José Donoso

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(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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...

(The entire section is 53,711 words.)