Most of the action of the novel takes place in the Abalos mansion, occupied by Misiá Elisa Grey de Abalos and her three women servants, and in the working-class neighborhoods where Mario, who loves the young servant Estela, struggles to maintain his human dignity. The Abalos house represents the enclosed space of repressed characters; the outside constitutes that space where they would find liberation. Coronation consists of three parts; the first, “The Gift,” introduces the characters who gather in the upper-class house to celebrate a birthday party. The guest of honor is Misiá Elisa, a demented lady in her nineties. Despite her old age and her confinement in bed, Misiá Elisa dominates all those who frequent the house, including Andrés, the orphaned grandson whom she and her husband reared. Still a bachelor in his fifties, Andrés lives comfortably on his inheritance and occupies his idle life by collecting fancy walking sticks and carrying on philosophical conversations with his lifelong friend Carlos Gross. Misiá Elisa also controls three women servants who live in the mansion: Estela, a young girl whose sole duty is to care for the aging lady; Rosario, who has cooked for the Abalos family for nearly half a century; and Lourdes, also an aging housekeeper.
The second section, “Absences,” follows the fates of Andrés and Mario, Estela’s boyfriend, as they both undergo a major crisis in their lives. Andrés is aroused from his complacency by the presence of Estela, the young, sensual servant just arrived from the country. Mario, the young delivery boy who aspired to lead an honest happy life with Estela, finds himself increasingly entangled in the world of his brother’s illicit yet unprofitable dealings. While Andrés becomes obsessed with his newly found sensuality and a preoccupation with death, Mario seeks to escape the fate of poverty and crime that now encircles him. Both men feel persecuted and trapped, Andrés by his grandmother, and Mario by Estela; the women seem to have joined forces under the banner of morality and religion to find shelter from abandonment and solitude. This section develops the characters and signals the eventual disintegration of the men. At the end of Coronation, the men find a questionable deliverance from their fate as Andrés loses his mind and Mario steals Estela and disappears in the streets of the dark city. If the house represented the stage where the men felt confined, the assumption of a new space triggers a radical change in personal definition.
Having opened with the preparations for Misiá Elisa’s birthday, the novel concludes with “The Coronation,” a celebration of her saint’s day. The guests never arrive; the house becomes a stage for the final phase of the already evident decay. In the final scene, the two old servants, now drunk and unmindful of the power that their mistress exerts upon them, crown Misiá Elisa in a grotesque pageantry that erases the boundaries between reality and fiction, decay seamlessly blending life into death. Donoso describes the downward moral path of the upper class by its decadence and the lower class by its degradation. Masters and servants coexist in the dilapidated old house, and both Andrés and Mario seek salvation through Estela, only to have their expectations crushed. By drawing a parallel between the two men, the novel goes beyond the issue of class conflict to evoke the universal quest for happiness. In José Donoso’s world, the moment when dreams fail marks the passage into another, less clearly defined form of existence. In Coronation, flight leads the characters into madness and the unknown.
Finnegan, Pamela May. The Tension of Paradox: José Donoso’s “The Obscene Bird of Night” as Spiritual Exercises. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992. Finnegan examines the novel as an expression of man’s estrangement from the world. The novel’s two alter-egos, Humberto/Mudito, perceive and receive stimuli, yet they regard the world differently, even though they are interdependent. In a series of chapters, Finnegan follows Donoso’s intricate treatment of this idea, showing how the world composes and discomposes itself. A difficult but rewarding study for advanced students. Includes a bibliography.
McMurray, George R. Authorizing Fictions: José Donoso’s “Casa De Campo.” London: Tamesis Books, 1992. Chapters on Donoso’s handling of voice and time, his narrative strategies (re-presenting characters), and his use of interior duplication and distortion. Includes a bibliography.
McMurray, George R. José Donoso. Boston: Twayne, 1979. An excellent introductory study, with chapters on Donoso’s biography, his short stories, The Obscene Bird of Night, and Sacred Families. Includes chronology, detailed notes, and annotated bibliography.
Magnarelli, Sharon. Understanding José Donoso. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. See especially chapter 1: “How to Read José Donoso.” Subsequent chapters cover his short stories and major novels. Includes a bibliography.
Mandri, Flora. José Donoso’s House of Fiction: A Dramatic Construction of Time and Place. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1995. Chapters on all of Donoso’s major fiction, exploring his treatment of history and of place. Includes detailed notes and extensive bibliography.