The Shipyard

by JDP

This lean, highly allegorical novel calls to mind Camus, Conrad, and O’Connor in its bleak characters and even bleaker locations. Pound-for-pound, though, Onetti writes with more descriptive flair than these authors, rendering sentences with clause upon clause of beautiful imagery that belies his darker substance.

Juan Carlos Onetti / Uruguayan / 1961 / 186 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

“Be careful with that book,” my Uruguayan friend told me when he saw The Shipyard sitting on my desk. At twenty pages in, it was not immediately clear to me what he was talking about; just a bit further in than that, however, and I understood completely.

Onetti writes about decay and desolation in a series of small, sea-side towns. His unsympathetic characters stand in bizarre relation to one another and their interactions are almost never honest. Conversations take place with hands secretly resting on revolvers, veiled insults are spoken through toothy smiles spread wide, orders are given with no expectation of their being carried out, and hopelessly undesirable women are tirelessly courted (sometimes by more than one male). As a reader, the ennui, decrepitude, and borderline somnambulism that permeates the narrative makes it seem as if you’re trying to read the real story through bulletproof glass: you know that there are fundamental tensions at play just under the surface, but it’s rather hard to figure out what they are.

The characters’ malaise, however, is not reflected in the writing itself, which is often riddled with clause after clause of beautiful imagery that renders the characters’ surroundings in inventive and realistic capacities. Indeed, the stars in the sky, the cold, and the mud all take on photographic qualities in Onetti’s clear writing. This serves as a strange counterbalance to the ambiguity of the characters’ histories, motivations, and aspirations. If anything, it makes their existence dourer as we’re reminded that the stars, the cold, and the mud have got the drop on humanity on two counts: they are more straightforwardly interpretable and they are more permanent. Those things which humanity bequeaths (in this case squalid hotels, homes, and even entire cities) will slowly and inevitably atrophy in a process that cannot be stopped. Like the physical structures they service, Onetti’s characters tumble inevitably toward their own expirations. It is not a happy outcome.

But the book should still be read. For one thing, the narrative is couched in a strange affidavit-like delivery where the actions are sometimes reported by “witness accounts” and certain facts are presented as being either “verified” or “disputed.” In this sense, The Shipyard is clearly retrospective in nature and has been “compiled” from testimonies after (perhaps well after) the events have taken place. It is much less clear who the intended audience may be, but at various points it is speculated that certain characters in the novel may one day have access to the account itself. The objective, legal aura of the novel is consistently undermined, however, as the narrator is clearly omniscient: Onetti chronicles (sometimes at length) his characters’ interior monologues and, in the case of a few of them, we read more words spoken inside their heads than those actually uttered by their mouths.

A second perk is the way in which the chapters have been structured. There are about a half-dozen locations in the novel and the action is completely confined to these locations. Each chapter is titled according to the location and, when we return to the location, the chapter takes on a follow-up title. So, for example, the first chapter in which the characters are situated in a cabin is called “The Cabin I” and the second time we see them in this context, the chapter is titled “The Cabin II.” From my reading, it seems like each chapter is a revisitation of the previous scene, where we return to the old location and its accumulated connotations. Onetti seems explicit on this point: certain conversations, feelings, and descriptions are confined to certain locations. When we return, we are confronted with the total tonnage of our previous experiences at these places. What happens in Vegas, as they say …

Ultimately, I wanted to like this novel more than I did, but I feel as if the ending robs the beginning of its genius. Anyone with the literary sensibilities of a cashew will see where Onetti is taking us and, on at least two occasions in particular, I think he missed the opportunity to divert us toward something completely unexpected. For a book with writing as engaging as this, though, predictability is merely a venial sin. After you’ve dipped into Garcia Márquez and Vargas Llosa, travel a bit further south for Onetti; I believe it’s well worth the effort.

Rating: 5 / 10

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