José Donoso 1924-1996
Chilean novelist, short story writer, playwright, poet, journalist, and translator.
The following entry provides criticism on Donoso's works from 1975 through 2000. See also Jose Donoso Criticism (Volume 4), and Volumes 8, 11, 32, 99.
José Donoso was known as the best Chilean novelist of his generation. His complex, multi-layered fiction encompassed the best of the “the Boom” period in Spanish American literature during the 1960s and 1970s and beyond.
Donoso was born on October 5, 1924, in Santiago, Chile, to a physician's family of unstable fortunes. When Donoso's hopes for a substantial inheritance were dashed, he spent some time wandering about the country, even taking a job as a shepherd. Eventually he attended the University of Chile and Princeton University and became an English teacher, at the same time struggling to get his first works published in the provincial cultural environment of Chile. Journalistic assignments in Santiago and Mexico City, as well as teaching opportunities at Princeton and Dartmouth College, broadened his horizons. He began to be recognized as a writer of substance during the 1960s. In 1961 he married Maria del Pilar Serrano, a translator. Escaping from the stifling of creativity by the Marxist government in Chile, Donoso began a period of voluntary exile in 1964, spending time in Mexico and at the University of Iowa before settling in Spain. By the mid-1980s he had returned to his native land and in 1990 received Chile's highest literary award, the Chilean National Literature Prize. He died of cancer on December 7, 1996.
Critics not that it is difficult to characterize Donoso's work, which is a complex mixture of pessimism, social commentary, and observations on the relationship between an artist and his creations. His works reflect, without didactic intent, the tensions between rich and poor and the political upheaval which has characterized Chile from the Marxist Salvador Allende period in the 1960s to the brutal dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet beginning in the 1970s. Donoso's first novel, Coronación (1957; Coronation), partly a portrait of his insane grandmother, combines realism and fantasy. A second novel, Este Domingo (1966; This Sunday), explores the chasm between rich and poor with subtlety and sophistication and experiments with differing points of view. El lugar sin límites (1966; Hell Has No Limits), a novella, is an extremely pessimistic commentary on the futility of human effort. Donoso's greatest novel, El obsceno pájaro de la noche (1970; The Obscene Bird of Night), is a dreamlike exploration of the mind of a schizophrenic. After the success of The Obscene Bird of Night Donoso wrote his own account of the literary history of his times, Historia personal del “boom” (1977; The “Boom” in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History). During his period of exile, Donoso's style began to veer away from dreams and hallucinations. In 1978 he produced Casa de campo (A House in the Country), a political allegory with echoes of the repressive Pinochet takeover of Chile. La desesperanza (1986; The Curfew), a novel written after his return to Chile, concerns the fate of the political left in the Pinochet period. Two later novellas, combined in Taratuta; Naturaleza muerta con cachimba (1990; Taratuta; and, Still Life with Pipe), explore the interaction between art and reality—in particular, the intricate relationship between the artist and his creations.
Today recognized as the greatest Chilean novelist of his time, Donoso had difficulty getting his early work published and reviewed. Critics at first labelled him one of the so-called “Generation of 1950”—a group of well-educated, middle-class writers who moved fiction in Chile from a preoccupation with nativism to a newfound cosmopolitanism—and categorized him as a writer of “new novels” which combined both realistic and fantastical elements. Little English-language criticism appeared on Donoso until the translation of Coronation in 1965. The publication of The Obscene Bird of Night in 1973 and a full-length bio-critical study of Donoso in 1979 further encouraged scholarly work on Donoso in English. Critics have often disagreed over whether Donoso was directly criticizing the Allende or Pinochet regimes in Chile, or simply chronicling the decline of personal creativity or the existential angst of individuals in difficult circumstances. Critical approaches to Donoso's work have been as diverse and complex as Donoso's own fictional output. Earlier English-language critics outlined prominent themes in Donoso's work and pointed out the ways in which he expressed a particular “Latin American” consciousness. Other critics used structuralist theory or commented on Donoso's fluid use of narrative techniques. A number of critics have used a comparative literature or intertextual approach to connect Donoso with other literary traditions. Still others have engaged in psychoanalytic, mythological, existential, reader-response, or deconstructive criticism. After 1970 Donoso was often called “postmodern” since his work increasingly relied on ambiguity, inner-directedness, a non-integrated subject, a fragmented narrative, and the interweaving of fantasy and reality. Many critics have agreed that a central theme in Donoso's work is a condemnation of the world of social convention which prevents an individual from achieving self-fulfillment. The sheer volume, variety, and intellectual richness of Donoso criticism since 1965 seem to reinforce Donoso's own stated wish to avoid “simplification.”