José Donoso Donoso, José (Vol. 8) - Essay

Donoso, José (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donoso, José 1924?–

Donoso is a Chilean novelist, essayist, and short story writer who in his fiction seems captivated by the bizarre and the grotesque. The Obscene Bird of Night catapulted Donoso into international prominence. He is presently living as an expatriot in Spain. (See also CLC, Vol. 4.)

The Obscene Bird of Night, Donoso's third novel and the culmination of everything the Chilean author has done so far, is a phantasmagoria chronicling the decay of family, church and social system. What marks it as literature, though, is the brilliant handling of the narration in such a way that the book, like One Hundred Years of Solitude, advances "in an opposite direction from reality" and ends up as pages being burned by a hag. The novel comes to its own end, like Garcia Márquez's, as a physical text both in the book we are reading and as the book we are reading. Throughout, confusions and confluences predominate as the narrator, a deaf mute, records what he hears and writes down what he says in the course of a monstrous, mythic metamorphosis where a legend in the first part becomes the informing reality of the second…. The Obscene Bird is at once a parodic life of Buddah and a modern version of both Dante's Inferno and Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. A popularized surrealism, it might also be seen as The Childhood of Rosemary's Baby, but Donoso often brings Gothic fright to the pitch of Lookingglass sublime…. Donoso's imagination is so proliferating that at times he seems about to deliver a thalidomide novel, but his perpetual transmogrification of characters, events and places into the mute's text, which is the text you read, discovers a dark intelligence, which you may call baroque, as opposed to the transparence of reason. Ultimately, the book is the carrying of an idea to its bewildering conclusion—the text of a text as a text in a text—and the novel is a vast black mass of the written word. (pp. 484-85)

Ronald Christ, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1974 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 3, 1974.

Donoso's work emanates from a childhood spent in the midst of senile, bedridden relatives. Indeed, this element of his youth marked him for life with an intense awareness of death and decay. His short stories, as well as his more mature fiction, exhibit this preoccupation. In addition to the world of the old and the dying (often insane aristocrats, as in Coronation), there is the universe of children and the constant intimation of infant cruelty. Such stories as "Veraneo" and "El güero" hint at the mysterious and often perverse quality of infancy; others, notably "El hombrecito" and "China," as well as the novel This Sunday, are adult evocations of distant childhood. However, it is the world of servants, another recollected facet of his early life, that particularly attracts the author. Although ignored by their masters, female servants in Donoso's works seem to shape their lives secretly from within. Donoso sees these women as possessing witch-like powers, as in the case of Peta Ponce in The Obscene Bird of Night. She is the embodiment of the archetypal nursemaid and sorcerer.

Donoso's characters emerge from three distinct social classes: the senile aristocracy, the manipulative maids and the amoral pariahs of society. He purposely ignores those complacent years of human experience, particularly among the privileged classes, when the fears of imminent death and self-confrontation are not paramount. For the underprivileged or the old, life and death have an immediacy never suspected by the contented upper classes, which ignore chaos by veiling it under an appearance of order. Thus, beyond the social reality and its multiple stratification, Donoso probes into life's duality of good and evil, order and chaos, life and death, and examines man's inability to reconcile both sides of existence. Therein lies the tragedy; for, despite man's effort to build an illusion of order, life's anarchy eventually overcomes him. Madness, abdication to chaos, becomes the only alternative. (pp. 249-50)

Love is absent from Donoso's universe. Men approach one another to destroy and to be destroyed, never to attain plenitude of being. Furthermore, if man cannot redeem his fellow man through love, neither can God. The games the children play in This Sunday provide a clue to Donoso's conception of God: an arbitrary divinity who creates man solely to destroy him, just as the children create an imaginary character, Mariola Rocanfort, only for the purpose of killing her. The title of this section, "The legitimate games," seems to justify the ways of God to man.

The tragic nature of Donoso's characters stems from their inability to alter their condition. In Coronation, Donoso's first novel, Andrés Abalos is ultimately forced to the conclusion that "if there is a God, he has to be mad." The only alternative to this helplessness is "to join the cosmic madness." Thus we perceive a glorification, a symbolic crowning of insanity. (p. 250)

[The] recurrent themes in Donoso's fiction [are] the dissolution of self and the resulting madness. The abundance of costumes and disguises in Donoso's novels marks this process of disintegration and emphasizes the many personalities or symbolic masks that the characters assume in their futile attempts at self-integration.

If madness is glorified in Coronation, then Hell Has No Limits, Donoso's third novel, exalts the mask. By presenting Manuel or Manuela as a homosexual transvestite, the author succeeds in conveying the anguish of a consciousness fluctuating between two opposing realities, alternately male and female; yet the protagonist, constantly torn by his own ambiguity, is unable to find a permanent shelter in any one self. (p. 251)

Throughout the novel we sense an imminent doom…. Beyond the objective reality of a marginal town, we detect a reiteration of the image of a crazed God (a divinity who creates the world only to destroy it) through man's enslavement and exploitation by a social and cosmic order that ultimately annihilates him, an order represented here by the image of the brothel. The characters in Hell Has No Limits, most prostitutes and drunkards, are immobilized by their indulgence in sex and wine. Like Manuel, they are tormented by the dread of sinking into nothingness; but unlike Manuel, they are never moved to action.

In the midst of this stagnant world stands the grotesque transvestite, the aging Manuel. Even though eventually unsuccessful at self-integration, he nonetheless seeks ontological affirmation by struggling to identify with his preferred mask—namely, that of a young female dancer…. Manuel's death recalls Cerberus, and we are indeed at the gates of Hell. The title of the novel, a line from Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, underlines the hellish quality of life, a life "without limits" where man is doomed to remain and disintegrate and from which there is no escape.

The conception of life as an immanent hell underlies The Obscene Bird of Night. In fact, Donoso's masterpiece constitutes a reductio ad absurdum of the themes stressed in Hell Has No Limits: the donning of the mask and the disintegration of personality. However, in The Obscene Bird, the masks multiply as the narrator's self dissolves into several conflicting personae. The novel portrays the mind of a madman who surrenders his reason to chaos. Becoming a multifaceted, monstrous personality, he is nobody because he is each and every creature of his phantasmagoric world. (This brings to mind the image of a many-headed beast recurring throughout Donoso's fiction.) The first-person narrator of The Obscene Bird, Humberto Peñaloza or Mudito, is, in essence, a man bewitched by the irrational powers he has conjured up. He is a captive of the charms of sorcery, a situation symbolized, toward the end of the novel, by his being smothered under a seemingly infinite number of burlap bags. This notion suggests another recurrent image, that of the imbuche. This term, which recalls a superstition (among the Araucan Indians) whereby small children are robbed, choked and disfigured by old wizards, ultimately signifies possession by an act of sorcery. Not surprisingly, then, the presence of Peta Ponce, the archetypal witch, haunts Humberto throughout the book. (pp. 251-52)

The fantastic world of The Obscene Bird revolves around two locales: the Rinconada, run by Humberto Peñaloza, and the House of Incarnation of the Chimba, an old convent now serving as a home for the aged, under the supervision of Mother Benita. Because he feels threatened …, Humberto, transformed into Mudito (the deaf-mute), escapes the Rinconada and seeks refuge in the House. Although most of The Obscene Bird is an interior monologue (interspersed with dialogue), its narrator frequently seems to address Mother Benita, who is presented as his imaginary confidante. Mudito's mental labyrinth, filled with obsessions which result in the proliferation of selves, is paralleled by the labyrinthine structures of both houses, in which the rooms, corridors and galleries also proliferate.

In the Rinconada the teratological materializes in misshapen beings in the form of hunchbacks, dwarfs and lizard-like creatures. To dramatize the absolute supremacy of chaos, even the inanimate statues that decorate the gardens and the parks at the Rinconada have been stripped of their classical proportions and converted into grotesque parodies of their originals. Anarchy also prevails in the House of Incarnation, but in the form of decrepitude, imbecility and imminent death. This impending end is further reinforced by the fact that the House has been condemned. The name of the place, Incarnation, suggests the advent of a Savior; and we discern, in effect, a parody of the birth of Christ. One of the girls, Iris, bears the miraculous child whose coming promises deliverance from death for the senile women. As the novel moves toward its end, Iris is transformed into Inés and enthroned and worshipped in another parody of the Virgin Mary, for Inés is also identified with Peta, the eternal witch, and Mudito himself with the miraculous child.

Thus, through parody, Donoso has succeeded in revealing "le monde à l'envers" (the world turned upside-down), a distorted and estranged universe in which everything has been, in Donoso's words, "monstrified" to present the grotesque irrationality of existence. By revealing the obverse and reverse of reality …, Donoso has further underscored man's inability to reconcile the dualities of life. Because this inability is a direct consequence of a cultural nourishment that has for centuries exalted reason at the expense of the dark powers of life, "the obscene bird of night" eventually and ironically prevails. Thus, the archetypal Mother is not the eternal Virgin but, rather, the eternal Witch; and the Savior, the son of that irrational God whose presence is all-pervading in Donoso's universe, is born to "redeem" the world not through an act of love but, instead, through an act of madness. Throughout The Obscene Bird, Donoso reiterates his primary intuition, earlier expressed by Andrés Abalos in Coronation, that man's sole alternative is to partake of and unite with the cosmic madness.

The Obscene Bird of Night closes, appropriately, with a vision of an old woman emptying a parcel (made of burlap bags), which represents Mudito's mental world. Thus, the narrator's lapsing into non-consciousness climaxes the dissolution of his subjectivity. At the end, "there is no writer, no Mudito, no nothing, only papers, and garbage, filth collected by the old women. The eternal witch: Inés de Azcoitía and Peta Ponce, the yellow bitch." This witch is Woman, the eternal sorcerer; she is the embodiment of irrationality, the very essence of existence. In the final analysis, the character's multiple identities merely mask his ontological vacuum…. Deaf, mute and eventually blind, Mudito represents man as an alienated and solitary being, impotent before the irresistible chatter of the bewitching "obscene bird of night," doomed to absurdity and irrationality. (pp. 253-55)

Z. Nelly Marńnez, "José Donoso: A Short Study of His Works," in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 249-55.

In "The Boom in Spanish American Literature," José Donoso says that he left his native Chile to escape the social realist or slice-of-life parochialism that dominated the novel there. Like many another literary expatriate, he went abroad in search of a deeper desolation, a more universal unease. On the evidence of "Sacred Families," which consists of three novellas, I believe he both gained and lost by the move.

In "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," the best of these three, a Barcelona playboy erases his mistress's face every night with vanishing cream so that he can create her anew each day, in the ultimate male chauvinist dream of perpetual novelty. Sometimes he removes her arms as well, to prevent her from clinging to him or importuning him with endearments. In revenge, she detaches and hides his genitalia, which turn out to be just as precariously situated.

"Green Atom Number Five," the second piece in "Sacred Families," is less interesting. Again, the theme is loss or dispossession, but this time it is the furniture not of the self but of an apartment that disappears. The victims are a smug couple who have made a fetish of their pretentious décor, people for whom things substitute for feelings. This notion of objects displacing emotions is neither a new nor a fertile one….

"Gaspard de La Nuit," the third novella, tries to make the best of an idea that strikes me as arbitrary and unconvincing. A teen-age boy who is visiting his divorced mother rejects all her overtures and occupies himself with whistling a melody by Ravel. Donoso tries to persuade us that only in this way can the boy express his true self, the inner music that only he hears. The premise is rather mechanically carried out, and the story whistles itself away.

In ["The Boom in Spanish American Literature"], which is more a personal chronicle than analytic interpretation, Donoso observes that his works have been influenced by authors from other countries rather than from his own. One result of such crosscultural orientation is that his writing has, for me at least, in these latest collections a rather touristic or anthropological detachment. He sounds like a man without a country or a history of his own. Men like Kafka or Faulkner experienced or suffered their subjects, while Donoso appears to have been led to his by books, like a literary comparison-shopper. The whistling boy is a thin echo of Kafka's "Josephine, the Songstress." "Green Atom Number Five" recalls Robbe-Grillet's obsession with inanimate objects. Only "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" establishes a territory of its own.

Perhaps, too, Donoso has overlooked certain possibilities in his own country. His account, in "The Boom in Spanish American Literature," of a timid and ironic young woman hawking her own books in the trolley cars of Chile is more Kafkaesque than any story Donoso has written. In these same pages, he describes his native tongue as "rich … naturally Baroque, protean, exuberant"—yet in his novellas, the language is meager, fussy, deracinated and marred by clichés. Perhaps in moving from Chile to Barcelona he has lost his tongue. In escaping what he regards as a prison, Donoso may have become a fugitive from his past. Rhetoric, the conspicuous surface of a language, often becomes the voice of the expatriate, but here too I miss in Donoso the wide-eyed, open-mouthed excitement in response to what Hart Crane called "new thresholds, new anatomies." It may be that this has nothing to do with expatriation, that Donoso simply does not have much feeling for words. In "The Obscene Bird of Night," the novel that made him famous, the language is feeble compared with Borges, Fuentes, Márquez or Cortázar. And in that book, Donoso is still in Chile, on his own home ground.

"Charleston & Other Stories" is a less venturesome collection than "Sacred Families." Donoso cannot seem to get up much impetus in the space of a short story. In each of his novellas, he is a slow starter. There are other difficulties too: Like so many writers with "metaphysical" leanings, Donoso assumes that every dislocation of the ordinary is extraordinary. He also confuses dreariness with ominousness. These stories read like slices of life that have dried out and lost their vitality. A boy spends all his spare time sleeping, pursuing some ineffable revelation: this is the whistler again, still less convincing. A neglected child runs away with a neglected old man, but these two negatives do not make a positive. A highly intellectual couple produces an incorrigible son who eventually drowns: Is this a baptism of humility? Only the title story, "Charleston," achieves a certain tricky equilibrium.

"The Obscene Bird of Night" was a fat book, in both senses of the word, and in these two new collections of stories, Donoso is living off his fat. I believe we would have to turn to sociology rather than literary criticism to explain the success, if that is the word, of the earlier book. It is superficially grotesque—like primitive statues carved for foreign consumption—opaque, and exasperating, and it sometimes pleases a part of the American public to seize upon such qualities as signs of profundity. It is easier to romanticize such a book as the spectacular cultural artifact of a country cousin than to read it.

Anatole Broyard, "The Exile Who Lost His Tongue," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 26, 1977, p. 14.

What is clear from José Donoso's Charleston & Other Stories is that, in pursuit of his own demons, his agile, sometimes hypertrophied imagination was off and running in the morning. After his first three novels, all variously portraying the decay of Chile's antiquated, rigidly structured society, Donoso was pegged as a criollista, a writer in the tradition of Chilean regional realism. Yet of the nine pieces in the Charleston volume …, only three tales are rooted in criollista realism…. Although skillfully done, these tales are the weakest of the lot, perhaps the only signs that Donoso ever served a literary apprenticeship.

The other stories in Charleston reveal Donoso at his typical best, which is when he moves step by step from our real world toward a realm of dream, magic, fantasy, and mystery, exposing no telltale footprints as the transition occurs and gradually winning over a reader to an acceptance of fictional incredibility. Not unexpectedly in a collection of early work, a number of the tales exorcise youthful demons as their heroes and heroines first experience—and reject—the indifference, dullness, and cruelty of grown-ups. More important, however, is the haunting, self-contained isolation of Donoso's characters, who, driven by obsessions and supernatural powers, hover constantly on the brink of either salvatory revelations or imminent destruction. (p. 30)

Perched on an edge between reality and fantasy, the mundane and the visionary, rationality and insanity, order and chaos, Donoso's protagonists in Charleston inhabit a dark, grotesque world of their own making.

Separated by more than two decades from the earliest Charleston stories, the three novellas in Sacred Families, all set in the expensive glitter of today's Spanish bourgeois society and unified by overlapping characters, show Donoso so entirely in control of fictional unreality that he can joke about it…. Where the earlier stories often present a closed world inhabited by people distant from our norms, and hence threaten to be a bit stagy, even tricky, Sacred Families deals with our most recognizable concerns and brazenly displays fantasy as a mode of playfulness and humor. (pp. 30-1)

[Representing] his beginnings and where he is now, [Charleston & Other Stories and Sacred Families] allow one to see the constants in Donoso's work: his gripping power as a storyteller; his grotesque vision of experience; and his dark, terrifying account of human existence, lying just beneath the surface of the normal, the orderly, and even the humorous. Donoso has said it was after reading Ernest Sábato's novel About Heroes and Tombs that he realized how "the irrational could have intellectual significance equal to or even greater than the rational." That realization, however, was not so much a shaping force for his fiction thereafter as it was a description of the writer he'd always been. (p. 31)

Robert Maurer, "Unbridled Pegasus," in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), July 9, 1977, pp. 30-1.