José Donoso Donoso, José (Vol. 4) - Essay

Donoso, José (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donoso, José 1925–

Donoso is a Chilean novelist and short story writer, now living in Spain, whose novel The Obscene Bird of Night is considered a major contribution to Latin American literature.

How do you review a dream? Pájaro [The Obscene Bird of Night] is a nightmare. It changes while you do so that trying to describe it is hopeless. If ever a work contained all the characteristics Umberto Eco has found for the opera aperta it surely is this one. True, we meet again the preoccupations Donoso has expressed in his earlier novels—Coronación …, Lugar sin límites, Este domingo—namely: youth versus old age, the poor versus the rich, servants versus masters (if in Sábato's Sobre héroes y tumbas the blind rule the world, in Pájaro it is the old, retired, decrepit servants that govern it), freaks versus "normal" people, illness versus health, impotence, transmutations (here even grotesque transplants), charity and its hidden motives, family histories, et cetera, but this time they are virtually all reflected in each other. It is as though reality mirrored dreams, history showed us legend or myth, as if each were a form of all others. People change into each other, into animals, and back. The whole novel strikes one as the delirium of a physical and metaphysical hypochondriac, almost a schizophrenic.

The narrator's viewpoint shifts continually; identities are conjugated in time and space; at the end, the only consciousness left, sewn up tight in a series of sacks from which it is unable to free itself, gets thrown into the fire and apparently burns: the creative imagination has eliminated itself. This literal and literary reductio ad absurdum is in fact the most intimate movement of the novel: a consciousness that, dreading chaotic and unclean reality, shrinks from it, and shrinks and shrinks into self-extinction. At what I take to be the center of the novel there is a straight, conventionally told folk-myth about erotic witchcraft, something like a musical theme. Slowly the book turns into a series of variations on the myth, and the variations themselves, too, enter into strange combinations: everything becomes everything else—as in a dream.

Donoso worked eight years on this novel. The result is superb and unique; a complicated book, true, one that requires much effort from the reader, but a novel that causes what is called an "intense experience." I consider Pájaro a masterwork.

Wolfgang A. Luchting, in Books Abroad, Vol. 46, No. 1, Winter, 1972, pp. 82-3.

[Donoso] writes in Spanish like an Englishman, like one of the no-nonsense reviewers in the TLS, say, who has decided to chuck criticism for fiction. Donoso is intelligible even in his most "poetic" moments, a quality to be appreciated, surely, when compared to all that "intense" prose and écriture that has lately been coming out of Latin America. This holds true even for such complex books (and their asuntos) as his latest novel, El obsceno pájaro de la noche…. In comparison to it, Cuentos is as digestible as skimmed milk, when compared to sour cream….

I am partial to Donoso: I like practically anything he writes (with one minor reservation, his first novel Coronación …) and consider him one of the most fascinating Latin American writers. Not all the stories in Cuentos are impressive, but most are. In certain ones there is that sometimes irritating disproportion between the preparation for a plot and the execution of it ("Charlestón," "El güero," for instance), or, also, the impression one occasionally gets of what might be termed a "desganada" attitude in the author toward what he tells ("La puerta cerrada"). As for the narrative techniques, I detect a certain minor abuse of the story-within-the-story approach. But none of these (unimportant) objections is serious. Reading Cuentos is ninety percent sheer pleasure, not only for the ad hoc effects they may achieve, but also for the insights they permit into his "workshop." They are all there, his obsessions, his hang-ups, and it is revealing to see how even years ago they were decisive in forming what were to be Donoso's later writings: El lugar sin límites … and Este domingo…. In short, no serious student of Latin American literature can afford not to read this book, for Donoso's is unquestionably one of the most skillful works that continent and a half has produced.

Wolfgang A. Luchting, in Books Abroad, Vol. 46, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 275-76.

[The] forest of this long novel [The Obscene Bird of Night] is unsubdued (it could advantageously have been thinned out) and the feral cacophony within it is unstinting. Yet there is, embedded as a figure in the luxuriant ground of the whole, like a witches' Sabbath in a greenhouse, an outrageously brilliant novella about a Chilean grandee who secretes a deformed son on the remote family estate and combs the world for other human sports of nature to keep him company. I know of no more compelling stretch of prose in modern Latin American fiction. I just wonder why Donoso added so much to it, muffling and weakening it. If he felt it gained through contrast, he was surely mistaken: we supply our own contrasts to anything gruesome, freakish, willful—indeed, self-styled "normality" needs no boost in its smugness. Not that any part of this book is badly written (or badly translated); it just has so exceptional a core that what I suppose is the shielding seems a bit humdrum and sometimes superfluous….

Far from prolific, José Donoso, born in Chile in 1925, has published two volumes of stories and a previous novel Coronation (Englished in 1966), but little in those essentially societal servant-master studies prepares one for this phantasmagorical impasto of magic, madness and misery. He has learned to multiply by myth and this gives his work a resonance and amplitude that puts him alongside Carpentier, Cortázar and García Márquez.

Paul West, "Into a Fiery Green Furnace," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 27, 1973, p. 6.

"The Obscene Bird of Night" is a dense and energetic book, full of terrible risk-taking, populated with legendary saints and witches, mad old crones and a whole estate-full of freaks and monsters, and narrated by a disturbed deafmute, many times disguised. The story line is like a great puzzle with everything in it from burlesque to romance, magic to murder, often bizarre, yet always—for Donoso is himself possessed by an astonishingly agile imagination—invested with a vibrant, almost tangible reality. Even the very setting is a kind of maze-within-a-maze, yet as vivid in its details as the hairs on an old crone's chin….

[In] spite of all its surface disorder, "The Obscene Bird of Night" has been carefully, intelligently—even cabalistically—designed. There are three parts to the book, the first two containing nine chapters each, the third a magical twelve. The three parts are dominated, respectively, by Mudito, Boy (Don Jerónimo's monstrous heir), and the Blesséd Inés—the author-Father, freakish Son and somewhat perverse Holy Spirit, who blows through the book like some kind of ironical Original Sin, like "the obscene bird of night" itself, an image borrowed, appropriately, from a letter written by henry James Sr. to his sons Henry and William….

I have no idea what fate awaits [this book], but it certainly deserves to take its place alongside the major works of Asturias and Fuentes, Cortázar, Borges and Rulfo, Vargas Llosa and García Márquez, and never mind that "the old woman plotted everything." She and "The Obscene Bird of Night" are part of our mainstream, after all, Anglo- and Hispano-American alike. The horrible bat-winged head of the beautiful Blesséd Inés pursues us all.

Robert Coover, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 17, 1973, pp. 1-2.

In his excellent novella, "Hell Has No Limits" …, the Chilean writer, José Donoso, dealt with themes of identity—the dissatisfaction with self and existence, and the adoption of roles to alleviate that dissatisfaction. In his new book, a huge, striking and at times very puzzling novel [The Obscene Bird of Night], Donoso explores a strange, decaying world, given to ritual and madness, and populated by discontent, isolated souls often longing for a change of skin….

As Donoso describes this absurd world of ritual and deception, he also traces the deterioration of various characters and settings—the decline and eventual demise of the de Azcoitía family, the fall of the convent home, and Humberto's passage from vague being to non-being. Throughout the novel, the author is in complete control of his material, handling complex monologues and time transitions with ease and, except for a few lapses, subtly dramatizing his ideas. I would be dishonest to pretend that a book as long, dense and claustrophobic as this is not a challenge and a chore for the reader. At times it does seem tedious, too repetitious. And after reading parts of it a second time, I still couldn't decide whether certain scenes were "real" or simply products of Humberto's imagination. But for all its difficulty, The Obscene Bird of Night is a stunning and original book by an unusually gifted and serious writer. Though the world Donoso has created seems quite closed and distant, the odd, desperate inhabitants, with their games and crises of identity, are simply representative of the confused and tortured players who perform on the vast stage we know so well.

Ronald DeFeo, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 21, 1973, pp. 509-10.

Among … recent Latin American narratives,… three novels in particular—From Cuba with a Song by Severo Sarduy, Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso—have reaffirmed the destruction of conventional reality by installing the grotesque in order to depict most effectively a shapeless world that cannot find its center. In these novels, a new language is created in the space of the text itself: fragmentation is used as an expressive unit of the irrational, implying an ever-changing structure.

Within this new literary reality, The Obscene Bird of Night is a singular work, for it portrays the universe in a continuous metamorphosis where ambiguity is an all-encompassing principle that reflects a world in constant contradiction. Although this novel marks the culmination of Donoso's work, his previous novels, especially This Sunday and Hell Has No Limits, contain the germ of that delirious world presented in The Bird….

The characters in The Bird … are transformed by constant mutation into metaphoric figures. In Donoso's novel, transformation is a mirror of the world, and in that sense it approaches the great myths of metamorphosis: Ovid's Metamorphosis, Apuleius' The Golden Ass, and especially Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Delights, to which Donoso's cosmos is clearly related….

Bosch's universe, in consonance with the perspective of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries reflects the terror of God's absence in a world where Satan is triumphant, pointing to a destructive reality rather than to religious hope of salvation. In Donoso's world, man is a recluse who is never the Self but always the Other. Therein lies his rejection of religion, institutions, and reality. But Donoso's cosmos rests totally on earth, the only place without limits, where we are "given" heaven and hell….

In both Bosch's and Donoso's world, woman, acting as the intermediary between man and the universe, is the reason for the fall from paradise into earthly chaos. Woman is thus united to the magical ritual and is the possessor of both the angelic and satanical powers that have been irrationally conceived, but rationally exercised….

There is an exuberant nature in both Bosch's painting and Donoso's novel, a supernature that exalts the telluric. It is a savage desire that goes from the idealization of the sensuous (the idyllic fishbowls of The Garden) to the most repugnant and monstrous….

What is unique in Donoso's work is that metamorphosis as a literary reality is both a myth and a poetic metaphor. All myth is born from contradiction and is at the same time a transformation of reality. Myths are expressed in algebraic form and are found at the boundaries of a logical supernature where the balance of the world undergoes a never-ending mutation. Every transformation is ruled, however, by a recurring and ordered process: 1) opposition (vertical axis); 2) mediation (transit and passage, horizontal axis), and 3) transformation (new paradigmatic structure, vertical axis). The intermediary resolves the ambiguity and conditions all changes. It is significant that the figure established in the third moment does not remain static, since it has a potential for a new transformation. Thus, an unstable and constant rhythm is created. In Donoso, the metamorphosis is a language that is made within the literalness of the text. The narrative mode is a surprising mixture of I-thou-he interwoven in a context in which the reader must imagine the mutations of identity. The reader, as a privileged intermediary, becomes part of the magical act of reading to fathom the "weave" of the text. When the chaotic world demands it, there is a corresponding chaotic language. When the motive is idealized, the language is also endowed with traces of "Darío's modernismo," such as in the idyllic walks of Jerónimo and Inés through the parks of La Rinconada. The Language is also baroque, like a cornucopia of colors in the luxurious and Pantagruelian banquets of La Rinconada, with similar sensual connotations conveyed by the feathers, flowers, and fruits of The Garden.

However, if The Bird is myth as language, it is also a meta-language. That is a critique of unyielding reality, of institutions, of the alienation of man who is never the Self and will never know who he is: a world without escape, without a beginning or an end—the ultimate trap.

Zunilda Gertel, "Metamorphosis as a Metaphor of the World," in Review, Fall, 1973, pp. 20-3.

It would be useless to try to find a vantage point within the gigantic verbal construction of The Obscene Bird of Night from which to contemplate the totality of its magnificent disorder. And to search for a supreme point (as Breton would say) from which the real and the imaginary—the logos and the mythos mixed up within the interminable convolutions of the novel—would cease to be perceived contradictorily, would also be an enterprise doomed to failure from the very start. Like a murmuring void, a body mutilated a hundred times and healed a hundred times, a muted tongue which nevertheless is obliged to talk for pages and pages, the nameless (or many-named) narrator envelopes the world with his scandalous prattle and wisely warns us that his fiction can only lead us into chaos….

At times, the reader despairs of ever knowing which theme to believe. But he realizes very soon that the novel is precisely the product of conflicting themes….

The constant reflection of one theme in another produces not only a repetitious world, but also a world of disguises and inversions, or what Severo Sarduy has called, referring to the other great Donoso novella (Hell Has No Limits), the phenomenon of writing as a travestismo (transvestism). But if the narration and the story are out of phase in Hell Has No Limits, in The Bird they come together in an astonishing way. Hell Has No Limits is constructed in a classical way, while The Bird is a baroque building, a labyrinth of terraces in which everything is held together with sticking plaster. Or, to use Jean Rousset's expression, we are dealing with a renaissance building reflected in a shimmering pool.

Francisco Rivera, "A Conflict of Themes," translated by Deborah Davis, in Review, Fall, 1973, pp. 24-6.

Practically all the commentary on Donoso's fiction has centered upon his preoccupation with Chilean reality and his skill in portraying the decadent upper classes. Readers and commentators continue to seek in his fiction features that constituted essential ingredients of the nineteenth-century novel. With very few exceptions, they have been inclined to define the Chilean writer's fiction from the outside rather than from within….

For these commentators the artistry of Donoso is to be seen in his plot development, the depth of the psychological and sociological preoccupations of his characters and the author's ability to reproduce in written prose the speech patterns of a particular social class. Ironically, however, since the appearance of his first novel in 1957, Donoso's narrative has undergone an acute process of internalization, and his identification with a specific external reality has given way to a hermetic world whose bizarre creatures and events render the traditional principles of verisimilitude virtually meaningless. Donoso's latest novel, The Obscene Bird of Night is the culmination of this process and poses an unending source of difficulty and frustration for the reader accustomed to traditional fiction.

Any attempt to understand and appreciate this novel must take into consideration two of its principal features: the peculiar nature of its fictional characters and the use of a highly complex narrative structure. Living in a hostile universe, Donoso's characters seek refuge in an inner self, only to discover that the disharmony of their inner world is no less painful than that of its external counterpart. Faced with the task of identifying themselves, they become highly introspective but find self-knowledge to be as elusive as a comprehension of the world around them. Donoso immerses us in a world of darkness, symbolic of the obscurity engulfing the identity of his characters, where a clear delineation between persons and things is blurred and the law of opposites is never valid. By artistically weaving the external reality with the characters' internal agony he succeeds in presenting a terrifying and grotesque account of human existence….

Throughout the novel Donoso rejects the notion of psychological unity and seems to suggest the dissolution of the self into a plurality of masks, with each mask developing its own possibility within the self that has been transformed. By denying the unequivocal identity of his characters, he makes all of them undergo a metamorphosis whereby things can become their opposites while at the same time preserving the ability to assume their original identity. The stability, therefore, between signifier and signified begins to lose its customary integrity, so that a mundo al revés emerges in which objects tend to be signs to their opposites. What ensues is a world in which master-servant, virgin-prostitute, priestess-witch, beauty-monster, God-Satan, male-female are no longer mutually exclusive categories but interrelated aspects of one another….

The second and no less innovative aspect of The Bird which adds to the difficulty of its reading is the writer's use of a unique narrative structure. Donoso presents his novel through a narrator-agent—not in itself a very revolutionary procedure—but given the nature of his fictional character, he achieves a literary expression never before experienced in the Latin American novel. Circular in structure, the novel opens in the Casa de la Encarnación with the death of Brígida, one of the forty retired servants in residence there, and closes with the evacuation and the imminent destruction of the building. What occurs between these two poles of the novel defies any attempt at a logical explanation. The narrator as character undergoes a series of transformations, adopts a number of fluctuating yet autonomous identities as he tells the story….

Central to Mudito's narration is the use of an interior monologue which from one moment to the next suddenly externalizes itself by representing the conversations of all of the other characters. As a kind of roving eye limited by neither time nor space, Mudito has the power not only to record the conversations of those around him, but to reproduce conversations that may or may not have taken place…. Because there is no distinction made between what a person thinks and what he actually verbalizes, dialogues become embedded within Mudito's continuous monologue. Such a blending of the presentational forms of narration into the body of the text results from Donoso's refusal to differentiate between a character and the idea of that character in his narrator's mind….

All of the action in the novel transpires in an atmosphere that exists outside the confines of physical time…. Donoso does not destroy time in his novel—for certainly all of his characters are very much aware of its passage and their inevitable extinction. He does destroy, however, chronology. Through the use of discontinuity he obtains a destruction of linear progression similar to that which occurs in filmmaking. Like many contemporary writers, he replaces the sequential nature of storytelling with the principle of juxtaposition which allows him to undermine the logical development of the plot. The outcome is a novel in which time is suspended and events become spatialized in the sense that our point of reference to a particular occurrence is never when but where it takes place.

This fusion of the temporal and spatial realms, together with the previously discussed multiplicity of character and the complexity of the narrative voice, makes unrelenting demands upon the reader. Donoso does not offer us in The Obscene Bird of Night a novel to simply read, but one to experience in which we are continuously called upon to give the text some order by discovering its unities and repetitions.

John J. Hassett, "The Obscure Bird of Night," in Review, Fall, 1973, pp. 27-30.

José Donoso has produced one of those difficult, chaotic novels so marked by talent and invention that critics tend to overpraise them, vivid imagery and originality prompting many to see as genius what is merely disarray. Thus, although The Obscene Bird of Night is not a masterpiece, it is already being called that in several quarters.

Donoso, a Chilean who writes with undeniable vigor and imagination, eschews literary realism, like so many of the Latin Americans whose works have been published here in the last few years. Combining elements of legend and witchcraft with astute sociological observation, he creates his own intense, intricate world. But along with an almost tactile sense of mood and character and some superb vignettes, he also attempts to convey a wobbly metaphysical vision. Fortunately his symbols, if not his philosophy, are arresting….

[Often] in a style that blurs traditional distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity, so that it is difficult to separate what is truly perceived from what is only imagined … [the] narrative jumps from past to present and back again, piling symbols on top of legends. As in a dream, identities shift, time and events are distorted. Myths and suggestions of witchcraft color and alter the most ordinary affairs….

While this interweaving and repetition of symbols is interesting, what it leads to is seldom clear. The criticism of Humberto's writing made by a character in Donoso's book is equally true of the work at hand: "Humberto had no talent for simplicity…. [He] complicated and deformed his original project so much that it's as if he'd lost himself forever in the labyrinth he invented…." The Obscene Bird of Night becomes, similarly, not an account of chaos, but chaos itself. All the conventional rules are discarded yet no new ones are introduced to replace them. The result is less a novel than an antinovel, a work from which all prevailing notions of order have disappeared.

In this context, ambiguous passages seem more the product of carelessness than of any reasoned deliberation…. The pointlessness of these ambiguities casts doubt on the validity of others. In the end, the reader is left wondering how much of the book's obscurity stems from an attempt to express the unfathomable, and how much from a refusal to organize material.

Eugenie Bolger, "Lost in the Labyrinth," in New Leader, October 1, 1973, pp. 20-1.

Many Latin American novels simply exist as states of the imagination rooted in the landscape, history and legend of the region. They are mood pieces. Speaking about his celebrated One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez said:

I merely wanted to tell the story of a family who for a hundred years did everything they could to prevent having a son with a pig's tail.

The tangled skein linking the successive tiers of fantasy in Donoso's [The Obscene Bird of Night] is witchcraft….

This novel, which took eight years to write, comes armed with a recommendation by Luis Buñuel. Still, at the risk of lèse majesté one must ask what it is all about. 'An indictment of a corrupt, doomed society,' the blurb trumpets. Without so much as a pig's tail to clutch at, there is, I suppose, always that interpretation to fall back on….

Nearly all Latin American writing has the quality of being a virtuoso performance. The reader is trapped inside the writer's head. Occasionally, this may be diverting and even clever. [The Obscene Bird of Night illustrates] this tendency to literary acrobatics. But the fact is that surreal divagations and electronic adumbrations are not enough.

Shiva Naipaul, in New Statesman, March 1, 1974, p. 300.