José Donoso Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

José Donoso (doh-NOH-soh), one of Chile’s leading novelists, is an eminent figure within the Latin American renaissance as well as within contemporary fiction in general. He was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1924. His childhood home, a decaying but still elegant mansion, filled with the many servants and relatives of his father’s wealthy and bedridden great-aunts, provided him with inspiration for insightful portrayals of the Chilean bourgeoisie and its servants. His father, a physician, seems to have been more dedicated to playing cards and horse racing than to the rigors of dealing with the ill. His dramatic household situation allowed the young Donoso to develop a penchant for art and literature, costumes, the servants’ and aunts’ stories, and the spirit of the nineteenth century, elements which can be noted in the narrative richness of his two masterpieces, The Obscene Bird of Night and A House in the Country. The insanity and eccentricity of his maternal grandmother inspired the female protagonist of his first novel, Coronation. His mother’s intrepid nouveau-riche family and her carnivalesque approach to religion (she had a fascination with witchcraft and costumes) influenced Donoso’s grotesque and fantastical descriptions. All three of these novels, along with This Sunday, capture his childhood activities and games, and the latter portrays the charities of his lovable and theatrical mother.{$S[A]Yañez, José Donoso;Donoso, José}

Donoso attended English schools, becoming progressively more averse to the collective experience of sports and other group activities. This feeling of being an outsider led him to rebellious pastimes, such as talking to derelicts and living as a shepherd on the pampa of Punta Arenas. An admiration of the charmed circle and a sense of exclusion are important themes of The Obscene Bird of Night and Sacred Families. When he began his studies at the university in Santiago, he realized that he had read more English literature than his teachers, and in 1949 he received a scholarship to attend Princeton University. There he discovered Henry James, one of Donoso’s most important literary influences, particularly in the early works.

Donoso’s first serious literary endeavor was the submission two years after his return to Chile of a story, “China” (1954), to what became a much discussed anthology in Chile. In 1955 Donoso published his first collection of stories, Veraneo, y otros cuentos (summer vacation, and other stories), with money and aid from his family and friends. His literary career launched, he quit his job as a teacher in order to write his first novel, which became very popular in Chile. Through travels and literary friendships with Latin American writers such as the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, Donoso became aware of the exciting developments in the Latin American novel and became one of the members of the famous “boom” generation in the 1960’s. During that period he married María Pilar Serrano, an artist, a fellow Chilean and, coincidentally, a former pupil of Donoso’s own governess from years before.

After sojourns in Mexico, Iowa, and Spain, Donoso returned to Chile in 1980, in part to recuperate his roots and the spoken language so crucial to his literature. Parallel to an increasing participation in the political fate of Chile under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, Donoso wrote another acclaimed novel in 1986, Curfew. It deals with contemporary Chile, political activism and despair, centering on the funeral of Pablo Neruda’s widow. The two novellas in “Taratuta” and “Still Life with Pipe” demonstrate his continued interest in the construction of identity and the process of artistic creation.

Although many of his themes remain constant, Donoso’s narratives show a great range of styles. The earlier realistic depiction in Donoso’s work is in contrast with the surrealistic style of Sacred Families , the self-conscious...

(The entire section is 1,843 words.)