel written in Spain.
First published in 1979, this darkly macho series of reflections on physical and emotional detachment is pessimistic and often uncomfortable, while revealing all the power of this author’s complex imagination.
Set in Lavanda, beside the Santa María that was the beloved setting for Onetti’s most famous work, The Shipyard (1961), Let the Wind Speak is populated by the familiar characters found in such fictional South American towns: prostitutes, drunks, corrupt public servants, troubled youths. The narrator, Medina, is a chameleon whose past lives have been displaced by an existence as a penniless painter and whose disgust at his world resembles that of the protagonist in Onetti’s very first work, El pozo (1939), hailed by some critics as a precursor to magical realism and also comprising shifting scenes and conversations.
It is through Medina’s eyes that the author sees the sad absurdity of the human landscape that he creates, and through his colourful palette that he then tries to understand it, painting a series of rich but disconnected images that the reader may struggle to link. We must assume, then, that Medina’s casual machismo is also a reflection of the author’s condition, married four times and by now living in that wellspring of Latin masculinity, Madrid. Medina’s partner, Frieda, is emotionally cold, almost unloving, and his juvenile muse is confused, inexperienced, wanting.
Helen Lane’s translation is compelling, albeit occasionally over-loyal to Onetti’s original, contorted prose, and accurately recreates the bleak yet invigorating temperament of Let the Wind Speak, but it is the stubborn aimlessness of the personalities fashioned by the author that is most disconcerting about this novel and what makes it, still, very contemporary.
After moving to Madrid and becoming a Spanish citizen in 1975, Onetti himself was unforgiving about the land he loved, dabbling with work as a waiter, salesman, and doorman and refusing to return to his country even after democracy had been restored. Perhaps, again, the shifting, searching character of Medina himself can tell us more about this writer’s inspiration than the world his creations inhabit.
Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer