José Donoso Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

José Donoso, like Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, and the stream-of-consciousness writers, gave literary testament to the belief that ultimate human reality is disclosed not in rational observation, historicity, or scientific proof but in the workings of human emotion and imagination. For Donoso, as for Proust, the reality of an event is not its actual occurrence but the subjective recollection and reexperience of it. This view of reality is shared, in general, by writers of the Spanish American “boom,” whose fiction tends to be cyclic, discontinuous, intertextual, and indiscriminately narrated, as opposed to conventionally linear, plot-oriented, and fixedly narrated.

If a story by Donoso starts with conventional narration of sequential and explicable actions, it will eventually challenge the reader with either a narrator who exposes him/herself as androgynous or an undemarcated plurality of narrators and with events that defy rational explication or analysis. In his novels El lugar sin límites (1966; Hell Has No Limits, 1972) and The Obscene Bird of Night, for example, a male narrator experiences life as a woman; in his short stories “The Güero” a creative imagination vitally exceeds ordinary existence and then fatally exceeds itself: The güero (fair-haired male) follows a sorceress’s path of jungle mystery in preference to the normal activities of his European heritage and meets a magical death; Santelices, an office worker, deprived of the pictures that have provided him with a life of fully imagined bestial ambience, feeds his subsequently uncontrolled imagination to the point of leaping to his death from his office window to rescue an imaginary female from an imaginary horde of beasts.

Three characteristic elements of Donoso’s fiction are surrealism (his presentation of the superrealism of imagination), existentialism (in his major characters’ unrelenting exercise of personal and authentic choice), and a kind of deconstruction or introverted semiotics (by which language appears to speak about itself).

“A Lady”

One of the shortest of Donoso’s short stories is also one of his most typical. “A Lady” seems to be quite straightforward in its simple first-person narration of a man who catches sight of a fiftyish lady, ordinary but not unattractive, and continues to see her around town, always from a distance. His imagination details her way of life and her role in life, until, after her appearances cease, he culls her name from an obituary and attends her funeral. The story has the quality of a Joycean epiphany, except for the narrator’s confession of feeling a “special tranquillity” after his walk home from the funeral. The satisfying calm, instead of sadness or sympathy, translates the burden of the story from incidence and coincidence to concerted hunting, finding, and disposing—the result of his perversely creative imagination.

The narrator’s first, and perhaps only, proximity to the lady is on a streetcar, where he sees her “knee covered with a green raincoat” next to his knee and then glances at her figure. All that follows is the narrator’s construction of a satisfied desire to destroy a female, the psychological transference having resulted, possibly, from either hatred of his mother or loss of a potential (or actual) mate, or both. The streetcar, the obituary, and the funeral are real; all else is in the narrator’s imagination, which is not necessarily false, because it is the narrator’s own reality. Such reality, because it inheres in the narrator, constitutes the narrator: It is not self-deception.

Gaspard de la nuit

Orchestration of the various aspects of imagination, as the development and projection of one’s individual reality, is perfected in the novella Gaspard de la nuit. The novella concludes a trilogy made up of the novella and two short stories, so called because of recurrent themes and characters. In the first of the stories, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” characters control their lovers and partners by disassembling and reassembling their body...

(The entire section is 1692 words.)