José Donoso 1924-1996
(Full name José Donoso Yáñez) Chilean novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, translator, and critic.
One of the leading figures of the Latin American literary phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s referred to as the "Boom," Donoso is best known for his structurally complex, nightmarish antinovel, El obsceno pájaro de la noche (1970; The Obscene Bird of Night). While his short stories, written early in his career, are more realistic and conventionally structured than his masterpiece, they exhibit a subtle psychological complexity beneath their apparent naturalism and foreshadow many of the themes found in the later fiction: the moral decay of the haute bourgeois and, particularly, upper-class Chilean society; the spiritual and emotional dissolution of the individual; and the blurred boundaries between truth and hallucination, order and chaos. The novellas, which figure among Donoso's later works, return to a less phantasmagorical world than that of his novels, but in them the ambiguities between fantasy and reality in everyday life are still explored with bold flights of imagination. Donoso's short fiction is also characterized by the use of multiple points of view, unreliable narrators, description of the irrational in rational terms, the use of irony, and a pervasive sense of despair and pessimism at the state of contemporary civilization.
Donoso was born in Santiago into an upper-middle-class family, a background that acquainted him with the distinct class boundaries within Chilean society. His father was a physician who was as interested in gambling as in his profession, and his mother was the daughter of prominent Chilean aristocrats. When Donoso was seven years old, largely because of his father's inability to hold a job, the family moved into the huge, decaying mansion of Dr. Donoso's three elderly aunts, where he tended to them as a doctor-in-residence. The atmosphere of decrepitude in his great aunts' house was to feature prominently in Donoso's fiction. In the late 1930s the family moved back to their earlier home, and soon thereafter Donoso's maternal grandmother, who was in deteriorating mental health, moved in with them. This difficult period Donoso describes as "one of the episodes that most marked my life," and his insane grandmother was to become one of the protagonists of his first novel, Coronación (1957; Coronation). Although he was a bookish youth, who in particular loved the works of Henry James, his literary mentor, Donoso acknowledged that it was the experiences with his family and servants that exercised the greatest influence on his work.
Educated by tutors at an exclusive private English school, Donoso dropped out before graduating, spending a year as a shepherd in southern Chile and working as a dockhand in Buenos Aires. In his early twenties he returned to Santiago to resume his education and received a scholarship to study English literature at Princeton University. After completing a bachelors degree, he traveled throughout North America before returning to Chile, where he worked as a teacher and a journalist. After the success of his first volume of short stories in 1956, Donoso moved to Isla Negra off the coast of Chile to complete his first novel, which also enjoyed a favorable reception. In 1958, tired of the oppressive atmosphere of upper-middle-class Chilean society, he set off on a tour of South America; he spent two years in Buenos Aires, where he became acquainted with many important Argentine writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, and met his future wife, María del Pilar Serrano.
In the 1960s, Donoso continued to move beyond the intellectual confines of Chile to become part of a growing community of Latin American writers—major figures of the "Boom" that included his good friend Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. In 1964 Donoso and his wife left Chile to attend a writers' conference in Mexico; they did not return to their homeland for seventeen years, spending the majority of their time in Spain with occasional stints in the United States. Donoso's most celebrated works, including the novels El obsceno pájaro de la noche, Casa de campo (1978; A House in the Country) and El jardín de al lado (1981; The Garden Next Door)—which together firmly established his reputation as one of the finest Latin American writers of the twentieth century—were written during this time of self-imposed exile. He returned to Chile in 1981, eight years after General Augusto Pinochet's 1973 military coup overthrew elected Marxist president Salvator Allende. Donoso's 1986 novel, La desesperanza (Curfew), which tells of life under Pinochet's rule, was praised abroad for its frank depiction of Chile's dispossessed poor and the dispirited political left, but was viewed coolly by Chilean intellectuals because of its lack of a firm political stance. However, Donoso refused to be affected by his critics' censure, pointing out that he was never a crusader nor even a social commentator but a man hurt by the state of affairs in his native land. He wanted change, but asserted that it was not his place to offer yet another misguided explanation of the world. In 1990 Donoso received the Chilean Premio Nacional de Literatura, his country's highest literary honor. He continued to live and write in Chile until his death at age 72 of liver cancer.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Most of Donoso's short stories were written early in his career, but he continued to publish novellas in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. His first published works were two stories written in English while he was a student at Princeton, "The Poisoned Pastries" and "The Blue Woman," which appeared in a literary magazine that he helped establish there. It was not until 1954, when he was nearly thirty, that he wrote his first story in Spanish. A collection of stories, Veraneo y otros cuentos, was published the following year at his own expense and with the help of family and friends. These early tales are generally urban in flavor and touch on themes that figure prominently in his more mature work. The title piece, "Veraneo," for example, told from the point of view of a pair of children, depicts the world of the Chilean bourgeoisie and elaborates on the interplay between masters and servants. A second collection, El charlestón ( Charleston and Other Stories), written while he was in Buenos Aires, appeared in 1960. Donoso's interest in the questions of psycho-social identity, marginality, social caste, and the stifling codes of contemporary Chilean society inform these stories, typified by the widely anthologized "Paseo," a narrative about an aged, bourgeois spinster who abandons decorum when she meets a stray dog on the way home from church. Donoso's two volumes of stories plus "Santelices" and his earlier "China" were collected and published as Los mejores cuentos de Donoso in 1966, which was reprinted in 1971 simply as Cuentos. A trilogy of novellas, Tres novelitas burguesas (1973; Sacred Families: Three Novellas), his first published fiction after El obsceno pájaro de la noche, treats questions of self-identity in its exploration of fragmented subjectivity, but without the hallucinatory quality that infused the novel. The four novellas in Cuatro para Delfina (1982), Donoso's first fiction written after his return to Chile, are marked in style and theme by the author's reencounter with his native country and the Chilean vernacular. The pair of novellas in Taratuta/Naturaleza muerta con cachimba (1990; Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe), like Donoso's other short fiction, are structured more conventionally than many of the novels, but they are nonetheless complex, cerebral pieces: both are "postmodern" in tone and deal with the power of artistic creation to absorb and transform mundane existence.
Donoso's first story in Spanish, "China," was written in 1954 for a literary contest and won publication in that year in Enrique Lafourcade's influential Antologia del nuevo cuento chileno, the anthology that launched the "Generation of 1950"—a group of middle-and upper-middle-class writers who changed the direction of Chilean fiction by turning away from nativism to cosmopolitanism and a renewed concern with narrative form. Donoso's first, self-published volume of stories was received favorably by critics and won him the 1956 Municipal Prize for Short Stories in Santiago. His collections that appeared in the 1960s were similarly praised for their bitingly satiric portrayals of middle-class Chilean society. However, the seventeen stories, all of which were written between 1950 and 1962, have never received the sustained critical attention that his novels have enjoyed. The stories are not considered those of an artist in full command his literary powers, but in recent years critics have turned their attention to them in part for their inherent merit but also in recognition that they contain in rudimentary form many of the concerns that were to be developed at greater length in the novels. Early critics tended to characterize the stories as primarily realistic, social commentaries on Chilean bourgeois life, ignoring what later critics recognized as the psychologically penetrating analysis of human nature lurking beneath the surface and Donoso's deftly drawn parallels between his characters' mental and physical environments. Donoso's three sets of novellas, Tres novelitas burguesas, Cuatro para Delfina, and Taratuta/Naturaleza muerta con cachimba, while they are not counted among his major works, have also been praised for being complex but highly readable, showing Donoso at the height of his ability to portray the inexplicable "other side" of reality that lies within the human psyche.