José Donoso Donoso, José (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

José Donoso 1924–

Chilean novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, and critic.

One of the leading figures of the contemporary "boom" in Spanish-American literature, Donoso is best known for his ambiguous and complex antinovel El obsceno pájaro de la noche (1970; The Obscene Bird of Night). With the publication of this work, Donoso's slowly growing reputation greatly increased, and although he has continued to write prolifically, producing novels, short stories, poetry, and a critical study entitled Historia personal del "boom" (1972; The Boom in Spanish American Literature), The Obscene Bird of Night is still widely regarded as his single most impressive work.

Donoso's work prior to The Obscene Bird of Night is relatively realistic and conventionally structured when compared to his avant-garde masterpiece and later fiction. Although his first and second novels—Coronación (1957; Coronation) and Este domingo (1966; This Sunday)—differ stylistically from his later fiction, they foreshadow Donoso's predominant themes: the decay of society, the emotional disintegration of the individual, and the eventual deterioration of the boundaries between nightmare and reality, chaos and order. Coronation depicts the hollow life and psychological decline of a wealthy young man and his repressive relationship with his cruel, dying grandmother, who lives in a world of fantasies and illusions. This Sunday, like Coronation and many of Donoso's subsequent works, contrasts the sexually vigorous lower class with the emotionally sterile upper class. In developing the entanglement and interdependency between an unsatisfied bourgeoise and her lower-class lover, Donoso portrays, as Gerald Kersh notes, "something of squalor and nobility in the culminating psychic crash, in the settling dust of which patrons and patronized alike appear as the shadows of a dream."

Like Coronation and This Sunday, The Obscene Bird of Night consists of two disparate social settings—an established family estate and a deteriorating residence of deranged servants—between which the protagonist oscillates. An aura of delirium permeates the novel: characters change identities; fantasies and dream sequences weave through the labyrinthian narrative; and the protagonist himself eventually succumbs to madness. The highly complex structure and the multiple layers of meaning of The Obscene Bird of Night give rise to its ambiguity and varied critical interpretations.

Donoso's later works, including Tres novelitas burguesas (1973; Sacred Families), a collection of three novellas, and his recently translated Casa de campo (1978; A House in the Country), share with The Obscene Bird of Night a foreboding, sinister examination of individuals struggling against internal and external disintegration. Although Chilean society figures prominently in many of his works, Donoso's established international reputation attests to the universal application of his fiction. As Kirsten F. Nigro notes, Donoso's novels "are more than commentaries on Chilean society in progressive stages of decay; they are monstrous visions of diseased and withered souls."

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 8, 11 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Coronation] describes the last months in the life of Misiá Elisa Grey de Abalas, a woman of ninety-four, once a great beauty, now a bedridden skeleton attended by two aging but faithful servants, Rosario and Lourdes. She claims to be descended from royalty, and insists that she is a saint as well as a queen. Her saintliness, however, is intermittent, for she has terrible fits of temper in which her language becomes "obscene, virulent, desperate."…

Almost the only person to share with the devoted servants the responsibility for looking after Misiá Elisa is her grandson, Don Andrés…. Now in his fifties, Don Andrés has his own apartment, but from time to time, however reluctantly, he visits the old lady. Largely because of her influence, he has grown up to be afraid of life and has withdrawn himself from it as far as possible. (p. 27)

The book might be regarded as an account of the decay of the upper class. Misiá Elisa, so old, so useless, so given to self-deception, so quick to inflict pain on others, could be taken as a symbol, with Andrés displaying the impotence of his class. (pp. 27-8)

Donoso, it is clear, takes a dark view of the human condition, and yet the book does not succeed in giving the reader a tragic sense of life. This is in part because the author relies so heavily on direct analysis of psychological states. The portrayal of Don Andrés, in particular, is close to a case history of regression. Despite the fact that the author has studied in America and teaches English literature, he seems to be under the influence of the French psychological novel.

In part, however, he is quite successful. Misiá Elisa in her bad mood is the incarnation of malice…. The old servants provide an effective sort of chorus, and one can only be amused by their high jinks at the end. (p. 28)

Granville Hicks, "Death Would Not Wait on Feeling," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 11, March 13, 1965, pp. 27-8.

Alexander Coleman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

José Donoso brings to ["Coronation"] … a caustic and satirical bent for the macabre. Not since the appearance in this country of Muriel Spark's "Memento Mori" have the foibles of the senile been exposed in such a mordant and, in the end, comic fashion. It is a cruel and amusing book, the satire no less effective when flaying the useless aristocracy than when examining the anguish of an old family tottering on the brink of catastrophe.

Donoso's [is a] withering, gruesome book….

Alexander Coleman, "The Dictatorship of Senility," in The New York Times Book Review, March 14, 1965, p. 5.

F.W.J. Hemmings

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Coronation] is best described as a 19th-century novel, even though the people in it telephone their grocery orders to supermarkets and may, if they have the fare and the wish, fly to Europe. Everything about it is redolent of naturalism in its heyday: the clear-cut stratification of society into slum-dwellers driven to crime and fastidious, cultivated rentiers, with only a parasitic servant class in between; the Buddenbrooksian theme of a great family in decay; the shuddering Schopenhaueresque preoccupation with personal annihilation; and at the centre of the web, the old mad woman in a rambling, shuttered, antiquated house, Tante Dide or, better, Miss Havisham; indeed, by accident or design Señor Donoso has given the old lady's maid-companion the name Estela. Yet the book wears no air of pastiche; one is almost convinced that Chile may be just such an anachronistic preserve; and Coronation has the immeasurable advantage that it retains that thickness and solidity of colouring which the novel had, one feared, lost for good round about 1890. (p. 971)

F.W.J. Hemmings, "Dirt," in New Statesman, Vol. LXIX, No. 1788, June 18, 1965, pp. 970-71.∗

Peter Vansittart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Coronation is] a richly-textured academic novel, academic certainly not through any lifelessness but because its technique is traditional and conversational, conditioned by the leisured lives of its characters and leading to an elaborately contrived climax. Don Andres, an aging Chilean gentleman, does not have to work. French history, his collection of walking sticks, politics, occupy him together with visits to his ninety-four-year-old grandmother, a wearying but essential link with the stylish well-grained past.

Beneath the placid sunny afternoons, however, nothing is really well. Andres's existence is merely elegant absence of death. Terrified of mortality and whole-heartedness he has never risked taking a bite out of life. The old lady herself is only apparently harmless. Cloudy with sexual fantasies she is capable of spasmodic and disconcerting insights, particularly venomous when a teenage maid moves into the ornate decrepit mansion. Croaking out malice about Estelle and himself she jogs Andres into awareness of his own futility, which the girl could surely redeem. She, of course, has very different needs. The result is rueful comedy, with moments of the macabre rather than the tragic. (p. 791)

Peter Vansittart, "Taking It Easy," in The Spectator, Vol. 214, No. 7147, June 18, 1965, pp. 791-92.∗

Gerald Kersh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The reviewer who gets spiritual refreshment out of pecking holes in books is not likely to have much fun with This Sunday. Turn it whichever way you like, it presents a clear-cut, uncompromising facet. I don't imply that it is gemlike in any precious sense of the term; only that it is so tight-textured and true-surfaced as to be, critically speaking, almost beak-proof….

José Donoso, scorning gimmicks and working with the small, hard stuff that is so difficult to come by, has produced a rare and curious book—an unspectacular original…. Donoso has demonstrated without fireworks that it is possible to write a lean and supple kind of prose without aping Hemingway, to dive deep without Dostoevskian ballast, to be evocative without effeminacy and poetic without ambiguity….

This Sunday is peopled by characters with wills of their own, who go to the devil in their own ways, rough-hewing their own ends and making a wretched job of it.

To understand isn't necessarily to forgive. José Donoso is intelligently compassionate, and sane pity is the voice of doom; This Sunday is, therefore, high tragedy, deadly and inexorable. Any honestly perceptive study of emotional interdependence is bound to tend that way….

Man is a complex of shifting centers of gravity and inconstant triangles of force; and so it follows that any essay in divided human tensions must end as a study in breaking points, which is just what Mr. Donoso's short and potent novel turns out to be.

Misiá Chepa, the bourgeoise whose husband sees her as a multi-teated bitch dying to be milked, needs to be needed. She can't stand unless she is heavily leaned upon. The jailbird who wants to be wanted, and whom Misiá chooses as her spiritual counterpoise and prop, hasn't the seasoning or the grain to take her weight. There is something of squalor and nobility in the culminating psychic crash, in the settling dust of which patrons and patronized alike appear as the shadows of a dream, and out of which only the children seem to emerge as real.

Here is a very fine novel…. [The] author is a first-rate artist….

Gerald Kersh, "Study in Breaking Points," in Saturday Review, Vol. L, No. 49, December 9, 1967, p. 30.

Oliver T. Myers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It might be that This Sunday is too much like Coronation, not only in characters and milieu but even in some of the plotting. As a novel This Sunday comes off better. But what Donoso has been giving us (here and foreshadowed in some earlier stories, a few written originally in English) is the portrait of a decaying society, nostalgic for a glory that had never quite existed, with the other classes lacking the moral and psychological dominance to succeed except through violence. The relations between master and servant will elicit comparisons with the modern American South, but without the complication of race. The strength of the household servants, of the poor, of the criminal, is contrasted with the enervation of the well-to-do, but is insufficient for any real accomplishment.

But this cannot be said to be Donoso's theme. It will be apparent in This Sunday but becomes disturbingly obvious when traced across earlier writings. Donoso does not write about adults. The most fully realized characters in what I've read of him are the young, the innocent or overly wise children, the adolescent bursting with (or from) sex; or the middle aged, prematurely senile from menopause or ennui; or the very old, who have outlived too many generations. We don't see childparent relationships, a generation is skipped, we are made to feel the remoteness of the grandchild from the grandparent.

The central figure of Coronation is a man in his 50s still under the thumb of his nonagenarian grandmother. The first-person narrator of This Sunday hardly speaks of his parents; it is the grandparents that we see through his eyes and then, alternately, through their own. (pp. 351, 353)

Donoso has created a more horrifying nightmare for his victims in this latest work than in Coronation, which at times was merely grotesque. He has now a surer hand with delineation of oddity (the aging grandson's prized walking-stick collection in the earlier novel was silly; here, the deaf grandfather attempting Handel's Harmonious Blacksmith, imitating Cortot's tempo, tells us much more). He finally succeeds in making us know the full complexity of the immature and the post-mature mind with remarkable economy.

Donoso's This Sunday is scarcely longer than a novella. But we can take from it as much experience of human decay as we can bear. (p. 353)

Oliver T. Myers, "Youth & Age in Chile," in The Nation, Vol. 206, No. 11, March 11, 1968, pp. 351, 353.

Kirsten F. Nigro

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[José Donoso] has emerged from the generation of 1950 as Chile's most widely acclaimed contemporary novelist…. [He] is now considered a major figure in the great "boom" of the Latin American novel along with others like Fuentes, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Cabrera Infante.

What is peculiar about "el fenómeno José Donoso" is the scarcity of critics who have really studied him in great depth. Those who have done so have focused attention mainly on what is most obvious in his novels: the continued development of a single theme—the decay of a rigidly structured Chilean society. Old and crumbling ancestral mansions, aging servants, families who spiritually and physically crucify each other,...

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Phoebe-Lou Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Donoso's three long short stories [collected in Sacred Families] are located in and about Barcelona, but his characters are internationally familiar. They belong to that artistic intelligentsia whose members are never as talented or as brilliant as they like to believe. They are, in short, prosperous phonies busily deceiving themselves and each other, and their lives are a mixture of pose and dream. Mr. Donoso's system in these tales is to carry the pose, or the dream, or both into literal action which necessarily becomes bizarre fantasy…. [These are] amusing stories, clever, malicious, and provocative.

Phoebe-Lou Adams, in a review of "Sacred Families," in The...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

José Donoso's Historia personal del "boom" [The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History] provides readers of English with information about the so-called Boom in Latin American fiction of the 1960s as well as some insights into the life of Chile's best-known living writer. In this slim volume Donoso makes no pretense of serious scholarship, but rather evokes personal recollections of major events between 1955 and 1970. The most important of these are: the Cuban Revolution, which served to unify Latin American intellectuals; the publication by Seix Barral of Mario Vargas Llosa's experimental novel La ciudad y los perros (1962); the founding of the literary journal Mundo Nuevo; and...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Metonymy is oriented toward keeping things moving, while metaphor is oriented toward finality, just as the instinct of self-preservation is in obvious conflict with the idea of suicide. (p. 110)

It is precisely [the] idea of metaphor versus metonymy, of continuance versus closure, that is enacted in José Donoso's El obsceno pájoro de la noche (1974). The narrative is concernd in this case with itself, with keeping itself moving, keeping alive despite its own tendency to end. Donoso's text, for our purposes, combines elements from Sarduy, Onetti, and Lezama: the idea that the characters are nothing more than permutations of the poles of narrative, metaphor and metonymy, the idea that these...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Donoso is known primarily as a novelist, he has also published a total of seventeen short stories, all of which were written between 1950 and 1962. These artistically drawn, psychologically penetrating studies of middle-class mores deserve critical acclaim for their intrinsic literary merit, but they are especially important here because they contain in embryonic form many of the thematic preoccupations developed at greater length in the novels.

["China"] focuses nostalgically on the past as well as the inevitable loss of innocence and imagination that characterize adulthood….

"Veraneo" (Summertime) also sets forth the loss-of-innocence theme, but even more important, it...

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Ronald Schwartz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If Severo Sarduy's novels may be considered "coldly elusive," José Donoso's are "boldly hallucinogenic."…

Donoso's novels do not primarily describe places, events, and characters from the outside, but cram all of these elements into worlds of words, a world aware of its own verbal nature. More often then not his novels are complex and his characters fragmented and difficult to identify or distinguish from one another whether through their own dialogues or channeled through the consciousness of a narrator. Donoso's greatest gifts are his glorious flights of imagination, the frank revelation of his consciousness, the portrayal of his aesthetic sensations, and his profound insights into the realities...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If Henry James had allowed the perversity he merely suggests in his writings actually to appear, he might have written [La misteriosa desaparición de la marquesita de Loria] by José Donoso. Instead of Isabel Archer's passage from innocence to experience in Portrait of a Lady, we would see her innate corruption emerge as she became more deeply immersed in a corrupt world. There would be no innocence, only ignorance; and the hypothetical Isabel Archer's education would lead her from solitary narcissism to a sexual chaos devoid of rules or love, animated by passions and the need to satisfy them.

La misteriosa desaparición de la marquesita de Loria is that text. It traces the life...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

José Donoso [with El jardín de al lado] once again shows himself to be a master of the least understood of the major literary forms, the novella….

The novella is a most self-conscious form and El jardín a splendid example: it provides hints both about itself and about the genre. First, it is self-reflexive: art and the production of art are themes to which it returns constantly. This has a decided effect on the protagonists: they are presented in terms of a myth or archetype of the writer, in a way analogous to Mann's Death in Venice. Here Donoso studies a failed writer's inability to cope with life, which has deprived him of a controllable, comprehensible milieu. Finally,...

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Alberto Blasi

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Poets often write dramas and novelists often write poetry at some time during their careers, but not always with such results as Murder in the Cathedral and Chamber Music. Yet these plays and poems hold considerable significance for a deeper understanding of the artist's entire production and offer specific insights into his private world. This is the case with José Donoso's poems. The eminent Chilean novelist … is fond of autobiographical communication, as witnessed by his articles, a previous book and lectures on the Donoso subject. The present collection of thirty poems [Poems de un novelista] is enriched by a twelve-page introduction by the author aimed at explaining why he felt compelled...

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Stanley Reynolds

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The great virgin literary landscape of Latin America for a long time lay unspoiled, beckoning European writers with a taste for the exotic … to use it to build a complete little world for themselves. No one knew Latin America and therefore they were as free to invent as science fiction writers…. [The] European reader wanted exotica from Spanish and Portuguese America; the US reader wanted treacherous greaseballs and sexy dames.

They certainly got it. Those of us who knew Latin America first-hand waited and, generally speaking, we are still waiting for the realistic novel. Borges, it has always seemed to me, is as festooned with exotic literary flowers as any European hack sitting at home...

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