José Donoso Donoso, José (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donoso, José 1924–

Donoso is a Chilean-born novelist, short story writer, literary critic, and translator now residing in Spain. Central to his work is his refutation of the psychological theory of the autonomous, integrated personality: characterization and plot development are depicted through differing narrative points of view. Donoso creates a fictional world where nothing is stable, nothing sure, where reality and fantasy are intertwined. This fantastic world is presented in highly structured, objective prose, Donoso achieving an ironic effect through the description of the irrational in rational terms. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Alexander Coleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is quite interesting that the work of José Donoso … has often been described as traditionalist, traditionalist, that is, in the English sense, admiring as he does James and Austen. There has even been mention of the word costumbrismo, referring to the genre very much dear to nineteenth-century Spanish writers generally considered to be minor—except Larra, of course…. The stories [in El veraneo yotros cuentos] unquestionably give every evidence of a modest and perfectly calculated kind of realistic literary practice. But to see nothing more than this in the stories is to hide their insidious and quite beautifully disguised thematics.

In the title story, for instance, the whole nightmare of marital infidelity is reflected in a perverse and distorted way through the relationships of the various servants of the triangle, and through the way in which the appropriate children manipulate not only each other, but also the servants in turn. The result is a complicated and perfectly executed depiction of intricate human domination, alleviated only when a realm of feeling between the children cuts through the vertical social structures of hate and authority that the adults have created for their children and which they wish to pass on to them.

And so, too, for the language—apparently odd chatter between servants and children and amongst the children themselves, but in reality a linguistic mask for one of Donoso's nuclear fantasies, the alternance and conflict between Life and Authority. (pp. 155-56)

Other stories in the collection, such as "Una señora" and "Fiesta en grande," are superb set pieces that … are expressive of Donoso's essentially urban sensibility. The polarities of "civilized" and ordered...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Charles M. Tatum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

An important aspect of the prose fiction of the Chilean novelist José Donoso is the child point of view which he uses to portray his characters' loss of innocence and youthful spontaneity. Donoso employs this technique most successfully in the novel Este domingo and in the short stories "Paseo," "El hombrecito," and "China." In each work an upper-class adult male protagonist remembers his childhood and adolescent years in his parent's or grandparent's home. A subtle change from the adult point of view to that of the child occurs within the narration as the language, verb tenses, and conception of reality begin to convey the shift in perspective that characterizes each age. Almost unaware of the transformation, we find ourselves viewing the adults (through the narrative filter of the child point of view) as they act out their pretensions and false values and give expression to their anxieties and complexes. (p. 187)

[Donoso uses the child narrator] to portray an uncorrupted, fantasy-filled existence in which the child acts out his normal feelings and instincts unfettered by social constraints. Through the use of the child point of view Donoso often satirizes the [foibles of] the adults but his primary intent is to depict the pathetic transformation that occurs in the individual as he matures. By juxtaposing the two ages directly through point of view he makes us aware of the glaring differences between the child's spontaneous unsocialized behavior and the falseness and sham of the adult's attitudes and rigidly confined self-expression.

Donoso uses this technique effectively in Este domingo as he alternates between the child's world and that of the adult. The child point of view serves several functions in this elaborately constructed novel: 1) to make a statement about how, as the individual matures, the innocent and fabulous world of childhood slowly changes and becomes corrupted 2) to give the reader a perspective on the adult world seen through the child-narrator's eyes 3) to reveal the Oedipal...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Harley D. Oberhelman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

El obsceno pájaro de la noche is a complex statement of the metaphysical problems faced by humanity in the twentieth century. Published in 1970 at a time when Chile's political system was turning to state socialism in search of solutions to age-old nagging social and economic injustices, a careful reading of Donoso's text reveals a deep concern for national problems and at the same time marks the author as a major practitioner of the "nueva narrativa" in contemporary Spanish American letters.

Donoso, whose Coronación (1958), Este domingo (1966), and El lugar sin límites (1967) announced his principal theme, the inner world of the collapsing Chilean oligarchy, achieves a masterpiece of major proportions with El obsceno pájaro…. It is clearly within the current of the innovative Spanish American novel of today in its cataloguing of the decline of bourgeois systems and values and in its creation of a new realism based on multiple mutations of the author's (and the reader's) creative imagination. There is a double axis on which Donoso's concept of reality is based; the novel moves simultaneously on an exterior and an interior plane, leading eventually to a negation of both levels of action. A new socio-economic system must replace the exterior reality of Chilean life just as the negation of the traditional protagonist points the way toward new novelistic forms. (pp. 107-08)

Action in the novel is fragmented so that the reader must constantly reconstruct the basic thread: a history in retrospect of the wealthy, landed Azcoitía family and especially of the family's charitable asylum for aging women, the Casa de Ejercicios Espirituales de la Encarnación de la Chimba. (p. 108)

If the principal purpose of the contemporary Spanish American novel is to chronicle the profound transformations which are causing a restructuring of a whole society, then this latest novel of Donoso fully measures up to the assignment. (pp. 108-09)

It is through Don Jerónimo's secretary, one Humberto Peñaloza, that the complicated relationship between exterior and interior reality in the novel comes into focus. Peñaloza is one form of a multiple protagonist whose constant metamorphoses create a series of unusual characters…. (p. 110)

Humberto Peñaloza, one of the principal forms of the central multiple protagonist, provides an entrée into the vertiginous inner world of Donoso's novel. The almost endless succession of metamorphic changes results in a variety of narrative points of view, all of which ultimately coalesce into a single undefined "yo." Paralleling these changes is a similar line of development in the multiple character of...

(The entire section is 1123 words.)

Richard J. Callan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Two of the finest short stories by the Chilean novelist José Donoso …, "Paseo" and "Santelices," deal with humdrum characters whose quiet lives are disrupted when they develop a peculiar fascination with animals. There is no direct commentary to interpret the characters' outlandish behavior, however, nor to indicate to what extent it might be realistically credible. (p. 115)

The narrator of "Paseo" tells of the personality change that took place in his aunt, a rigid, orderly spinster, wholly devoted to the well-being of her three brothers, whose housekeeper she was. Suddenly forsaking the domestic ritual of a lifetime, she took to wandering around the streets until one night she disappeared and was never heard from again. No motive is given for this transformation save that a strange little alley dog had intruded into her life and household and then returned to the streets whence it came, taking her along.

Unquestionably, the sight of the dog shivering in a doorway one rainy morning had shaken Matilde, touching some dormant or unsuspected emotion. The wretched animal, wounded, abject, and disfigured by multiple crossbreedings, epitomized everything that she most abhorred and avoided, everything that she was not…. It is possible that as she looked into the eyes of the little bitch, Matilde perceived her own face, her inferior, animal face, staring back at her from the other side of consciousness. (pp. 115-16)

[Matilde's] existence, just as her brothers', was limited to the world of Logos, hence her intolerance for weakness, inferiority, uncleanliness. Moved as if by some perverse consistency, she spurned or ignored whatever pertained to the world of Eros: "mysterio" … [mystery], "magia" … [magic], "lo fortuito" … [the unexpected], "desperfectos" … [imperfection, the absurd]. All these related words and concepts, with their opposites, are repeated throughout the text, establishing a marked dichotomy between order and chaos, between consciousness and the unconscious, and underscoring the thematic polarity of the story and the archetypal objective it implies: the reconciliation of opposites for a more balanced life. All of which ties in with Donoso's love of symmetry and his refusal to recognize any distinction between opposites in the psychological sense—there being, in his view, no constancy of comportment, no unity of personality. Like Jung, he sees the human psyche as a potential totality, a multifaced whole, whose every mark and attribute includes its contrary. For Jung, this potential wholeness can be realized in proportion as the unknown opposites are brought to consciousness. This is my understanding of Donoso's "obsession" (his word) with demolishing the so-called psychic unity of man—the myth that one is always the same person. In "Paseo," as we shall see, Matilde comes to realize in an instinctive manner the wholly reversed view of herself (what Jung calls the Shadow). Hence the symmetry of the tale. (pp. 116-17)

Equally curious, although seemingly secondary [to the story of Matilde], is the story of the narrator, that is, the nameless adult from whose perspective these childhood memories are recalled. José Donoso finds the question of point of view intriguing: … "[point of view is the great element for exploring, and making, and remaking, and unmaking the writing of a novel]."

In "Paseo" we see a boy whose mother had died and who was growing up in a cold and...

(The entire section is 1427 words.)

Martin S. Stabb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Donoso himself considers the El obsceno pájaro "una cosa ya completamente barroca" [a completely baroque thing]. Deeply enmeshed within this narrative tour de force and central to the intent of the novel is the erotic motif—or cluster of motifs. As in much of Donoso's work, the force of the theme derives from a kind of kinetic discharge between opposite poles: youth-age, wealth-poverty, power-impotence, etc. Moreover, his concept of literary character … transforms the inhabitants of his books into masks, into personae, as this term is understood in classical drama. As such they become the vehicles through which the "gods"—read elemental forces—express themselves. A special feature of this...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

John Caviglia

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Donoso's] early fiction, a limpid style and straightforward narrative technique provide the matrix for the portrayal of complex characters, who are often, and variously, obsessed: a fat man who dances himself to death, a youth whose ambition is to do nothing but sleep, a transvestite who earns his keep by doing flamenco dances in drag, and so on…. [Critics] wídely proclaimed the largely traditional nature of his narrative. The delirious and intractable complexity of his most recent novel, El obsceno pájaro de la noche, is consequently all the more startling, for this is clearly a work intended to confound the reader. The narratorial voice, adrift in time and space, confuses past and present, fuses...

(The entire section is 2958 words.)