Jacob and the Other (Jacob y el Otro) by Juan Carlos Onetti, 1965
JACOB AND THE OTHER (Jacob y el otro)
by Juan Carlos Onetti, 1965
Juan Carlos Onetti's story "Jacob and the Other" ("Jacob y el otro"), first published in 1961 and later the title story of a 1965 collection, received an honorable mention in an international competition organized by Life in 1960. The story treats the themes of disillusionment, desire, and deceit with an air of decadence and corruption that permeate the narration of the events. The setting for the story, Onetti's legendary town of Santa María, serves as a backdrop for the wrestler Jacob van Oppen and his manager, Prince Orsini, who have come to challenge any man to fight for a purse of 500 pesos. The challenger, a gigantic young Turk, does so at the insistence of his fiancée, who is pregnant and wants money for their wedding. The story's three parts are entitled "The Doctor's Story," "The Narrator's Story," and "The Prince's Story," and the narration is presented from these three viewpoints. The three narrators use different time sequences for the events in question, which results in a three-piece puzzle that the reader must put together to have a clear understanding of the actual chronological sequence and of the cause-and-effect relationships.
The story begins with a narration by a doctor who is called to the hospital to treat a large man who has been injured. The tone and manner employed to describe his surroundings (the theater, the club) and the hours spent playing poker suggest that the doctor's existence is not only rather boring but that he also has little to be happy about. He sleeps very little and apparently drinks far too much. As the story progresses, the patient's already serious condition deteriorates, and the doctor must perform an operation. To the admiration of many, he manages to save the dying man, and he recalls how Orsini and the wrestler van Oppen had arrived in town with a fanfare of free publicity from the local newspaper. Interestingly enough, however, readers remain in the dark as to whether the injured man is van Oppen. The only clue to the identity of the victim, one that will be mostly overlooked until the end, is the description of an angry woman who keeps spitting at the moribund man.
The "Narrator's Story" introduces more details. An omniscient narrator tells this portion of the tale, providing considerable insight into the different characters. The reader consequently discovers that the aging wrestling champion drinks too much and that he usually manages to fall asleep, while crying from melancholy in a drunken stupor, only after the prince sings "Lilli Marlene," a nostalgic World War II song that was a favorite of German soldiers. The pair evidently makes its livelihood by traveling through small South American towns to challenge all comers. "The Prince's Story" presents Orsini's perspective on the morning of the fight. When the manager informs van Oppen that they lack the 500 pesos needed to match the challenge, Jacob surprises him by producing money he has secretly been saving. The wrestling encounter ends with van Oppen lifting and throwing the Turk out of the ring.
Several commentators have stressed the story's title in their critical analyses, suggesting a biblical allusion to Jacob's dream of a ladder to heaven and his wrestling with an angel. No one, however, has suggested that Jacob van Oppen is actually wrestling with another part of himself—the aging, decadent side he wants to conquer and to some extent does overcome. The other characters, Orsini and the Turk's fiancée particularly, are portrayed as liars and cheats, as the materialistic dregs of society who lead pathetic lives. Like many of Onetti's existentially inauthentic characters, they are condemned to live in their purgatory of Santa María. Van Oppen, however, manages to wrestle with his destiny, successfully overcome decadence, and momentarily relive his greatness as a wrestler. His willingness to believe in himself and to risk his reputation and savings purchases the measure of existential authenticity the story's other characters lack. For this reason van Oppen achieves a dynamism rare in Onetti's fictional world.
—Genaro J. Pérez