Juan Carlos Onetti wrote El Pozo in 1938, shortly before the beginning of World War II. Like most writers of this time and with the inspiration of European authors such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, Onetti employed an existentialist viewpoint in his literature.
This existential attitude is passed on to the protagonist, Linscero who often appears to be disorientated and confused, living in this apparently meaningless world.
The story takes place in a boarding house in a war torn country. From the beginning of the novel, we dub Linscero to be a lonely man, getting by on what he can. He describes his situation as, himself being “…solo y entre la mugre, encerrado en la pieza”, (alone, surrounded by dirt, shut up in that room). Later he also details how he
Alienation is defined by the Miriam-web dictionary as being “the estrangement between the self and the objective world or between different parts of the personality”. Juan Carlos Onetti’s character Linscero in El Pozo fits both these parts of this description. Through this discourse I would like to illustrate how this is achieved through an array of literary techniques and themes.
In general, Onetti’s books are led by unhappy, isolated and often depressed characters with an absurd state of mind, within the confines of a sordid world (from which they can only escape through the means of recreating memories, fantasies and dreams).
El Pozo treats the aimless life of Linscero, a man lost within a city where he is unable to communicate with others. The books complex fusion of reality with fantasy and inner experience make it one of the first distinctively modern Spanish American novels.
El Pozo, with the English translation “The Pit” may have significance in both referring to what the protagonist lack in emotion and the poor state of his abode. The story is about a man, attempting to come to terms that he is about to turn forty years old, who decides to write his memoirs, fantasies and life experiences in order to not only show something for his life (by giving it meaning and order), but also to escape the reality that he is isolated in his own home and lacks the ability to get up and make something of himself.
Onetti, while being recognised as being a traditional novelist with this work (traditional novel: works pre 1940), also uses some modernist narrative techniques to suggest that he was ahead of his time. Techniques such as multiple strains of narration, free association and forms of evasion like spatial psychological and temporal distinctions of inner experience – including dreams, fantasies and memories – ushered in a new period of Latin American narrative and Onetti was at the forefront of this.
His ability to create such fantasies gives him the ability to create a false depiction of himself and a sense of security that doesn’t appear to exist. This inevitably however helps him escape his potential feelings of loneliness and depression. Living alone and boxed up in a boarding house, room which he describes as only having “dos catres, sillas despatarradas y sin asiento, diarios tostados de sol, viejos de meses, calvados en la ventana en lugar de los vidrios” (two beds, bandy-legged chairs without seats, month old newspapers browned by the sun and nailed to the window in place of glass). It is hardly the setting of dreams nor is it the humble living space of an affluent character. Onetti has essentially depicted this scenario as it cries out ‘poverty’ and shows that Linscero needs help. From the outset then, we know that our central character is going to be something of a dark horse who doesn’t live a prosperous life.
These, however, turn out to be nothing more than a depiction of the fantasy life he wishes he had lived.
Most of Onetti’s early works are marked by this sense of despair and regret. But despite his use of modernist narrative techniques, Onetti’s fiction remained more or less traditional in form.
Angel Rama has described Onetti’s introduction of the new modernist techniques as “…a fracture occurs in Uruguayan culture that opens, through the course of a new interpretation of ethical and artistic values, a creative period that, after intense struggle, will control the intellectual life of the country.”
Linscero realises the mediocrity of his existence and seeks salvation through writing.
Linscero tries to convince the reader that his fantasies are somewhat beautiful, artistic depictions of his vivid imagination. However, telling the story of how he raped a young girl could not possibly be described in these terms. We see in the story that he describes his fantasies or “adventures” as he likes to call them to two people – with the exception of Lorenzo and Lazaro, this is the only time the reader is exposed to him communicating with people – and it does not go down well at all. His attempts to communicate although he denies claims that other peoples rejection doesn’t affect him, would seem to build up frustration, a sense of failure and add to his self loathing.
His break up with Hanka illustrates his inability to love. Onetti often used love as a factor which could solve situations which arose but Linscero’s problems are much deeper than this. His misogynistic viewpoints only add to the hatred that one can feel against him. He not only thinks about women in a demeaning way, but also fantasies and ultimately treats them in a similar manner.
It is interesting however that he mentions his highest love (his wife) during one of his lowest moments (the sexual conquest with the prostitute), proving that he may not have always been this lowlife character – he may have grown into this person as a result of his fantasies and dreams – and he clearly has not always been socially recluse, if he had a wife and a girlfriend as he tells us and is able to have sexual and emotional relations with Ester (the prostitute) then he is/was obviously at some point capable of holding a conversation and did not let his imagination take over his life.
Linscero’s view on love is that it exists at the first point of meeting and does not last after sexual intercourse has been initiated. This may be his reasoning for constantly thinking of Ana-Maria. Before he raped her she had the innocence and naivety of a young girl and this is perfect for our protagonist. Ultimately his relationship with Ana-Maria (although we are told she is fictional and dead) is one of sexual needs and desire and ultimately masturbation. This relation heightens his isolated state and proves how lonely he has become all shut up and cut off from society.
It is hard for us, as the readers to decipher between what we should classify as the truth with Linscero and what we should believe is a lie. His deceptive nature neither inspires confidence nor trust. This is also in part due to Onetti’s stylistic decisions and his use of multiple strains of narrative which can confuse the reader. The line he has drawn between fantastical events and those of the real world is very hard to make it out. Linscero tends to jump from fantasy to reality without warning and the link between the counts is impossible to see. Onetti is using a free association technique which makes us believe that it is Linscero who is writing the book, with an almost stream of consciousness. The first person narrative therefore works very well. Sometimes however, it would be preferable if there was a clear distinction between reality and fantasy.
It is Linscero’s fantasies which shape how he behaves in reality. In his first fantasy, the reader is introduced to Ana-Maria; a character is set to reappear both in subsequent scenes and covertly in his real life. As an example of she affects his real life, Linscero asks the prostitute if he can rein act the scene which was depicted by him at the start of the novel. In his fantasy world she battles through the elements in the nude to find him just so as to cater for his sexual needs. Linscero’s vivid imagination which ultimately always leads sexual activity with the young girl he once sexually abused shows that he cannot think of any other situation. He is enthralled by this girl and lacks the ability to create a situation whereby he ignores her. The worst attribute that Linscero possesses is that he has no regrets and does not feel ashamed of the vile act which he appears to have taken part in.
He does accept the fact that the sexual abuse which he carried out on Ana-Marï¿½a was an incident however fails to express resentment in this moral degradation. “Tambien podria ser un plan el ir contando un ‘suceso’ y un sueno” (That could be a good angle – to relate an ‘incident’ and a dream).
His sick mind full of lies and deceit only encourages the reader to believe that there is no hope for this poor character. Who knows whether any of what he tells us is true?
Perhaps the rape was a turning point in his life; at least there must be some reason why it stands out in his memory but not through shame. He mentions at the start of the novel before he starts writing his memoirs things that he will not mention. “Resuelto a no poner nada de… la estancia o en el tiempo de la universidad. Podria hablar de Gregorio, del ruso que apercio muerto en el arroyo, de Marï¿½a Rita y el verano en Colonia. Hay milles de cosas y podria llenar libros” (I’m certainly not going to put down anything about… the ranch or my time at university. I could talk about Gregorio, about the dead Russian washed up in the stream, about Marï¿½a Rita and that summer in Colonia. There are thousands of things. I could fill book upon book). If this quote is true, insofar as it isn’t something else he has made up to kill some time and entertain himself with, he should be able to write his memoirs more effectively.