Posted by: Sally Ingraham | July 8, 2009

The Shipyard

the shipyardby Juan Carlos Onetti

This book finally came in through ILL last Friday. I read the entire thing on Monday, taking breaks to go kayaking and walking and listen to a couple of newly purchased albums. It really was the perfect day off, especially because the sun came out and I got to spend almost the whole day outside. I was beside myself with pleasure.

The tone of The Shipyard is very much the opposite of how I felt that day, but somehow the contrast only increased my own delight in being alive. The book is slow, sad, dreary – not so much depressing as deflated. The narration trudges along behind a man named Larson, who has shuffling back to the region of Santa Maria after five years in exile. He has a sort of half-hearted thought of making a comeback, and with this in mind he takes a job as the General Manager of a failing shipyard. Only two other men work there, routinely going through the motions while the owner is off trying to get the bankruptcy order lifted.

In trying to think about what happened in the book, I get lost. Larson is a fairly full-bodied character, but everyone else – the men he works with, his love interest, Angelica Ines, and the other women he encounters – all seem shadowy. The book seems to be less about the events that occur and more about the mood. There is an odd kind of urgency in the mood of the book – everyone and everything in it seems to be poised on the brink of something, but have been poised so long that the weeds have started to grow and the waters have grown stagnant. If only, if only something could be done, something to snap the stupor, everyone, everything, is ready for action. The book is one giant held breath, waiting to be expelled.

I can’t decide if I liked The Shipyard or not. I was fascinated by it, certainly. I was especially struck by Larson’s awareness of the dualness of his person – his internal thoughts and feelings, and how his face and body reacted to situations. He was constantly putting on a mask, slipping into the costume of a man who was full of faith and sincerity, almost believing his own act sometimes. How often do we all do that?

Onetti’s style is mesmerizing, and while I can say I didn’t enjoy the book exactly (in the sense that I enjoyed the sunny day,) I did find it thought provoking. A couple of the conclusions that Larson comes to are definitely interesting.

“…life holds no surprises; at least not for real men. … As for the meaning of life, don’t imagine I’m talking nonsense. I know a thing or two. We do things, but can’t possibly do more than we do. Or to put it another way, we don’t always choose.”

He suddenly suspected what everyone comes to understand sooner or later, that he was the only person alive in a world peopled by phantoms, that communication was impossible and not even desirable, that compassion was worth more than hate, that a tolerant indifference, an attention divided between respect and sensuality, was all that could be asked for or given.”

It was hard for me to agree with these sentiments on such a glorious day, and even now (that the sun has gone away again…) I would still beg to differ. There have been times in my life when I have felt that I was trapped and that life had gotten out of my control, but I’ve never felt that I wasn’t the one that had done the choosing. I do recognize the helplessness (even just the exhaustion) that Larson felt, and so perhaps I can move on from this book with a greater sense of thankfulness – that the sun does still come out (once a week or so…) and that I’ve never yet encountered anything as dreary as the shipyard!

Even so, I’m not sorry I fell under it’s spell for a day. 🙂


  1. Sarah, this is a tremendous review in terms of putting your particular reaction to the book on “paper” (i.e. whatever the internet equivalent of paper is these days!). I also think you did a great job at capturing Onetti’s tone–at least from the few chapters I’ve read from the novel before getting distracted by other things, I think you’re spot on about the tone and style (I like the little I’ve read of Onetti a lot, but he’s not the easiest read for me and he’s definitely not “sunny” either). Anyway, I look forward to comparing notes with you again once I get back to reading the work. Thanks for sharing–I was looking forward to this, and you didn’t let me down!

  2. Excellent review, Sarah! From the excerpts, and from your evocations of the tone, I think this is a book I’d really enjoy (I’m into those dreary, mood-heavy novels). I also second Richard’s enjoyment of how reader-response-y this entry was; the experience of reading is so subjective & contingent, and you captured that well.

  3. Thanks to you both for your kind words! I never feel like I write “reviews” since my thoughts seem so scattered to me, and I’m rarely objective. I’m just trying to figure out what I thought. I can’t wait to see what the two of you think about this book. 🙂

  4. This is so well written! I love the way you piece through things, and also appreciate your reading choices that diverge from the mainstream pack so often.

    Btw, email me your mailing address? You were a winner for the Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life galley.

  5. Frances, this has been an especially exploritory year for me in my reading choices – and it’s been so much fun! Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  6. […] June (Original choice: The Shipyard by Juan Carlos Onetti – Uruguay) The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano – […]

  7. […] Wikipedia ]     [ Goodreads ]     [ Tumblr ]     [ Amazon ]     [ tuulenhaiven […]

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