José Donoso

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José Donoso is one of Chile’s most widely known writers of prose fiction and one of the most outstanding and prestigious figures of his generation of narrators in Latin America. He was born José Donoso Yañez into an upper-middle-class family of Spanish and Italian descent in Santiago on October 5, 1924. His father (for whom Donoso was named) was a physician; his mother, Alicia Yáñez, came from a prominent Chilean family. It was she who, with the couple’s servant, Teresa Vergara, reared Donoso and his two brothers. Until her death in 1976, Donoso’s mother continued to live in the spacious home where the future novelist was born, and the atmosphere of decrepitude and decay in the labyrinthine mansion (property of Dr. Donoso’s three elderly great-aunts) haunts his fiction.

When Donoso was seven years old, his father hired an English governess, the foundation of his excellent knowledge of the language, which he continued to study at the Grange, an English school in Santiago, from 1932 to 1942. During this period, Donoso’s maternal grandmother returned from Europe to make her home with the family, an event that (together with her deteriorating mental and physical condition) left a mark on the future writer’s development. A teenage rebel who disliked school and his father’s imposition of the British sports ethic (personified in a boxing instructor), Donoso began feigning stomachaches, which led to a real appendectomy and subsequently an equally real ulcer.

Never serious about religion, Donoso proclaimed himself an atheist at the age of twelve. Equally cavalier about classes, he cared only for reading, and in 1943, he dropped out of school. After two years, during which he had not managed to hold a job for more than a few months, he set out for Magallanes at the southern tip of Chile, where he worked as a sheepherder on the pampas for about a year, subsequently hitchhiking through Patagonia to Buenos Aires, where he lived as a dockhand until he contracted measles, which obliged him to return home. He finished high school in 1947, enrolling in the University of Chile with a major in English and completing his bachelor of arts degree at Princeton in 1951. His study with Allen Tate and his discovery of Henry James, as well as his introduction to the great paintings of the world, would all influence his future writings.

Returning to Chile, Donoso worked as a teacher, journalist, and literary critic but found himself estranged from his homeland and dissatisfied with his work. His ulcer returned, and he began psychoanalysis. He collaborated in launching the newsmagazine Ercilla, which he edited, and in 1954, his first short story written in Spanish (“China”) was included in an anthology of Chilean short fiction. The following year, his first book, the collection Veraneo, y otros cuentos, was published and had a favorable critical reception, winning the Santiago Municipal Short Story Prize. This success and that of his first novel notwithstanding, Donoso found Chilean society oppressive and moved on to Buenos Aires, where he met his future wife and stayed for two years. He published his second collection of short stories upon his return to Santiago, and he became a leading literary critic, which led to teaching in the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa; he abandoned this position in order to move to Spain and finish a novel begun years before, which would become The Obscene Bird of Night.

Donoso and his wife, Mará del Pilar Serrano, whom he had married in 1961, adopted an infant daughter in Madrid and settled in Mallorca in 1967. Donoso’s first Guggenheim...

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award (1966) was followed by a lectureship at Colorado State University (1969). While in Colorado, his hemorrhaging ulcer required surgery; because of his inability to tolerate painkilling drugs, he subsequently went through a period marked by hallucinations, schizophrenia, and paranoia that resulted in suicide attempts. He returned to Mallorca, moved his family to Barcelona, and began to rewrite his novel, incorporating his nightmarish illness. Subsequently, still recuperating, he bought a seventeenth century home in Calaceite, remodeled it, and in 1971 moved to this village of some two thousand inhabitants in the center of Spain. Both his critical history,The Boom in Spanish American Literature, and his novellas in Sacred Families were published in Spain.

Donoso’s second Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1973, enabled him to work on A House in the Country. His first trip to Chile in some nine years had to be canceled because of the military coup there (an event that colors both A House in the Country and El jardín de al lado). His next move, to the Mediterranean fishing and resort village of Sitges (1976), has obvious resonances in El jardín de al lado, which, like all of the author’s fiction, has a strong autobiographical substratum. Donoso returned to Chile in 1980, winning the Chilean Premio National de Literatura in 1990. He died in Santiago in 1996.

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