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.)