José Donoso Essay - Donoso, José (Vol. 99)

Donoso, José (Vol. 99)


José Donoso 1924–1996

Chilean novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, and critic.

For further information on Donoso's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, 11, and 32.

One of the most influential figures of the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and 1970s, José Donoso constructed tales of human foibles and social disintegration that often employed elements of fantasy. Compared to authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Donoso is known for his denouncement of regionalism, a style prominent among Latin American writers. One of the most noted features of his writing is his move towards experimental fiction that contains surrealistic fantasies, myths, and legends. The writer of over twenty novels, Donoso created plots that feature saints, magicians, monsters, and other bizarre characters who struggle against class boundaries and rigid societal structures.

Donoso was born in Santiago in 1924 to parents who were members of the professional middle class, and for the first ten years of his schooling he attended the Grange, a private school in Santiago. The literary interests of his father and his mother's ties to the Chilean aristocracy helped Donoso become acquainted with both the importance of education and the distinct class boundaries that existed in society. Donoso attended Princeton University on a scholarship, and then returned to Chile where he worked as a journalist for five years. Donoso published his first work, Summertime and Other Stories, in 1955, with the financial support of family and friends. In 1957, he published his first novel, Coronation, again with the financial support of his family and associates. In 1971, he experienced his first great success with The Obscene Bird of Night, a story contrasting the aristocratic residents of a decaying Chilean estate with the old crones who inhabit a crumbling convent. Enlarging upon themes developed in Coronation, in which he contrasted an outmoded oligarchy and an emerging middle class, The Obscene Bird of Night employs decrepit hags, monsters, and witches coupled with the narration of an ailing and delusional writer to examine social, political, and economic power. In 1972, Donoso produced a nonfiction examination of emerging Latin American writers entitled The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History. The book was highly praised for its detached point of view and for its cov-erage of the writers of the period. In his fiction, Donoso drew on personal experiences, his extensive travels, and his family's history to help craft his narratives. His move away from realism to magical, surrealistic narratives has defined the modern Chilean novel. Certain works such as Curfew and The Garden Next Door have been viewed as more straightforward and realistic than others, yet still retain many of the macabre, mystical elements that typified his earlier novels. Critics have commented on the straightforward narrative of The Garden—and on its surprise ending. Tony Talbot wrote: "In almost documentary fashion, Mr. Donoso depicts exiles who are torn by eroding political commitment, unable to transmit to their children an identity with their homeland, nostalgic for their native country and yet fearful of going back." In his review of Curfew, Christopher Leland also noted Donoso's turn toward more realistic narratives: "[T]he book depends little on the magical, on that dreamlike mix of the quotidian and the supernatural we have come to expect in much Latin American literature. Magic is here, however, woven sparingly throughout the text, and, is, finally, the sign of the very faint hope with which Donoso concludes."

Principal Works

Summertime and Other Stories [Veraneo y otros cuentos] (short stories) 1955
Coronation [Coronacíon] (novel) 1957
This Sunday [Este domingo] (novel) 1965
The Obscene Bird of Night [El obsceno pájaro de la noche] (novel) 1970
Hell Has No Limits [El lugar sin límites] (novel) 1972
Sacred Families: Three Novellas [Tres novelitas burguesas] (novella) 1973
The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History (memoir) 1977
A House in the Country [Casa de campo] (novel) 1978
The Garden Next Door [El jardin de al lado] (novel) 1981
Four for Delfina [Cuatro para Delfina] (novellas) 1982
Curfew [La desesperanza; also translated as Despair] (novel) 1986
Poems of a Novelist [Poemas de un novelista] (poetry) 1992
Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe (novellas) 1992
Where Elephants Go to Die (novel) 1995


Ricardo Gutiérrez Mouat with José Donoso (interview date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: "Beginnings and Returns: An Interview with José Donoso," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 11-17.

[In the following interview, Mouat questions Donoso about his novels (particularly Curfew and The Obscene Bird of Night), his feelings about his native Chile, and other topics related to being a writer of the Latin American "boom" period.]

The following conversation with José Donoso was held at the writer's house in Santiago in November of 1990, when the Chilean spring was blossoming in the gardens of the barrio alto and in the political arena of the whole country. It was conducted in English and it has been slightly edited for inclusion in this issue. My explanatory notes are indicated by brackets. I wish to record my gratitude to Pepe and to his wife María Pilar for their generosity and help.

[Ricardo Gutiérrez Mouat:] You left Chile in the early sixties a Chilean writer and returned in 1980 a Latin American author. How has your relationship with the public changed?

[José Donoso:] In the first place, my relation with the public was nil, there was nothing to it, it was just a question of a few people from Chile and a few people from Latin America to whom I sent my books because they knew somebody I knew and so on and so forth. So I sent the first batch of books out to Benedetti [Mario Benedetti, the Uruguayan essayist and short story writer], I remember, some people in Argentina, all over Latin America, about fifty books I think. That was with Coronation, which is where I really think my career started. What happened then? My name began to be talked about, they read this book and they were of the same mind that people in Chile were, that it was a good novel. And then, what did I do? I went away from Chile, I left Chile, got entangled with María Pilar, and then I wrote the second volume of stories, and I found that my name was very much talked about and my presence acknowledged. Forever I was the author of Coronation and I have continued to be that for a lot of people, here in Chile especially. I suppose that is because Coronation in a way is a naturalistic novel, and the public here, the middle class here, is very fond of seeing themselves portrayed in a book: this is just like my Uncle Juan, this is just like my cousin Teresa, you see? That's what they like about books, that's one thing they do like. Everybody had a grandmother more or less like misiá Elisita Grey. Then I went away, I started on This Sunday and finished it, and had it published in Mexico, which was a great step forward. I broke the ice of Latin America. Then I wrote Hell Has No Limits and I found by then I was already a well-known writer in the circles of Latin America. Then I left Mexico for Barcelona and changed over to Seix Barral, and they published Coronation at once, and talked about my new novel and they were very enthusiastic and interested in what I was doing, so I started writing for that hungry public. But it was after publication of The Obscene Bird of Night that I found my reputation had grown immensely.

How has your relationship with your fellow writers of the Boom changed over the years?

No, it's more or less the same, we haven't seen much of each other for a long time. I continue to see Mario Vargas Llosa whenever I go, whenever I leave Chile; I see García Márquez with no problem; Carlos Fuentes, whenever he is in Argentina, calls up. It's very theoretical but it's still there, and María Pilar keeps track of everybody.

And how has your view of Chile changed?

Well, necessarily because Chile itself has changed so much. This is not the Chile I left back in, what, '64 or '65.

What's the biggest difference?

Consumerism. A lack of respect for whatever is literary. People are not interested in literature in Chile at all.

Is that because of the growth of the communication or TV or culture industry?

No, funny enough I think it's because the importance of politics is so big.

Your exile was not political, yet Chile underwent a political crisis in the seventies and you responded to it. How can you describe your response?

As the response of what seems to me a responsible intellectual. I wasn't active in politics but I threw my lot in with the people who were against Pinochet. So if I was not active my name was, and that gave me a lot of security.

How did your novels respond to the political crisis in Chile?

Well, you can see in my novels a response either to the crisis itself or to the conditions that led up to the crisis.

Are you speaking of A House in the Country?

There is more to A House in the Country than that. I mean, there are actually certain speeches by Allende and Pinochet which have been lifted out of the newspaper.

Did you feel that your literature could ever become pamphleteering?

No, I've never been a staunch upholder of anything at all. I've been against the Pinochet thing but I have no ideology to which I can turn. So I am a democrat without ideology.

Or perhaps a liberal, a classic liberal?

A classic liberal … I hate the idea, but yes, I would accept that.

Several interesting things have happened to you upon your return to Chile: you got involved in theatre, in film (and just two nights ago the film you wrote the script for won the "Chilean Oscar"), and you've been shaping a new generation of writers in your workshops. What can you tell me about these activities?

Certainly the most impassioned involvement comes with the workshops. I feel it is through them that I speak, that I reach a wider public. They help me in many ways. I've been growing older and I get more and more separated from youth, from what's in the air, you see. I don't know what people read nowadays, or what they talk about, or what their idiosyncracies are. But through these workshops, this involvement with younger people, I get the feeling of what's really to be young, to be in the center of things.

Have any of these budding writers who have studied with you become important voices in Chile?

Yes. Marco Antonio de la Parra, Agata Gligo, Arturo Fontaine, Alberto Fouquet …

You've been an intensely private writer


yet in the eighties it seems that you have blended that approach to writing with a more collective approach to creativity. I mean theater and film and workshops. Have you sensed this?

I don't feel it, really. I feel that having a workshop is another kind of privacy.

What about theater?

Well, theater, I just work with another guy.

But you must have been involved in the production itself.

I was involved in the first production, which was Sueños de mala muerte.

Let us review your work from the perspective of Curfew, your most recent novel and one of your most successful ones. What was the genesis of this novel?

We were planning to go down to Chiloé for the holidays, my wife and I; we took flowers to Matilde Neruda, who was then quite sick in bed. She didn't let us see her but she sent messages of thank you, so on and so forth. Then she wrote us a letter saying that the flowers we had taken her perfumed all her house. Then we moved on to Chiloé, and then I began writing starting from this woman who is an ex-society girl who works with people, with women. She triggered that book. And then I got a feel for other characters, Lopito, for instance, and my desire to work with somebody who belonged to the more popular classes and yet had the sensibility of an intellectual.

And that was Lopito.

That was Lopito. But he was also Mañungo.

Are they in any way doubles in the novel?

No, they don't work as doubles, I think … As foils, perhaps.

What about the references to chilota [i.e., from the island of Chiloé in southern Chile] folklore and legends?

I got involved with them down in Chiloé that summer and enjoyed that tremendously. I befriended a family who put me in touch with all these people who had the keys, so to speak, to chilota folklore. And I did want to use some kind of myth in this novel, as I have used the imbunche in another novel [the legendary entity with all its orifices sewn up that figures in The Obscene Bird of Night], and here I use the caleuche [a local variation on the ship-of-fools motif blended with Charon's ferry and Rimbaud's drunken boat].

What is your understanding of the caleuche?

Well, in the first place it is very much of a story, something that moves: if you do this, this will happen to you; if this happens to you, you'll go to this place, you see? It gave me a stepping stone, a structure.

How do you think the myth functions in the novel itself?

It works as a reference constantly because Mañungo is a chilote and consequently immersed in these childhood stories. Things of childhood you take into adulthood. Probably he doesn't get lost because he has this anchorlike thing in his past. And people interpret life according a little bit to myth. You see, when you get together with somebody or live with somebody, that other person brings in a whole lot of myths that are different from yours. These people will have heard some myths or some legends or some stories, some riddles, which belong to the old country. And this is what gives the person a kind of floe to stand on.

It's funny because when I asked you how the novel came to be, most people would've expected you to talk about the politics of it.

I'm not interested in politics, it's something nobody can accept. Politics has not formed a deep vision in me. I feel things like these are more in depth. If you notice, the political questions all have political answers; if you can also notice, legendary aspects have no answer whatever …

Mañungo and Judit are divided characters, and there is a theme that runs through your work from Coronation on: role-playing, simulation, alienation, the disjunction/conjunction of Self and Other…. Do you see this continuity and what do you make of it?

Sure, I see it in Judit trying to be a woman of the people being herself very middle-class; Mañungo trying to be middle-class maigré lui, no?, and not being able to be that nor a folksinger, a folklore hero.

In a novel like Hell Has No Limits, role-playing is intimately tied up with sexual politics, with the power game between the sexes. What is your interpretation of the transvestite?

Difficult, I really don't know myself why at that point in my life I did that. Funny, the things that are real and the things that aren't; things that are verbatim in that novel are the whorehouse, the little village, the little railroad, the countryside, the vineyards. But in that village that I know la Manuela didn't exist; I brought her over from another set of experiences.

How do you see the relationship between the roles that she plays—which are of both genders—and the violence in the novel?

Well, I feel that transformation is always punished with violence. God didn't put us here to be transformed, He put us here to be what we were told to be.

What you're saying is that authority cannot accept metamorphosis, it's a transgression, no? And speaking of authors and authority, I'd be very interested in hearing your interpretation of the power game in The Garden Next Door between the male author (who cannot write the novel we're reading) and the female one who does write it.

Well, I think that all men carry inside them a lot of other men, a lot of possibilities. I think that in The Garden Next Door transformation takes on not what happens in Hell Has No Limits but something very near it.

In what sense?

I've been asked this question several times: why is it that you, who are a successful writer, can draw a picture of a writer manqué? My reply is that I hope I'm still a writer manqué. I carry inside me the shape of a fracasado. If I lose that, my irony and my humor and my sarcasm, maybe, or my cruelty, everything that is more or less impassioned in me would fail. I am a failed writer; I'm also a successful one.

That doesn't explain the fact that a woman ends up writing the novel.

I may have wanted to be a woman at one point …

You said before that you give your stories to read to two people in particular, both of whom are women: Delfina Guzmán and your wife. Does that...

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Robert D. McFadden (obituary date 9 December 1996)

SOURCE: "José Donoso, 72, Fantastical Chilean Novelist," in The New York Times, December 9, 1996, p. B13.

[The following obituary presents an overview of Donoso's life and career.]

José Donoso, one of Chile's best-known authors, whose novels and short stories used dark surrealism and social satire to explore the haunted lives of exiles and writers and a world of aristocratic excesses, died on Saturday in Santiago. He was 72 years old.

Mr. Donoso died of cancer at his home, his niece Claudia Donoso told The Associated Press.

One of the major figures of the...

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Priscilla Melendez (essay date Fall 1987)

SOURCE: "Writing and Reading the Palimpsest: Donoso's El jardin de al lado," in Symposium, Vol. XLI, No. 3, Fall, 1987, pp. 200-13.

[In the following essay, Melendez provides a detailed discussion of The Garden Next Door as a palimpsest. Focusing on the different narrative points of view in the novel, the dialectic between reading and writing, and the meaning of the garden, Melendez examines the concept of the palimpsest at length.]

To introduce the concept of palimpsest in a technological and computerized era might be perceived as an unnecessary irony or as the sign of reliance on an...

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Reviews Of Donoso's Recent Work

Christopher Leland (review date May 15 1988)

SOURCE: "Stay and Fight, or Leave and Love?," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 15, 1988, pp. 3, 13.

[In the following review, Leland gives a plot synopsis of Curfew and comments on the political structures described in the novel as they relate to Donoso's own experiences.]

Fifteen years have passed since the overthrow of Chile's last elected government, the Popular Unity regime of Salvador Allende. Other Latin American nations—Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia—have passed in this period from democracy through dictatorship to democracy again. Chile, however, which for more than half a...

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Further Reading


Friedman, M.L. "Curfew: A Novel." In Choice, Vol. 26, No. 2, (October 1988): 321.

Brief description of Donoso's Curfew.

Friedman, M.L. Review of The Garden Next Door. In Choice, Vol. 30, No. 7, (March 1993): 1155.

Brief description of Donoso's novel The Garden Next Door.

Larisch, Sharon. "Old Women, Orphan Girls, and Allegories of the Cave." In Comparative Literature, Vol. 40, No. 2, (Spring 1988): 150-171.

An essay comparing Plato's Republic (specifically...

(The entire section is 155 words.)