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Juan Carlos Onetti, Juntacadaveres

Onetti, Juan Carlos. Juntacadáveres. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2001 (1964).

Santa María, Uruguay is a coastal town invented by Juan Carlos Onetti, on the model of Faulkner and García Márquez, as a setting for a series of novels. In this installment we follow the efforts of the title character, whose name means “collector of corpses”—or in a more sexual sense, “one who shacks up with corpses”—to set up a legal brothel in town. He gets his name from his peculiar bent for aged or otherwise ruined prostitutes (he’s collected more corpses than Napoleon, says someone), and what holds the book together is less the compact plot than the conjunction of sex and death in the title pun; how do you differentiate the desired body from a dead body?

Now I have to admit that I’ve never had much trouble with that question, and that I’ve never really understood those representations of sex which turn on a horrified fascination with the corruptible body. But the topos comes up so often in Western art that I guess someone is getting something out of it. This topos tends to bring along some helpful corollaries:

1) People sure can be hypocrites, especially if they’re religious, and it all comes from not wanting to confront the body.
2) If you do confront the body it is both pleasurable and gross, and sometimes existentially unsettling to boot. (When you look into a vulva, the vulva also looks into you!!!)
3) Women are weird and crazy and sometimes you have to slap them around a little, even if you feel bad about it later.

In fairness, this isn’t as ludicrous a descent into the solitary vortex as Last Tango in Paris; the milieu of the town comes across clearly, and there are a number of sharply drawn characters. Onetti also writes a really admirable Spanish, lean and graceful. But these ideas, they baffle me.

 

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