José Donoso

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José Donoso 1924–1996

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

For further information on Donoso's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 4, 8, 11, and 32.

One of the most influential figures of the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and 1970s, José Donoso constructed tales of human foibles and social disintegration that often employed elements of fantasy. Compared to authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, Donoso is known for his denouncement of regionalism, a style prominent among Latin American writers. One of the most noted features of his writing is his move towards experimental fiction that contains surrealistic fantasies, myths, and legends. The writer of over twenty novels, Donoso created plots that feature saints, magicians, monsters, and other bizarre characters who struggle against class boundaries and rigid societal structures.

Donoso was born in Santiago in 1924 to parents who were members of the professional middle class, and for the first ten years of his schooling he attended the Grange, a private school in Santiago. The literary interests of his father and his mother's ties to the Chilean aristocracy helped Donoso become acquainted with both the importance of education and the distinct class boundaries that existed in society. Donoso attended Princeton University on a scholarship, and then returned to Chile where he worked as a journalist for five years. Donoso published his first work, Summertime and Other Stories, in 1955, with the financial support of family and friends. In 1957, he published his first novel, Coronation, again with the financial support of his family and associates. In 1971, he experienced his first great success with The Obscene Bird of Night, a story contrasting the aristocratic residents of a decaying Chilean estate with the old crones who inhabit a crumbling convent. Enlarging upon themes developed in Coronation, in which he contrasted an outmoded oligarchy and an emerging middle class, The Obscene Bird of Night employs decrepit hags, monsters, and witches coupled with the narration of an ailing and delusional writer to examine social, political, and economic power. In 1972, Donoso produced a nonfiction examination of emerging Latin American writers entitled The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History. The book was highly praised for its detached point of view and for its cov-erage of the writers of the period. In his fiction, Donoso drew on personal experiences, his extensive travels, and his family's history to help craft his narratives. His move away from realism to magical, surrealistic narratives has defined the modern Chilean novel. Certain works such as Curfew and The Garden Next Door have been viewed as more straightforward and realistic than others, yet still retain many of the macabre, mystical elements that typified his earlier novels. Critics have commented on the straightforward narrative of The Garden—and on its surprise ending. Tony Talbot wrote: "In almost documentary fashion, Mr. Donoso depicts exiles who are torn by eroding political commitment, unable to transmit to their children an identity with their homeland, nostalgic for their native country and yet fearful of going back." In his review of Curfew, Christopher Leland also noted Donoso's turn toward more realistic narratives: "[T]he book depends little on the magical, on that dreamlike mix of the quotidian and the supernatural we have come to expect in much Latin American literature. Magic is here, however, woven sparingly throughout the text, and, is, finally, the sign of the very faint hope with which Donoso concludes."

Principal Works

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Summertime and Other Stories [Veraneo y otros cuentos] (short stories) 1955
Coronation [Coronacíon] (novel) 1957
This Sunday [Este domingo] (novel) 1965
The Obscene Bird of Night [El obsceno pájaro de la noche]

(This entire section contains 116 words.)

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The Obscene Bird of Night [El obsceno pájaro de la noche] (novel) 1970
Hell Has No Limits [El lugar sin límites] (novel) 1972
Sacred Families: Three Novellas [Tres novelitas burguesas] (novella) 1973
The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History (memoir) 1977
A House in the Country [Casa de campo] (novel) 1978
The Garden Next Door [El jardin de al lado] (novel) 1981
Four for Delfina [Cuatro para Delfina] (novellas) 1982
Curfew [La desesperanza; also translated as Despair] (novel) 1986
Poems of a Novelist [Poemas de un novelista] (poetry) 1992
Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe (novellas) 1992
Where Elephants Go to Die (novel) 1995


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Ricardo Gutiérrez Mouat with José Donoso (interview date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: "Beginnings and Returns: An Interview with José Donoso," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 11-17.

[In the following interview, Mouat questions Donoso about his novels (particularly Curfew and The Obscene Bird of Night), his feelings about his native Chile, and other topics related to being a writer of the Latin American "boom" period.]

The following conversation with José Donoso was held at the writer's house in Santiago in November of 1990, when the Chilean spring was blossoming in the gardens of the barrio alto and in the political arena of the whole country. It was conducted in English and it has been slightly edited for inclusion in this issue. My explanatory notes are indicated by brackets. I wish to record my gratitude to Pepe and to his wife María Pilar for their generosity and help.

[Ricardo Gutiérrez Mouat:] You left Chile in the early sixties a Chilean writer and returned in 1980 a Latin American author. How has your relationship with the public changed?

[José Donoso:] In the first place, my relation with the public was nil, there was nothing to it, it was just a question of a few people from Chile and a few people from Latin America to whom I sent my books because they knew somebody I knew and so on and so forth. So I sent the first batch of books out to Benedetti [Mario Benedetti, the Uruguayan essayist and short story writer], I remember, some people in Argentina, all over Latin America, about fifty books I think. That was with Coronation, which is where I really think my career started. What happened then? My name began to be talked about, they read this book and they were of the same mind that people in Chile were, that it was a good novel. And then, what did I do? I went away from Chile, I left Chile, got entangled with María Pilar, and then I wrote the second volume of stories, and I found that my name was very much talked about and my presence acknowledged. Forever I was the author of Coronation and I have continued to be that for a lot of people, here in Chile especially. I suppose that is because Coronation in a way is a naturalistic novel, and the public here, the middle class here, is very fond of seeing themselves portrayed in a book: this is just like my Uncle Juan, this is just like my cousin Teresa, you see? That's what they like about books, that's one thing they do like. Everybody had a grandmother more or less like misiá Elisita Grey. Then I went away, I started on This Sunday and finished it, and had it published in Mexico, which was a great step forward. I broke the ice of Latin America. Then I wrote Hell Has No Limits and I found by then I was already a well-known writer in the circles of Latin America. Then I left Mexico for Barcelona and changed over to Seix Barral, and they published Coronation at once, and talked about my new novel and they were very enthusiastic and interested in what I was doing, so I started writing for that hungry public. But it was after publication of The Obscene Bird of Night that I found my reputation had grown immensely.

How has your relationship with your fellow writers of the Boom changed over the years?

No, it's more or less the same, we haven't seen much of each other for a long time. I continue to see Mario Vargas Llosa whenever I go, whenever I leave Chile; I see García Márquez with no problem; Carlos Fuentes, whenever he is in Argentina, calls up. It's very theoretical but it's still there, and María Pilar keeps track of everybody.

And how has your view of Chile changed?

Well, necessarily because Chile itself has changed so much. This is not the Chile I left back in, what, '64 or '65.

What's the biggest difference?

Consumerism. A lack of respect for whatever is literary. People are not interested in literature in Chile at all.

Is that because of the growth of the communication or TV or culture industry?

No, funny enough I think it's because the importance of politics is so big.

Your exile was not political, yet Chile underwent a political crisis in the seventies and you responded to it. How can you describe your response?

As the response of what seems to me a responsible intellectual. I wasn't active in politics but I threw my lot in with the people who were against Pinochet. So if I was not active my name was, and that gave me a lot of security.

How did your novels respond to the political crisis in Chile?

Well, you can see in my novels a response either to the crisis itself or to the conditions that led up to the crisis.

Are you speaking of A House in the Country?

There is more to A House in the Country than that. I mean, there are actually certain speeches by Allende and Pinochet which have been lifted out of the newspaper.

Did you feel that your literature could ever become pamphleteering?

No, I've never been a staunch upholder of anything at all. I've been against the Pinochet thing but I have no ideology to which I can turn. So I am a democrat without ideology.

Or perhaps a liberal, a classic liberal?

A classic liberal … I hate the idea, but yes, I would accept that.

Several interesting things have happened to you upon your return to Chile: you got involved in theatre, in film (and just two nights ago the film you wrote the script for won the "Chilean Oscar"), and you've been shaping a new generation of writers in your workshops. What can you tell me about these activities?

Certainly the most impassioned involvement comes with the workshops. I feel it is through them that I speak, that I reach a wider public. They help me in many ways. I've been growing older and I get more and more separated from youth, from what's in the air, you see. I don't know what people read nowadays, or what they talk about, or what their idiosyncracies are. But through these workshops, this involvement with younger people, I get the feeling of what's really to be young, to be in the center of things.

Have any of these budding writers who have studied with you become important voices in Chile?

Yes. Marco Antonio de la Parra, Agata Gligo, Arturo Fontaine, Alberto Fouquet …

You've been an intensely private writer


yet in the eighties it seems that you have blended that approach to writing with a more collective approach to creativity. I mean theater and film and workshops. Have you sensed this?

I don't feel it, really. I feel that having a workshop is another kind of privacy.

What about theater?

Well, theater, I just work with another guy.

But you must have been involved in the production itself.

I was involved in the first production, which was Sueños de mala muerte.

Let us review your work from the perspective of Curfew, your most recent novel and one of your most successful ones. What was the genesis of this novel?

We were planning to go down to Chiloé for the holidays, my wife and I; we took flowers to Matilde Neruda, who was then quite sick in bed. She didn't let us see her but she sent messages of thank you, so on and so forth. Then she wrote us a letter saying that the flowers we had taken her perfumed all her house. Then we moved on to Chiloé, and then I began writing starting from this woman who is an ex-society girl who works with people, with women. She triggered that book. And then I got a feel for other characters, Lopito, for instance, and my desire to work with somebody who belonged to the more popular classes and yet had the sensibility of an intellectual.

And that was Lopito.

That was Lopito. But he was also Mañungo.

Are they in any way doubles in the novel?

No, they don't work as doubles, I think … As foils, perhaps.

What about the references to chilota [i.e., from the island of Chiloé in southern Chile] folklore and legends?

I got involved with them down in Chiloé that summer and enjoyed that tremendously. I befriended a family who put me in touch with all these people who had the keys, so to speak, to chilota folklore. And I did want to use some kind of myth in this novel, as I have used the imbunche in another novel [the legendary entity with all its orifices sewn up that figures in The Obscene Bird of Night], and here I use the caleuche [a local variation on the ship-of-fools motif blended with Charon's ferry and Rimbaud's drunken boat].

What is your understanding of the caleuche?

Well, in the first place it is very much of a story, something that moves: if you do this, this will happen to you; if this happens to you, you'll go to this place, you see? It gave me a stepping stone, a structure.

How do you think the myth functions in the novel itself?

It works as a reference constantly because Mañungo is a chilote and consequently immersed in these childhood stories. Things of childhood you take into adulthood. Probably he doesn't get lost because he has this anchorlike thing in his past. And people interpret life according a little bit to myth. You see, when you get together with somebody or live with somebody, that other person brings in a whole lot of myths that are different from yours. These people will have heard some myths or some legends or some stories, some riddles, which belong to the old country. And this is what gives the person a kind of floe to stand on.

It's funny because when I asked you how the novel came to be, most people would've expected you to talk about the politics of it.

I'm not interested in politics, it's something nobody can accept. Politics has not formed a deep vision in me. I feel things like these are more in depth. If you notice, the political questions all have political answers; if you can also notice, legendary aspects have no answer whatever …

Mañungo and Judit are divided characters, and there is a theme that runs through your work from Coronation on: role-playing, simulation, alienation, the disjunction/conjunction of Self and Other…. Do you see this continuity and what do you make of it?

Sure, I see it in Judit trying to be a woman of the people being herself very middle-class; Mañungo trying to be middle-class maigré lui, no?, and not being able to be that nor a folksinger, a folklore hero.

In a novel like Hell Has No Limits, role-playing is intimately tied up with sexual politics, with the power game between the sexes. What is your interpretation of the transvestite?

Difficult, I really don't know myself why at that point in my life I did that. Funny, the things that are real and the things that aren't; things that are verbatim in that novel are the whorehouse, the little village, the little railroad, the countryside, the vineyards. But in that village that I know la Manuela didn't exist; I brought her over from another set of experiences.

How do you see the relationship between the roles that she plays—which are of both genders—and the violence in the novel?

Well, I feel that transformation is always punished with violence. God didn't put us here to be transformed, He put us here to be what we were told to be.

What you're saying is that authority cannot accept metamorphosis, it's a transgression, no? And speaking of authors and authority, I'd be very interested in hearing your interpretation of the power game in The Garden Next Door between the male author (who cannot write the novel we're reading) and the female one who does write it.

Well, I think that all men carry inside them a lot of other men, a lot of possibilities. I think that in The Garden Next Door transformation takes on not what happens in Hell Has No Limits but something very near it.

In what sense?

I've been asked this question several times: why is it that you, who are a successful writer, can draw a picture of a writer manqué? My reply is that I hope I'm still a writer manqué. I carry inside me the shape of a fracasado. If I lose that, my irony and my humor and my sarcasm, maybe, or my cruelty, everything that is more or less impassioned in me would fail. I am a failed writer; I'm also a successful one.

That doesn't explain the fact that a woman ends up writing the novel.

I may have wanted to be a woman at one point …

You said before that you give your stories to read to two people in particular, both of whom are women: Delfina Guzmán and your wife. Does that mean anything?

Yes, I have a better relationship with women than with men, far and away. I'm much more interested in women than I am in men.

Do women make it easier for you to be creative?

They are more intelligent, somehow; they have a greater panoply of … I don't know, desire, or possibilities.

How do you think women were portrayed by the novelists of the Boom?

There isn't a true woman in the pages of the writers of the Boom. The women in Vargas Llosa are not women, they are sketches!

And the women in One Hundred Years of Solitude?

Not plausible, not felt. They have no freedom, they transgress nothing. And La Maga [from Cortázar's Hopscotch], look at the name …

Do you think that any woman writers were excluded by the Boom?

No, no. I don't see any women writing at the same time. Clarice Lispector, perhaps …

Can you name some interesting women writers today in Latin America?

Yes, Rosario Ferré, for instance.

What interests you in her?

People speak of two poles in Latin America: civilization and barbarism. I think she's both.

In The Obscene Bird of Night you were trying to write a miserabilista novel. Why did you feel you wanted to do that at that point?

Because I've always been very attracted by poverty and by what I call the underside of power. I'm interested in clochards, hobos, the servant class, in people with no means, who have nothing because they are afraid to be stripped of everything.

Like the imbunche fantasy in The Bird, right? A House in the Country is the luminous face of The Obscene Bird. Here role-playing is not just an existential/psychological theme as in Coronation and Curfew but the aesthetic of the novel as a whole, in the sense that language itself is mask, disguise, carnival. Can you tell me something about the genesis of A House in the Country?

It's a story I've told many times. The truth is that we had gone to Italy with my wife. And Poland. And in the Warsaw station we had a telegram saying that the "once" [the military coup on 11 September 1973] had happened, that things had turned topsy-turvy in my country. In Italy I met Antonioni who had read The Obscene Bird and had found it a very powerful novel. He wasn't interested in any of the themes I wrote about; he liked the way I wrote, the power of the novel. I was very thrilled. I went back to Calaceite and shut myself in with the purpose of writing a scenario for Antonioni. And I spent a lot of time in my reclining chair out in the garden, listening to the rumors from the village. Then Vargas Llosa's children came to stay in the house. Mario and Patricia were going to Mexico and they asked us to babysit for them. We tried to rest in the afternoon but they had such a rumpus, the kids, that we couldn't sleep at all. There were some very strange things going on…. Alvarito and Pilarcita both had a leg in the same pair of underwear; they were completely naked. Then they went out to the street and I fantasized with the rumors in this large house, in the many rooms of this house. And also there was pampas grass….

So A House in the Country is the conjunction of the world of childhood—with its little perversions—and Chile's political nightmare?

That and the feeling of being completely away from everything that mattered. I was trying to complete a thought. There is also a twist, there is also a transgression, an underside. In A House in the Country I use a discourse which is in itself quite refined and is sometimes superelegant, exquisite. And I decided that this whole novel was going to be exquisite, to write exactly the other side of what I had written in The Obscene Bird of Night. I wrote it with this rococo thing in mind, it's more a rococo novel than anything else: vain, artificial, pretentious—Fragonard.

Is that something postmodern in your estimation?

No, I don't think we need to worry about that at this juncture. As I began writing A House in the Country I started to feel that I needed a language which is completely opposite to that of the Bird, to give this effect I wanted. Because the superfluity of the rococo seemed to parallel the miserabilismo, so there are two things pitched against each other. And, again, the language was the language used by the florid writers of the nineteenth century, the Spanish, for example. And then you get the language of the marchioness. Somebody said, and I don't know who it was, that you can't write novels that begin: "La Marquise est sortie à cinq heures …"


Valéry, right, he said that. And then I set out to prove that novels can be written in that way.

In The Boom in Spanish-American Literature: A Personal History you wrote: "The new generation finds the novel of the 60's excessively literary, and they devote themselves, like those in all avant-garde movements, to writing an 'anti-literature,' an 'anti-novel'." This kind of epitaph of the Boom was written in 1971. Are you alluding here to what later was called postmodernism?

I think so.

What is your understanding of postmodernism? Do you think you have written postmodern novels?

Probably A House in the Country. It has all the ingredients: it's eclectic, it's humorous, it apes the forms of classic novels, it is artificial and self-conscious, it is a novel about writing, and there is a spoof in it.

In fact, John Barth makes you a postmodernist on the basis of that novel. When I quoted the passage from The Boom I was alluding to the fact that right after you wrote The Bird, you wrote Sacred Families which can be said to mark a departure in some other direction.

I was trying to write about a milieu that was falsely refined, falsely intellectual, so I took up this other kind of artificiality.

The beginning of one of these novellas parodies the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, so here we have a contemporary milieu and a literary representation with nineteenth-century roots. Is this postmodernism?

Could be. The whole caricature thing, perhaps.

Do you find the term, the label "postmodern" valid?

I think so, I mean we have to try all sorts of terms to try to get at these things.

The final question: yesterday the National Prize for Literature was delivered to your door. What's the meaning of this prize for you?

It's as if somebody had driven a nail into the wall to hang my posthumous portrait.

Marta Mestrovic with José Donoso (interview date 30 November 1992)

SOURCE: "José Donoso," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 52, November 30, 1992, pp. 30-1.

[In the following interview, Mestrovic questions Donoso about The Garden Next Door. Speaking about the novel's autobiographical content, its use of realistic characters and details, and his education and life in general, Donoso provides the interviewer with details about his career.]

In The Garden Next Door, a middle-aged Chilean writer who has never quite achieved the popularity of other Latin American authors of the same generation fails at writing the "great Chilean social novel," the masterpiece that is supposed to secure his place in modern literature. Simultaneously, through a blur of alcohol and Valium, he and his wife watch their marriage dissolve, then resurrect itself.

The Chilean writer José Donoso is the author of The Garden Next Door. Since he is known for his experimental works, readers may well suspect that despite the realism with which events are depicted, nothing here is quite what it seems. Indeed, in a satisfying surprise ending, the reader discovers that this is a novel within a novel; rather than being related by an embittered male narrator, the story has actually been written by the protagonist's wife. And the novel does turn out to be a successful work, one snapped up by the Spanish literary community.

The switch of narrators, which lifts the novel from a minor to a major key, is one of the clever literary devices of the book, just out from Grove Press. Meeting Donoso in his publisher's offices in Manhattan, Publisher's Weekly is prompted to ask him why he decided to end his book in this way.

His answer is hesitant, musing. "I guess I always wanted my wife to be a writer. She has always been a very literary person, and I always had a feeling that if she had become a writer, she'd be on better terms with herself. After I wrote this book she did write a book of her own—an entertaining, wonderful book of memoirs."

The Garden Next Door, first published in Spain in 1981 by Seix Barral, marks a departure in Donoso's use of narrative. "This is my first venture into just telling a plain story, while also dealing with characters who are mimetic. Before, I worked with emblematic characters, but there's no emblematic quality about these characters. They are just very plain people undergoing crises." In addition, Donoso acknowledges, The Garden Next Door is his most autobiographical novel. In a soft, modulated voice, he observes that many of the incidents in the novel, which is set in Spain, where the Donosos spent several years, were drawn from his own life. "We lived in a little town called Sitges, and the experience was not unlike the experience that I describe in the book." While daily life there did not have the supercharged atmosphere of a dramatic narrative, there was a garden next door where interesting people often appeared.

"People ask me why I say this is an autobiographical novel, since the writer who appears there is a failed writer—and I haven't exactly failed. The answer is that in order to write one has to cultivate inside oneself the idea of oneself as a failed person. I have the seeds of failure in myself.

"Success," on the other hand, "is something I decide. There is another side of success, which is the outward side, celebrity. Celebrity to me is dangerous." This is an interesting and telling statement, coming from a man who belongs to a generation of writers who suddenly found themselves objects of international esteem, as the Latin American novel assumed almost a cult status in the '60s and '70s.

Donoso writes about this ambivalence in his assessment of this period, The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History. "On the whole, the boom was a blessing," he observes. "We all took a lot of things from each other. There was a lot of pinching going on, which is part of the vitality of Latin American novels of my generation. The fact that we read each other voraciously, imitated each other, wrote about each other, and went to parties together, did a lot to cement what happened.

"We were all out of our own countries. We were all in exile—some for political reasons, others not—so we could have an overall view. We could work with the bricks of reality. The outcome was something completely to do with poetry and the imagination."

He attributes the initiation of "the Boom" to the efforts of the Spanish publisher Carlos Barral, "a man of great literary taste and know-how," whose firm, Seix Barral, first published many of these Latin American writers. Agent Carmen Balcells, who represents many of them—Donoso included—is credited as well. "We've been together a long time," he says. "My books are in 23 languages, which is mostly due to her effort."

Now 68, Donoso wears his graying, unruly hair combed back. In a tweed jacket, pinstriped shirt and tie, he looks very much a successful scholar. Currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Latin American Program in Washington, D.C., he has indeed held teaching posts at universities in the U.S. and in Chile.

Donoso's career as a writer can be traced to his childhood in Santiago. The oldest of three brothers, he grew up in a house-hold dominated by women—"dotty great-aunts" and a grandmother who slowly descended into madness. He remembers his parents as charming society people who did not directly involve themselves with their children.

"The tone of the house was set by these old women and the servants. I picked up stories when I was a young boy from the old servants, who sat around the fire and talked about the farms [Donoso's family were landowners from the south], and about their own native backgrounds. Strange things: why this aunt had been put into a convent to ask forgiveness of God for another aunt who had misbehaved—how one person can pay for the sins of another. I realized what it was to be poor, what it was to be a servant. I learned that the real truth is what is told, not what happens."

After romantically trying his hand as a shepherd in Patagonia and as a dockhand in Buenos Aires, Donoso entered the University of Chile. In 1949 he received a scholarship to attend Princeton, where he studied under R. P. Blackmur and Allen Tate. Henry James was just coming back into vogue and "Princeton was rife with talk" of his work. Donoso fell under the influence of the American writer.

"I had already read Proust, who was a big influence for many years, so much so that when I got married—I married rather late; I was 35, my wife [Maria del Pilar] was a year younger—I said, 'If you want to marry me there are two things you have to do. One is to learn how to drive, because I will never learn how to drive a car. And another thing is to read Proust, because if you don't read Proust we won't have anything to talk about.'"

After completing his studies, Donoso returned to Chile and tried to find a niche for himself in a literary community dominated by a tradition of regional realism. "I remember going to the home of a very well-known writer of the criollista school—the naturalistic school—and she said, 'I understand that you are the great inheritor of Chilean realism.' I shuddered; I must have been about 22; this was the last thing I wanted to be."

He persevered, however, and eventually published a first novel, Coronation, which drew upon his family experiences and launched his career as a writer. Issued in Chile in 1957, Coronation was published here by Knopf in 1965, and won the William Faulkner Foundation Prize. Ironically, this novel and several collections of short stories were the only works to be published in his homeland. He recalls that he had to help pay for, sell and promote those efforts in Chile, a country that even today has only 80 bookshops—"a shocking thing." Had he not been published and encouraged by Barral, Donoso's career would have been quite different.

In 1962, he made the acquaintance of the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes at a writers' conference. Two years later, he attended another writers' congress, in Mexico. He was unaware when he left Child that he was beginning a self-imposed exile that would last until the early 1980s.

The catalyst was an invitation from Fuentes to stay with him. While living in a house on Fuentes's property, Donoso wrote his next novel, Hell Has No Limits. It concerns a brutal incident in the life of an aging male transvestite. Many critics view this novel as a thematic dividing point between the author's early and later works.

Donoso's relationship with the Mexican writer is complicated. Although he credits Fuentes's novel Where the Air is Clear with providing the impetus for his own style, there is also a touch, perhaps, of competition. Donoso remembers once accusing Fuentes of stealing his ideas. Fuentes laughed and said, "Don't you realize we are all writing different parts of the same big Latin American novel?"

It was Fuentes who sent Donoso's first novel, Coronation, to Knopf. "Alfred snapped it up at once. It was owing to Carlos Fuentes that I broke the barrier," Donoso acknowledges. But unlike Fuentes, who was heavily influenced by the classics of Spanish literature, Donoso found his inspiration in Anglo-Saxon literature. "That is my book culture," he says.

Donoso had already begun what would turn out to be his masterpiece, The Obscene Bird of Night, a loosely structured, phantasmagoric novel about the nature of power. In it Donoso identifies many of the images he absorbed as a young child. "I try to build a world of those old crones, to show the way women control the underside of power because it is the only one available to them. It was a difficult book for me to visualize, because it was a novel about writing a novel."

The events of September 11, 1973, changed the course of his writing. "I had been in exile for 10 years," Donoso says, speaking of the coup that plunged Chile into military dictatorship. "Since the Pinochet coup I have been writing political novels. It has invaded my emotion and my subconscious." He was compelled to set aside another book he was working on at the time to write A House in the Country, an allegorical novel about the Chilean sociopolitical situation. "I accept all the political interpretations given that book. There are things I'd change today, but I think it holds water."

Although Donoso spent 14 years in Spain, he never felt totally accepted there. "Spaniards admired a lot of what the Latin Americans were doing, but they had a very ambivalent relationship towards us. We were doing something with the Spanish language that they had not yet begun to do. They felt ambivalent—so much so that there is now a general rejection in Spain of the Latin American novel."

What was it then that brought him home? "I suppose it was the effect of both my parents dying. The old house was done away with [as in a prominent incident in The Garden Next Door], so I was nobody's son anymore. My daughter, who was then 13, had never been to Chile. She had begun to date boys in Spain, and it was either we leave and become Chileans again, or we just throw this little girl into this life which we don't really control. I was very much a foreigner in Spain. I feel great kinship with Spain, it's the same language finally, but the mother country is too far away."

When Donoso returned to Chile, he found himself "completely welcomed back. One tends to become a mythological figure in Chile." Donoso explored this ambivalent feeling towards exile in Curfew. The book was poorly received in Chile, however, probably because its criticism of Chilean society was too close to home.

Undaunted, Donoso continues to add to his sizable oeuvre. Two novellas, Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe, will be published next year by Norton. (Donoso says: "Grove didn't want these. Norton is a very good house; they made me an offer and I accepted.") This pragmatic point of view previously propelled Donoso from Knopf, the publisher of five of his books: "I had the feeling that Knopf wasn't loyal to me. They didn't make an effort to make my books better known. I was very angry at one point. I'm not anymore."

With an eye toward posterity, Donoso, who has always kept a writer's diary, has donated his personal papers to Princeton University, where they are available to scholars. Does he think Henry James would have been pleased with his work? "Henry James is my mentor. He's my teacher, and one can write for or against one's teacher. The rules are all set by Henry James—you can either break them or take them."


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Robert D. McFadden (obituary date 9 December 1996)

SOURCE: "José Donoso, 72, Fantastical Chilean Novelist," in The New York Times, December 9, 1996, p. B13.

[The following obituary presents an overview of Donoso's life and career.]

José Donoso, one of Chile's best-known authors, whose novels and short stories used dark surrealism and social satire to explore the haunted lives of exiles and writers and a world of aristocratic excesses, died on Saturday in Santiago. He was 72 years old.

Mr. Donoso died of cancer at his home, his niece Claudia Donoso told The Associated Press.

One of the major figures of the Latin American literary boom of the 1960's and 1970's. Mr. Donoso crafted multilayered visions of social disintegration and human fallibility that were sometimes compared with those of Colombia's Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Mexico's Carlos Fuentes and Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa.

After a youthful wanderlust that took him across South America, the United States and Europe, Mr. Donoso began writing short stories and novellas in the 1950's. But his first great success—regarded by critics as his masterpiece—was The Obscene Bird of Night, a 1971 novel about characters on a run-down Chilean estate and a residence for elderly women it contrasts sterile embittered old age with the decadence of aristocrats, all of whom are afflicted with some physical deformity.

While his earlier work had been praised as imaginative and unified by themes of death and decay in Chile's rigidly structured society. The Obscene Bird of Night was more ambitious, critics said when it was published in English by Knopf in 1973. It transcended Chilean boundaries, they said, and carried its author into the emerging stream of Latin American writers experimenting with legends, myths bizarre plots, multiple identities and grotesque fantasies.

In The New York Times Book Review Robert Coover called it "a dense and energetic book, full of terrible risk-taking populated with legendary saints and witches, mad old crones and a whole estate-ful of freaks and monsters, and narrated by a disturbed deaf-mute."

Mr. Donoso's more than 20 novels and collections of short stories, many of them translated into English, include Coronation, Charleston and Other Stories, Hell Has No Limits, A House in the Country, The Garden Next Door and Curfew.

In dense, elaborately constructed plots sometimes compared with works by Henry James and Marcel Proust, Mr. Donoso's books were peopled with upper-class families clinging to privileges, children exposed to the hypocrisy of adults, expatriates searching for identity, and a nightmarish gallery of criminals, widows, prostitutes, political bosses, magicians and dreamers.

Mr. Donoso had a long association with the United States, attending Princeton University and later teaching there and at the University of Iowa. One of [his] last works was Where Elephants Go to Die, about a Chilean professor who goes to teach in the United States.

The scion of a wealthy, eccentric Santiago family, José Donoso was born in a Santiago suburb on Oct. 5, 1924, and grew up in a privileged world of servants, limousines and English tutors. As a young man, he flitted from the life of a social dandy in Santiago to shepherding in Patagonia and hobnobbing with sailors and stevedores on the docks of Buenos Aires.

In 1949, he won a scholarship to study at Princeton, where he was not a good student but wrote short stories in English for a literary journal that became his first published works. Returning to Chile, he was a journalist for five years in Santiago, covering, as he put it, "everything from earthquakes to new books, from fashion shows to revolutions."

But he also continued to write fiction. In 1962, four years after its publication, his novel Coronation—a strange tale of the mock crowning and death of an aged widow and her grandson's descent into madness, at the hands of their servants—won the William Faulkner Foundation Prize, giving the author his first wide international recognition.

Convinced that his work was being stifled by his surroundings, Mr. Donoso moved to Mexico City, where he became a close friend of Carlos Fuentes. He later moved to Europe, and for many years in the 1960's and 1970's lived in Spain, mostly in Barcelona, where he wrote many of his most famous works.

Mr. Donoso returned to Chile in the early 1980's. Though he had never seen himself as a political exile, he was a passionate critic of the authoritarian regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew President Salvador Allende Gossens in 1972. Mr. Donoso was not a spokesman for Chilean leftists, but he occasionally wrote anti-Government articles and he was arrested briefly in a 1985 protest against the dismissal of dissident writers from teaching jobs.

He also criticized what he regarded as the crass commercialism of Chile's relatively prosperous society in the 1990's, and accused some publishers of chasing profits at the expense of good writing. "Chile is a country that has forgotten its soul," he said in an interview last year.

In 1990, Mr. Donoso was awarded the Chilean National Literature Prize, his nation's highest literacy award. But he conceded in October of last year that writing had become a psychological torment for him. Bearded, bespectacled, weakened by illness, he said: "The agony of having to write is terrible, of feeling empty, that you amount to nothing."

Mr. Donoso is survived by his wife the former Maria Pilar Serrand, whom he married in 1961, and by a daughter, Pilar.


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Priscilla Melendez (essay date Fall 1987)

SOURCE: "Writing and Reading the Palimpsest: Donoso's El jardin de al lado," in Symposium, Vol. XLI, No. 3, Fall, 1987, pp. 200-13.

[In the following essay, Melendez provides a detailed discussion of The Garden Next Door as a palimpsest. Focusing on the different narrative points of view in the novel, the dialectic between reading and writing, and the meaning of the garden, Melendez examines the concept of the palimpsest at length.]

To introduce the concept of palimpsest in a technological and computerized era might be perceived as an unnecessary irony or as the sign of reliance on an already exhausted metaphor. But the proliferation of intertexts, both perceptible and veiled, in José Donoso's El jardín de al lado (1981) reveals an archaic system, the palimpsest, linked to a process of writing or "publishing." This system functions as a literary metaphor in which the substitution of the object and its referent for one or more other objects and referents does not imply the disappearance of the first set. Although in the medieval practice of "scraping again" the text substituted is not necessarily linked to what it covers, the dialectical implications suggested by the palimpsestic metaphor in Donoso's novel connect and unmask the multiple covert/overt texts that demand to be read. The recognition of texts over a text is, in essence, an incomplete enterprise, since the established fictive boundaries between them disappear with the identification of each fragment as a single entity. This contradictory phenomenon—boundaries vanish just as they are discovered—leads us to juxtapose the multiple texts and their readings and simultaneously reveals the subordinate nature of both the explicit and implicit discourses. Therefore, within this framework, literary intertextuality becomes a useful notion only if conceived not exclusively as an echo of other texts or as mere sharing of a stock of literary codes and conventions, but as a nonhierarchical interplay of discourses. The illusory discovery of footprints, of ruins, submerges the observer (reader) in a world that has apparently disappeared and upon which new worlds—or texts—have been built or written.

The recognition of a consequent multiplication of texts and subtexts imposed by the palimpsestic metaphor obliges us to heed warnings in Paul de Man's Allegories of Reading against the debate that opposes intrinsic to extrinsic criticism, which in formalistic terms states that "form is now a solipsistic category of self-reflection, and the referential meaning is said to be extrinsic." From the standpoint of the inherent plurality implied in the title of the present essay, my concern is the "obligation" of reading and decoding both the superimposed text and the one(s) being removed. That is, I shall be dealing, not with the inside/outside metaphor that de Man seriously questions—although he often has recourse to it—but with the notion of covert and overt writing, which has more to do with a rhetorical development than with a structural one. The relationship between the act of interpretation and the use of the metaphor of the palimpsest suggests a process of elucidation, of revealing something else.

But my goal is not to "translate" into intelligible or familiar language what has been explicitly presented or indirectly concealed, even less to put the overt discourse in the place of the one that remained obscured. It is to expose a proliferation of texts that thematically and formally clash with one another and, in this encounter, to examine their genesis/destruction as linguistic and fictive entities. Nevertheless, the possibility of reading these multiple "manuscripts" that are constantly emerging and simultaneously being substituted presents the reader with a rhetorical dilemma. The metaphorical and/or literal nature of the text's language creates another level of intra- and extra-textual structures that are part of the overt/covert writings. The garden, for example, not only characterizes the proliferation and elusiveness of its meanings but also questions the distinction between what is understood as literal and what is figural. In other words, which one is the "real" garden, who represents the authoritative voice of the text, which novel are we, in any case, reading?

In El jardín de al lado the protagonist and narrator, Julio Méndez, is a slightly recognized Chilean writer whose most recent novel has been rejected for publication by the well-known editor from Barcelona, Núria Monclús, although she encourages Julio to revise and rewrite his text. Five of the first six chapters of Donoso's novel consist of Julio's narration of the ordeal of revising his manuscript during a summer in Madrid. Parallel to his need for writing, the other strong force in Julio's life is his wife, Gloria. Fusion and confusion of past and present events transforms Julio's narration of his professional and personal life into an autobiography. But when, in the sixth chapter, we discover that it is Gloria who has written and implicitly narrated the entire preceding text, El jardín de al lado's clear commentary on its self-begetting and fictional nature becomes problematic. What was first taken for Julio's autobiography—Julio's text and narrative voice—turns out to be Gloria's recreation of their survival as writers. This moment of recognition, which coincides with the end of Donoso's novel—and also with that of Gloria's work—invites the reader to look for an alternate and more reliable writing that has been concealed. The act of rereading, either literal or metaphoric, implies substitution of the former interpretative text (where the garden was observed by Julio) for a text where the narrative discourse has been drastically altered and where the point of view (that of the observer of the garden) has been replaced. "Erasing" the first reading to set forth a new interpretation is reminiscent of Julio's painful exercise of rereading and rewriting his rejected text.

Overt thematization of the acts of writing, reading, publishing, and interpreting in El jardín de al lado leads us to pose a question similar to the one de Man proposed while trying to "explain" the passage in Proust's A la Recherche du temps perdu where Marcel engages in the act of reading a novel: "The question is precisely whether a literary text is about that which it describes, represents or states." In his attempt to answer his query, de Man examines the possible coincidence between the meaning read and the meaning stated in the Recherche. If, as de Man says, "reading is the metaphor of writing," then El jardín de al lado is a clear example of an act of reading both explained and redefined by its counterpart, the act of writing. The process of interpretation becomes, therefore, a paradigm of both reading and writing. De Man's Proust is comparable to Donoso: El jardín is a work in which the story-telling and the story-told are intermingled, the meaning read and the meaning stated blend together. Gloria's fictionalization of Julio's political and existential dilemmas documented in his rejected novel reveals the difficulty of writing about a writing saturated with historical and political overtones. It is Julio-narrator who reproduces part of Núria Monclús' verdict of his novel: "Falta una dimensión más amplia, y, sobre todo, la habilidad para proyectar, más que para describir o analizar, tanto situaciones como personajes de manera que se trasformen en metáfora, metáfora válida en sí y no por lo que señala afuera de la literatura, no como crónica de sucesos que todo el mundo conoce y condena, y que por otra parte la gente está comenzando a olvidar…." De Man's concerns for autobiography as a genre—"what is at stake is not only the distance that shelters the author of autobiography from his experience but the possible convergence of aesthetics and of history"—highlight not only the autobiographical connections between Donoso's own life and El jardín but, more substantially, Julio's inadequacy to recreate his political experience within his literary creation. On the other hand, to what extent does Gloria's own text succeed or fail to make of her literary discourse a metaphor—something that, as she immediately discovers, Julio is incapable of doing? Can we, as readers of Donoso's novel, recognize our own forgetfulness of historical events that are foreign to our experience, or that, even if experienced, are eventually buried in our memory? Can we describe the ethical/aesthetical dialectic that obsessed Julio and Gloria as an aporia which, in spite of its contradictions, they both try to reconcile in their writings—Julio through overt incorporation and description and Gloria through a false act of rejection?

Julio's "intention" in writing his novel-document (as he alludes to it) is precisely to transform the six days spent in a Chilean jail into what he calls a source of telling, in other words, a discourse. But this enterprise is threatened not only by the course of time (which turns the narration pale and causes it to fade away), but more evidently by the superimposition of other texts, by the invasion of other "experiencias menos trascendentes y más confusas, mezquinas experiencias personales que no me aportaban otra cosa que humilliación …" The weakening of Julio's "heroic experience," the weakening of his initial hate produced by the imprisonment, begins to transform itself into a marginal text where the remains and footprints are being replaced by other writings: "todo este cúmulo de vejaciones se había sobreimpreso a aquella experiencia cuya jerarquía yo tan desesperadamente trataba de mantener mediante las páginas de notas que escribía como quien riega una planta moribunda, pero que, ay, al fin se iba secando pese a tanto esfuerzo" It is not until Julio completes the version of his novel that he is able to criticize his manuscript, recognizing in it the lack of two central aspects of the creative process: "Al avanzar por mi copioso escrito se me fue haciendo indudable que la pasión que pretendía animarlo no era ni convincente como literatura ni válida como experiencia."

As de Man suggests, Marcel's act of reading reconciles imagination and action. Marcel realizes that the sedentary act of reading is powerful enough to recreate the outside world and even to draw a more holistic perception of it. Although in El jardín de al lado Julio's ethical conflict between imagination and action is restructured in a different manner, it also dramatizes the confrontation of the inner and the outer worlds (jail-garden) as experienced by the protagonist. Julio's anxiousness to transform his political experience—which is not transcendental—into a transcendental writing is precisely what establishes the parameters and the inevitable failure of his text. But one of the ironic forces of El jardín is that Julio not only fails to recreate aesthetically his Chilean imprisonment, but also fails to participate, while in self-imposed exile, in an active political life. Gloria constantly accuses him of his ideological "impotency," of his weak liberalism, and describes his "moderate humanism" as pedantic cowardice. Therefore, the emptiness of both his literary work and his own life is filled neither by imagination nor by action. Contrary to Marcel's relationship with the act of reading, neither of these activities is capable of satisfactorily replacing the other. When Julio mentally blames Gloria for living her life in his shadow—that is, through him—he is ironically describing his own pseudoliterary discourse which lies under the shadow of historical facts and, indeed, is eclipsed by Gloria's successful story. In a similar way, the garden translates into metaphor and simultaneously deconstructs its own allegorical meaning, particularly in its dual incarnation of the literal and the metaphorical and of the action and the imagination.

After a long period of procrastination, provoked by his weaknesses, his abuses of drugs and alcohol, his mother's death, his contemplation of the garden, Julio completes the revision of his novel. But his second version is the result of an imprisonment different from the one that inspired the original text. The endless series of dramatic events in Gloria's life—from Julio's refusal to sell the family house after the death of his mother to Bijou's theft of one of Salvatierra's paintings—pushes her to a state of depression, having as one of the consequences her absolute silence, particularly towards Julio. In their own special ways, both Julio and Gloria become convalescents from different "diseases," prisoners of different jails where, as Julio says: "Incomunicada [Gloria], sólo tolera su situación de encarcelamiento dentro de su enfermedad. Pienso en mis seis días de calabozo en Santiago, en lo distinto y en lo igual a esta enfermedad que fueron, y lo igual que son, también, a esto en que se está transformando mi novela." Not by mere coincidence, El jardín is divided into six chapters. This fact suggests the possible infinite exchange between the literal and figurative vision of the garden and the six days spent by Julio in jail—a substitution that can even take place in the title. Julio asks himself: "¿Hubiera podido terminarla sin el silencio de su enfermedad, sin la paz que me ha proporcionado su dolor y su encarcelamiento?" Once his novel is revised and Julio recognizes his wife's symptoms of recovery, he gives his new text to Gloria, whose muteness is now directed only toward him. Gloria's reading is staged, as de Man would have it, in his Allegories of Reading in "an inner, sheltered place … that has to protect itself against the invasion of an outside world, but that nevertheless has to borrow from this world some of its properties." The jail, in Gloria's text, has become a garden. But the garden turned out to be as oppressive for Gloria as she had intended to make it for Julio. In other words, the metaphorical connotation of the garden has expanded to include both the creation and the creator.

Gloria's reading of the new manuscript—that took place after Julio's revision of his own text—questions the first act of rereading that he experiences, since it suggests that the end result will not only be an act of criticism on her part but also of re-writing. We are forced to ask then: to what extent is Gloria's novel—that is, her writing—the consequence of her reading of Julio's novel? Is her own creation a "revision" of her husband's defective text? Núria's negative response to Julio's novel comes precisely from Julio's inability to "see" his own creation. Since he is incapable of "looking over" his text, his rewriting is as faulty as the first version: "No sé lo que he escrito, ni lo que a mí me ha ocurrido al escribir. No logro verme, ni 'verla'."

But the reader does "see" and recognize the confused causality of the acts of (re)reading and (re)writing in the identities, also confused, of Julio and Gloria. Their marital struggles, where harmony and discord coexist as a single entity and where dissatisfaction with the physical and sexual decadence of the partner's body can only be destroyed by the other's presence, dramatize their battle to reconcile their antagonistic discourses in a single body—or text—as a means of becoming one. Julio repeatedly questions himself about his tendency and Gloria's to invade the other's very being, to deny it by their intrusions: "¿Por qué sólo nos satisface la devoración mutua, el escarbar incansable de uno dentro del otro hasta que no queda ni un rincón turbio ni oscuro ni privado, ni una sola fantasía conservada como algo personal, sin exponerla?" The duality—reading and writing and their repetition—exercised both by Julio and Gloria, represent part of that struggle of identity where there is a confusing relationship between creator and reader. Within this profusion of readings, writings, and interpretations, Gloria raises these acts to the level of themes in her novel and experiences them in her chaotic life:

Escribí mis quejas en mi diario, tan desgarrador que ahora no me atrevo a releerlo; pero al releerlo entonces para escarbar mi rencor, y al volver y volver a escribir esas páginas, y darles vueltas y más vueltas, fui como depurándolo todo, en ese tiempo tan largo que las estaciones me han obsequiado junto al Mediterráneo, depurando la imagen de mí misma, la de Julio, la de nuestro matrimonio, hasta darme cuenta de que para que este examen tuviera fuerza de realidad era necesario que yo construyera algo fuera de mí misma, pero que me contuviera, para "verme": un espejo en el cual también se pudieran "ver" otros, un objeto que yo y otros pudiéramos contemplar afuera de nosotros mismos, aunque todo lo mío sea, ahora, en tono menor.

This is precisely why the famous editor of Latin American fiction, Núria Monclús, is willing to publish Gloria's novel. In opposition to the accomplishments of her text, Gloria realizes that the only footprint left by Julio's manuscript was a vague chronicle of injustice. But is Gloria's success, in any case, the result of her refusal to give Núria access to her diary and in a way risk a rewriting of her text by an "outsider," as they both did to Julio? Or is this not what actually happens when, during a meeting between editor and writer, Núria expresses dissatisfaction with the end of Gloria's novel, and after listening to her narration of Julio's vicissitudes in Tangiers, suggests that this become the end of the novel:

—¡Please do not disturb! ¡Qué irónico final feliz para una novela tan amarga!—dijo [Núria].

—¿Cómo …?

—Bueno, ¿ño es éste el capítulo que falta, el que no has escrito …? preguntó Núria Monclús.

Needless to say, this also happens to be the end of El jardín de al lado. Ironically, Núria-(re)reader has provided her own writing; she has imposed her own ending to Gloria's novel. But, is this a metaphor for what the reader of fiction experiences while engaged in the act of (re)reading—that is, the imperative to interpret and rewrite what (s)he is reading? When Núria suggests that Gloria's real challenge is to write a second novel, is she implying that the public's reading of her first text will immediately produce an infinite number of rewriters demanding their active participation in the process of creation?

This "struggle for authority," or even the recognition of it—to use Lucille Kerr's terms—is not limited to the two narrator—writers, Gloria and Julio, who represent the overt powers. But the causal line of development between the act of (re)reading and the need to (re)write unveils the fragility of those powerful overt structures of creation which, ironically, become subject to the strength of other readings and writings, such as Núria's or even our own. The "new" texts discovered do not represent the substitution of the original one, but an interplay of discourses that weakens the entire system of authority, including the authorial figure.

According to Kerr, when we finish reading El jardín de al lado and discover Gloria's voice as creator and manipulator of the narration, "we virtually see one image of authority usurp the position of the other: an apparently secondary subject of authority replaces another whose primary position seems to have been authorized and then denied by that very subject who literally follows, but also virtually precedes, him as the 'original' author(ity)." The truth of this statement is subject to an endless process of substitution that is not limited to Julio and to Gloria's manipulations or even to the direct or subtle allusions to Donoso's reality as a Chilean writer, but to the very nature and power of reading and writing. In this case, Donoso is equally subject to the process of substitution, and his text is also threatened by our reading and inevitable rewriting. The ironic overtones of the readers' discovery of Gloria's new position provoke the dismantling of the first reading, where the autobiographical first-person narration becomes a biographical account presented by one of the characters of the "former" text. Gloria's takeover demands an act of rereading—which for de Man is "a play between a prospective and a retrospective movement"—an act of revising not the truth or falseness of the overt and covert texts, but their rhetorical structures. As already implied, Gloria's literary account is also subject to a process of dismantling and reconstruction.

To decode the layers of rhetorical structures that a plurality of narrations—through the proliferation of readings and writings—imposes on the text, has been one of my tasks. Let us turn now to the recurrent trope of the garden. The first allusion to the duke's garden, which is next to Salvatierra's apartment, is immediately diverted to a different garden populated by other flora and by other figures:

Mientras Gloria termina de abrir la cortina me levanto de la cama y miro: sí, un jardín…. Florecillas inidentificables brotan a la sombra de las ramas…. Ramas de un jardín de otro hemisferio, jardín muy distinto a este pequeño parque aristocrático, porque aquélla era sombra de paltos y araucarias y naranjos y magnolios, y sin embargo esta sombra es igual a aquélla, que rodea de silencio esta casa en que en este mismo momento mi madre agoniza.

Julio's memories of his Chilean house and its inhabitants (his dying mother, his dead father, his German-speaking niece, himself as a youth) come forth through the presence of an immediate and physical space already mentioned in the title. In addition, the fusion, confusion, and multiplication of gardens and feelings remind the reader of a parallel proliferation of texts and narrative voices in El jardín. But this frantic reproduction of spaces and referents ironically creates a sense of oppression, isolation, claustrophobia, which is reflected in Julio's perception of the outside world through various windows or, as he later says, "desde mi ventana chileno-madrileña de exilado." As a space of enclosure, the garden is where Julio's historical past, his political experience, and his imaginative world clash to recreate the linguistic and narrative paradox of the text.

When Monika Pinell de Bray, that is, "la condesita," leaves with her family for the traditional summer vacation out of Madrid (their departure also coincides with the death of Julio's mother), Julio experiences a profound emptiness as he faces the deserted garden. His new enigma is how and with what he should fill the empty space. Surprisingly, what comes to Julio's mind is Marcelo Chiriboga's poetics of writing: "Al fin y al cabo uno no escribe con el propósito de decir algo, sino para saber qué quiere decir y para qué y para quiénes." The uninhabited garden, in Julio's words, is available now for a luminous inquisition; he is now "free" to write his own text—his own garden.

The garden represents the linguistic and narrative paradox of the text. Throughout the novel, this particular space is destroyed as a single unit while its various expressions become the paradigm of the emerging texts already conceived in the palimpsestic metaphor. In other words, the literal and metaphorical presence of the garden also works as a mirror image of the figural and literal meanings of the multiple overt and covert texts. Within this rhetorical distinction, what has to be taken into account is that El jardín, with all its linguistic and literary images—above all, the garden—is inherently metaphorical and its literal dimension impresses us also as a metaphor. The notions of reading and writing—an overt theme in Donoso's novel—compel Gloria and Julio (characters, writers, narrators) and us as readers, to engage in a process in which both of these activities are challenged by their own repetition. Rereading and rewriting endlessly multiply those subtexts that we have been in search of through the medieval practice of "scraping again." The text's deconstruction of its own writing is achieved in the infinite replacement and flow of previous writings that show no hierarchical bounds but which have been rhetorically concealed.

De Man's allusion to the traditional meaning of the metaphor sheds light on El jardín's ultimate expression of the palimpsestic structure: "Conceptualization, conceived as an exchange or substitution of properties on the basis of resemblance, corresponds exactly to the classical definition of metaphor as it appears in the theories of rhetoric from Aristotle to Roman Jakobson." The exchange or substitution that takes place in the act of conceptualizing, of metaphorizing, leads the reader to ascertain Julio's strong desire to become someone else (Bijou, Pato, Gloria, Chiriboga, or the "guapo-feo"), to possess other people's bodies, discourses, identity, as he simultaneously erases his own decadent codes and footprints, which had traced his failure as a writer, a father, a husband, and as a political activist. Julio suddenly discovers the meaning of his attraction for Bijou: "De repente comprendí … que no era tan sexual mi atracción por Bijou sino otra cosa, un deseo de apropiarme de su cuerpo, de ser él, de adjudicarme sus códigos y apetitos, mi hambre por meterme dentro de la piel de Bijou era mi deseo de que mi dolor fuera otro, otros que yo no conocía o había olvidado; en todo caso, no mi código tiránico ni los dolores que me tenían deshecho …"

Julio's desire for transmutation is not only dramatized by his obsessive desire to become a Cortázar and write a Rayuela for Gloria, or to possess García Márquez or Vargas Llosa's literary discourse. It is in Julio's last chapter as narrator that the reader is confronted with his almost insane willingness to get lost in a jungle of unintelligible codes, which, in the eyes of a Westerner, are represented by the enigmas of the Arab world. Julio's desire for anonymity is not provoked by his fame as a writer but, ironically, by his endless failures. As he constantly suggests, his disappearance alone will guarantee freedom from his unsuccessful life. But is the need for transformation a way of searching for another mask, for another disguising source, or is it an act of unmasking that is indirectly linked to the activity and nature of literature?

His eagerness to unfold himself and experience a mental and physical metamorphosis reaches its highest point when, on a Tangiers street, he glimpses a scene in which a beggar is lying beside a rubbish dump and is accompanied by a naked one-year-old child who is feeding (his father?) with garbage: "Envidia: quiero ser ese hombre, meterme dentro de su piel enfermiza y de su hambre para así no tener esperanza de nada ni temer nada, eliminar sobre todo este temor al mandato de la historia de mi ser y mi cultura, que es el de confesar esta noche misma—o dentro de un plazo de quince días—la complejidad de mi derrota …" Julio goes a step further and even contemplates the possibility of killing the beggar. He recreates the scene: while he exchanges his breath and soul with the dead man, they also exchange their identities, allowing Julio to walk away from himself. The garden—in all its forms—and Tangiers are the two spaces in which signs are deprived of their traditional meaning and values: the former by the juxtaposition of past experiences with an unreadable present (the duke's garden with all its characters), and the latter by cultural differences. Who is Núria Monclús or Marcelo Chiriboga, Julio asks himself, in a space ruled by a completely different set of codes? Parallel to the unexpected narrative transition from the fifth to the sixth chapter in El jardín de al lado, which demands a rereading and reinterpretation of signs and "messages," the mysterious gardens and the indecipherable happenings at Tangiers challenge the reader to retune his/her reading codes or habits.

Similarly, the narrative, psychological, and existential unmasking that characterizes Julio's discourse can be compared with his claim for physical transformation. Julio's writing tries arduously to detach itself from bourgeois codes and Western standards as a way, among other things, of challenging the "boom" writers. But as readers watch Julio disappear from the scene, witness Gloria's takeover, and later discover her husband's return to the hotel at Tangiers, they realize that Julio's search for otherness has also been a failure. What he seems incapable of appreciating is that one of the effective ways to become someone else (a metaphor of himself) is achieved through writing. Even Gloria's success does not come without pain and a certain fear of experiencing that same transformation that she will later embrace with determination: "Tuve la certeza, en esos minutos que siguieron a su desaparición del hotel, que no volvería a ver a Julio nunca más…. ¿En qué se transformaría Julio? ¿En ese mendigo que ni siquiera sé si vio, tirado a la puerta de una mezquita, mientras yo me transformaba en una sefíora latinoamericana, sola y madura, dedicada a traducir o a los telares en Sitges?"

The profound irony of El jardín de al lado is that Gloria, the writer of Julio's desire for transformation, is ultimately the one who experiences metamorphosis. As the creator of Julio's narrative voice, she (to some extent out of envy) impersonates his discourse, codes and sufferings, but only to free herself from anonymity. She happens to be the observer, the reader of the next-door garden which, as she suggests at the end, inspired the writing of her novel. As I have been stressing, the proliferation of intra- and extra-textual readers, narrators, and writers in El jardín and their constant exchange of roles not only creates a flow of texts within texts demanding to be read but also gives language a sense of otherness, where a frequent transformation toward aesthetic discourse takes place: the garden is framed through the image of the window; Gloria becomes the perfect "Odalisca de Ingres"; Bijou the angelo musicante; and Monica Pinell "la Brancusi."

Because El jardín de al lado's main concern is the dialectic between reading and writing and the endless repetition of these two acts, the characters' explicit discussion of the ethical/aesthetical question in relation to both art and their own lives cannot be ignored. For example, it is Julio, himself, who poses the ethical/aesthetic conflict at the beginning of the novel: "¿Por qué—me preguntaba cada vez que hablaba con él [Pancho Salvatierra], cada vez que veía su casa o su pintura—, por qué Pancho tenía la terrible virtud de replantearme el problema, que yo ya daba por resuelto, de la relación entre arte y ética?" In Pancho's world—by contrast with Julio's philosophical views of art and life—things lack history, purpose, and even future. And it is in this absence that the antagonism between Pancho's art and Adriazola's becomes even more evident. The tension between Adriazola's weekly murals, permeated with propaganda against political and social injustice, and Pancho's lack of compromise represents one of Julio's moral conflicts. Julio's attachment to his political experience in Chile hinders his writing. But, ironically, when Gloria confronts him with his lack of political commitment, he indirectly associates himself with Pancho's perception of art and life: "No nací para héroe, ni siquiera para tener razón, lo que puede sañalarme como un ser limitado y comodón, pero qué le voy a hacer: es lo que soy. Después de todo lo que ha pasado, es muy duro darse cuenta que me interesa más la música de piano del romanticismo y las novelas de Laurence Sterne que tener razón en cualquier campo que sea." Julio's allusion to Sterne should not go unnoticed, since that eighteenth-century author's art represents one of the most important efforts to break with traditional literary codes. Tristram Shandy is an overt exaltation of literariness and of self-conscious fiction that has often been interpreted as a departure from a contextual commitment.

Not by mere coincidence, one of Salvatierra's most discussed paintings in the novel is precisely the one that reproduces a deceptive reality: between the two symmetrical and barred windows of his apartment there is a painting—of the same dimensions as the windows—that reproduces the white curtains of the entire house. Pancho Salvatierra, through his paintings, and, surprisingly, Gloria, through the text that "we" are reading, are perceived by Julio and Núria, respectively, as successful reconcilers of the "dual" scheme of art and ethics. Gloria acknowledges: "Te quiero explicar que yo, como persona, no es que no siga exaltada, políticamente, y sobre todo en relación a Chile. Haría cualquier cosa para que la situación cambiara en mi país. Pero sé que eso es ajeno a la literatura, quiero decir, ajeno por lo menos a mi literatura." Far beyond this confession, what she actually does is closer to what Julio and Núria perceive than it is to her own statement. Gloria's achievement is the incorporation of a political discourse through apparent rejection. That is, her own text about Julio's failure as writer incorporates—through storytelling—those same elements that contributed to his novel's unsuccessful outcome. Although Gloria theoretically pretends to stay away from nonliterary discourse, the reader is constantly exposed to the ideological developments of the protagonist creating, not a contradictory level of expression, but a dynamic relationship between ethics and art.

Within a thematic context the ethical issue is frequently translated into a deep sense of guilt, particularly expressed by Julio. Although he forcefully condemns Bijou's immoral behavior, Julio commits similar crimes. Directed by Bijou, Julio uses a "fixed" phone to call his mother in Chile; he steals Salvatierra's painting the way Bijou stole one sometime before, but with the additional burden that Julio falsifies the object painted, selling it as Gloria's portrait. Directly or indirectly, the idea of fraud is always present: fraud in the political development of Latin America, in Julio and Gloria's marital relations, in the subtle allusions to plagiarism, and even fraud on the part of the narrator-creator, inevitably posing the question of the intrinsic falseness of literature.

But our interest goes beyond strict concern for a moralistic view of ethics, to the multiple texts and subtexts unveiled and substituted, and their demand to be read and deconstructed. The "reconciliation" of ethics and aesthetics that the reader experiences both in Donoso's novel and in Gloria's is not the result of a mere fusion but the claim of each text to be (re)written and (re)read. The act of writing and reading represents the literal and figurative space where the creative process is conceived. But it is simultaneously the space that also generates its own destruction. The reader's perception of Julio's guilty conscience is not so much the recognition of the protagonist's incapacity to write a text that accurately fuses the ethical/aesthetical dialectic, but the realization that Gloria's multiple levels of narration, of writing, and of reading incarnate the ethical demands of a fictional enterprise; that is, to reread and rewrite Donoso's and Gloria's El jardín de al lado.

Paul de Man's discussion of the image of the fountain in Proust's A la Recherche du temps perdu suggests that the fountain—similar to the garden in El jardín de al lado—is not subject to the synthesis of the literal and the figural senses:

The shimmering of the fountain then becomes a much more disturbing movement, a vibration between truth and error that keeps the two readings from converging. The disjunction between the aesthetically responsive and the rhetorically aware reading, both equally compelling, undoes the pseudo-synthesis of inside and outside, time and space, container and content, part and whole, motion and stasis, self and understanding, writer and reader, metaphor and metonymy, that the text has constructed. It functions like an oxymoron, but since it signals a logical rather than a representational incompatibility, it is in fact an aporia. It designates the irrevocable occurrence of at least two mutually exclusive readings and asserts the impossibility of a true understanding, on the level of the figuration as well as of the themes.

Beyond de Man's notion of unreadability, both the garden and the novel(s) studied characterize the proliferation of texts and intratexts in which to write, to read and to narrate about writing, reading, and narrating become the story-telling and the story-told. To write and to read the palimpsest is to rewrite and to reread El jardín de al lado.

Marcela Kogan (essay date November/December 1987)

SOURCE: "Stormy Adventures of the Spirit," in Americas, Vol. 39, No. 6, November/December, 1987, pp. 8-13.

[In the following essay, Kogan relates comments made by Donoso in a Washington, D.C. lecture. Kogan also provides an overview of Donoso's career and details about his wife and family.]

Back in the 1960's, when many Latin American writers were living in Europe, José Donoso accused Carlos Fuentes of stealing his ideas from a review he read on Donoso's book. Those were the days when Latin American writers, later dubbed the "Boom generation," stunned the world with dozens of novels all published at once—novels whose magical realism, intertwining metaphors and dazzling reflections cast a spell over the international literary community.

"Carlos told me I was being ridiculous," said the 63-year-old Chilean writer to a room full of avid fiction readers in Washington, D.C., where he spent four months earlier this year as a visiting scholar. "He said 'Nobody is stealing anything. All of us Latin Americans are writing one and the same novel.' In that period we were writing very different parts of something which was one thing."

At that time many Latin American writers were living abroad, away from the political turmoil in their own countries. They stuck together, meeting in cafés to talk about politics, literature, change. The group of exiles shared one feeling: nostalgia, and a need to express this profound sadness in writing.

Things have changed. Since then, everybody has had a different story to tell, and they have been telling it in dozens of books. Along with the works of the other Boom writers—García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, to mention a few—Donoso's books have been translated into dozens of languages, including Chinese.

Donoso broke with the traditional narrative in literature and exposed a new realm of possibilities: literature did not need to be limited to writing poetry about the land or testimonials (the vogue at the time). Dreams, fantasies, myths, nightmares were all sources of day-to-day reality, and a rich form for expression.

Donoso's critics call his work "original." Since the conversation he had with Fuentes, however, Donoso has given the issue of originality some thought. "I no longer care about originality," he says in British accented English while crossing his legs and stroking his gray beard. "I realized that we are all constantly stealing from others. I squeeze out of all forms—absurd, ironic, realism, grotesque. How can anybody claim to be original? It's ridiculous. Originality is rated over quality. In our times, if somebody dabs green on a piece of canvas, a minute after it's televised [and] the world knows about it. Originality is not that much fun."

Neither is talking about the Boom. After decades of discussing the contribution Boom-generation writers have made to Latin American literature, Donoso has grown cynical. "Perhaps the moment has passed and we no longer have to continue talking of the Boom," he says in his book The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History. "The Boom has been a game; perhaps more precisely, a cultural broth, that nourished the tired form of the novel in Latin America for a decade."

Looking the part of the worldly intellectual that he is, Donoso wears a tweed jacket, shirt and tie. When he talks about literature, his words flow like a ream of paper through a typewriter, and he gets the dreamy look of a man in love with his work. His voice is soft and musical, and he punctuates conversation with hand gestures.

"We Latin Americans write about the snow storm while North Americans write about the snowflake," he continues. "There is something really exciting about the way we write, as we try to find out who we are, as we try to see what answers exist in the way of metaphor. We Latin Americans have a feeling of adventure in our novels."

His books are full of psychologically stormy adventure in which the reader can expect to encounter huge opulent mansions full of ghosts, myths, witches, nuns. Born into a wealthy family of doctors and lawyers, Donoso writes about the decadence of aristocracy, the repulsion of aging, the mysterious universe of maids, the grimness of a fated world.

His characters do ordinary things: visit friends, go on vacation, take naps. But behind these activities lurk destructive impulses. A man is overpowered by his passion for sleep, a materially successful couple begins losing their possessions without reason. The natural and the supernatural merge to create figures that are too grotesque to appear real but who, in fact, represent the ugly side of human beings.

Donoso transforms this pessimism into insight. People may not be able to control events in their lives, but they can at least understand them. And this is what he has spent most of his life doing—trying to understand himself and his surroundings.

Despite his greatest efforts, Donoso hasn't escaped from all the ghosts of his past. His childhood recollections are full of sick family members, bed-ridden aunts who got out once a year to visit Europe, poor relatives who came around to claim inheritances.

"I still think about death," he winces, his voice losing the melody. "My own death. My sickness, aging, degeneration. Things like that. I hate them. They scare me. I try to deal with it in my writing. It gets it out of my system for a while. But I pay heavily for it in stress. It becomes part of all that is negative."

"I'm not really that unhappy," he tries to cheer himself up, transforming another grim thought into a philosophy. "But I would like to know why I feel I've been given the instrument to find out but not the right. People have a chance to find out who they are, to know when they may die, but they haven't been given the right to find out. The open-endedness keeps people asking."

His characters share his dilemma as they pursue their "right to know." With unyielding introspection, they start probing into themselves, penetrating layers of knowledge and feeling. But when they reach the level underneath all that is definable, they panic and, as if blinded by the light, freeze. Few can transcend that state. There comes a point at which the politics of the country ties their hands behind their backs. They are too strapped to change.

But in real life, as well as in fiction, this soul searching becomes tiring. In a private interview, Donoso, who calls himself a "reluctant politician," refuses to talk about the difference between politics and literature, claiming that in 30 years he hasn't been able to answer that question, and that he finds such conversation "bloody boring."

Politics are implied throughout his works with metaphor. In House in the Country, for instance, children left alone in a mansion while their parents go off on an excursion break the rules and fight with the servants to seize control of the house. The "takeover" resembles a military coup overthrowing an incumbent government.

Donoso may be bored with certain subjects, but never with words. Fascinated with different ways of phrasing thought, Donoso experiments with his audiences, giving them a sense of the author at work. "A writer is a very confused person," he says, shifting into poetic gear while answering a question about his working style. "A novel happens to him. We are not very rational people. A novelist is a man who is involved with words and words that lead to words, which leads him to some memory, which he thought was forgotten. The words and sentences and the rhythm of what he is saying stem from a dark world, rains of many seasons, many streams. You want to make something out of clay, but you are not really sure what it is."

He wasn't sure what he was after when he started writing Obscene Bird of Night, his most accomplished work. The narrative is told from the point of view of Humberto, once secretary of a wealthy Chilean family, who helps the family's monster child feel normal by building him a monster world.

"The book almost killed him," says his wife, a tall, striking woman with high cheekbones and gray hair pulled back into a bun. "He was exorcising all his childhood ghosts. One day he came home and said he was so fed up with that book that he was going to burn it. Thank God I stopped him. I looked at him and said, 'If you burn that book you won't get rid of it.'"

The happy couple, who met in church with a baby in their arms when a mutual friend chose them as godparents, moved 22 times over the past 20 years of marriage, hopping around from Europe to the United States as Donoso tried to overcome the writing block he suffered while writing Obscene Bird of Night.

They spent time in Madrid, Majorca, Paris. They covered university networks in the United States, from the University of Iowa, to Princeton, to Dartmouth. They attended book parties in New York and Mexico celebrating the launching of novels he managed to write despite his block. But always, their goal was to finish Obscene Bird of Night.

Walking around their efficiency apartment with a pink bathrobe on, the television news blaring in the background, his wife remembers how timid Donoso used to be about his writing, especially after he met Carlos Fuentes at a writers' conference.

"Carlos was very impressed with Pepe's book and told him to send a copy to his publisher in the United States. But Pepe didn't do it. He never thought anything like that could happen to him. So I sent it there. Several months later Carlos calls to congratulate us for having our book accepted by the largest gringa press in the U.S."

The Donosos made themselves at home in Washington, D.C., right away, hanging on the wall frameless prints purchased at the National Gallery of Art, along with photos of their daughter and pets. Plastered on one wall with thick black headlines that read "Donoso & Donoso" was a centerpiece of a magazine showing Donoso escorting his adopted daughter to the altar, where she was to wed her cousin.

"She is ashamed that I'm a writer," Donoso once said about his daughter. "She told me that my books all sound the same. That's all right. She is only 20. She has time to learn."

"Pilarcita adores Pepe," says his wife, waving away his wisecrack. "When she is sad, Pepe gets paralyzed. He can't write."

Growing up in Chile, Donoso had no idea he would someday be talking to García Márquez about writing blocks, showering at Pablo Neruda's house, accompanying Jorge Borges to the house of the great-granddaughter of José Hernández, author of the classic Martín Fierro.

In fact, he had never heard of them. Like many of his contemporaries, Donoso felt frustrated with his university education, which required readings of well-known writers like Faulkner, Hemingway and Camus and ignored Latin American authors. Back in the 1950's most companies published Spanish translations of European and U.S. classics and invested in local, popular commercial writers.

In the Boom book he analyzes the problem. "The regionalists wanted to raise the barriers that separated one country from another, literally isolating them, praising xenophobia and chauvinism and confusing these concepts with nationalists."

What resulted was a "defensive and arrogant Olympus of writers," he says. "We were orphans. But this orphanhood, this position of rejecting what we forced on us as 'ours,' a position in which we were placed by the novelists who preceded us, produced an emptiness in us, a feeling of not having anything exciting in our writing. And I don't believe I'm wrong in maintaining that my generation of novelists looked not only outside Latin America but also outside our own language toward the Anglo-Saxon countries, toward France and Italy in search of sustenance…."

He left Chile in his early 20's to explore the world. And explore he did, diving into his new life the way he delves into his characters. He worked as a truck driver, shepherd, delivery boy, subconsciously beginning to collect details he would later use in developing characters. In a half-demolished room in the back of the writers association in Buenos Aires, Donoso picked up Borges for the first time. Literary vistas stretched open before him, the possibility that Chile was not an island, that it existed within the context of Latin America, and that Latin America existed within the context of the world.

When he was ready to publish, the companies weren't interested. His work was considered "difficult," and he wasn't well known. But Donoso convinced his publisher that he could sell enough copies to cover costs.

In his late 20's, when most friends were settled down with full-time work and a family, Donoso stood on street corners in Santiago trying to sell his first collection of short stories. His buddies helped by standing on other busy intersections.

He sold enough copies. The next year he won a prize for the short stories. When he was ready to publish Coronation, he contacted the publishers, but nobody returned his calls. Again, he hit the streets, this time expanding his marketing plans to include his father, who agreed to take a stack to his club, where gentlemen with canes came to play cards.

Coronation became a big hit. The impact it had on Latin American literature was immediate. The story, about a Chilean woman who retains the vision of her glorious aristocratic past even while she is dying, starts out with traditional narrative. But the author pushes this form into the grotesque at the end of the novel when, in a mocking celebration, the maids crown her.

In his later novels, Donoso begins to play with notions of ambiguity, showing how different interpretations of one incident can coexist, despite the contradictions—a technique he admired in Faulkner's works.

In Obscene Bird of Night, he stretches ambiguity to the limit, and his characters can no longer be viewed in traditional terms. Grotesque elements interact with the imaginary world, and the reader no longer knows what is real and what is fiction.

In retrospect, Donoso, who was enraptured after reading Carlos Fuentes's Where the Air is Clear, now understands that his writing block partially stemmed from the feeling that he lagged behind other writers.

"The book [Where The Air is Clear] brusquely tore me away from the aesthetic to which I was still attached," he writes in the Boom book. "So much so that on a purely intellectual level I think it was this trauma, uprooting me from my home-spun aesthetic in order to land me within a broader ethic, that left me incapable of finishing the Obscene Bird of Night, incapable simply because I was afraid of not being able to live up to the literary demands then suggested to me as superior to the ones I had come to think of as my own."

Donoso is now ready to return to Chile, despite the love-hate relationship he has with his country. His last book, Desesperanza (Desperation) features a Chilean singer who returns to his homeland after years of exile in Europe. This is one of the first times Santiago, Chile, will appear in literature as a main setting. Donoso has finally given his home a place in the classics.

But his fame hasn't made him happy. "I can't say I'm unhappy," he says, making yet another attempt to understand his feelings. "I never would have thought that I'd make a living off my writing, that I would have such a wonderful marriage and meet so many wonderful people. Yet there is a part of me that feels unsuccessful as a writer. It's good. I think. I hate what comes with too much loving yourself. I feel that I carry within me the seeds of an unfulfilled man, which accounts for so much of my pessimism."

The character he most relates to is Julio Mendes from Jardin de al lado (The Garden Next Door), who suffers from a writer's block that directs his attention from his typewriter to his neighbor's garden, where he begins to hear the voices of family long since dead. Obsessed with the ghosts of his past, Mendes and his wife nurse themselves numb with liquor and drugs.

Will he ever write any stories with happy endings?

"I don't think so," he says. "Not really. To have a happy ending, I would have to be a bad writer. If there had to be a happy ending, I'd have to stop writing."

"One doesn't write because one is happy," he says, amusing himself with the play on words. "One wants to know why he isn't happy, which means one doesn't know, you see. So one can't be happy without knowing."

Rosemary Geisdorfer Feal (essay date March 1988)

SOURCE: "Veiled Portraits: Donoso's Interartistic Dialogue in El jardin de al lado," in MLN, Vol. 103, No. 2, March, 1988, pp. 398-418.

[In the following essay, Feal discusses the "meta-confessional" nature of the narration in The Garden Next Door, and the masking, or mediated figure of the male author.]

José Donoso has characterized El jardín de al lado as his "most realistic novel to date; it is a psychological study and there are few masks although I imagine scholars will find them." He also claims that it is "the portrait of a middle-aged literary couple whose love is starting to give way and the political defeat somehow breaks them but they stick together." Donoso's classification of this work as a portrait is far from arbitrary, and he is right in imagining that students of the novel will find masks where he consciously placed few. On close examination, the novel engages in a lively dialogue between two arts—literature and painting—that attempts to answer the question: how can the eye/I see itself? The confessional mode, which entails intimate revelations, here becomes a device that instead produces a textual disguise of remarkable complexities. Julio Méndez, the primary narrator of El jardín, documents his failed efforts to produce a publishable version of his novel, whose subject is the military coup in his native Chile. But the whole of El jardín revolves around the hidden female narrator-author, Gloria Echeverría de Méndez, Julio's wife, who steps forward in the final chapter. In telling the story of exile, Donoso thus takes flight from his own I—always a potential empty shifter in literature, and always an other, as Rimbaud tells us—to take refuge in his writer-protagonist who himself is filtered through the eyes of an overriding narrator.

In this confessional work, then, the figure of the male author is twice masked or mediated in the text: through the narrative disguises of a male character with a fictional name and through a female author-character who purportedly writes the novel finally accepted for publication by literary agent Núria Monclús. Thus El jardín centers on a meta-confessional act: Gloria writing about Julio writing about his struggles to write an autobiographically-inspired novel. This great unwritten novel of the Chilean experience, which is only spoken about in El jardín, constitutes the elusive core of the work in that it escapes both Gloria, Julio and perhaps even Donoso to remain trapped in layers of narrative and psychological cover. When the novel first opens, Julio is seen avoiding his typewriter, the taskmaster that demands either a new version of his "novela-documento … ya rechazada una vez por la formidable Núria Monclús" or the "tediosa traducción de Middlemarch de George Eliot, hecho en tandem con Gloria, labor que parecía eterna …" In tandem: one behind the other, or a team: but for the team to operate, one partner must assume a dominant position. And the apparent forerunner, Julio, wears blinders, since he remains unaware that throughout the entire work he is a textual object for his wife, the successful author. Interestingly, Julio's and Gloria's translation is of a work by a female author who goes by a male pseudonym, which previews in ironic fashion the gender crossing that is unveiled in the final chapter of Donoso's novel.

In her insightful analysis of the structure of authority at play in El jardín, Lucille Kerr concludes that "the contingent and mobile quality of the authority apparently held or wielded by the principal subjects undermines any notion of its absolute or permanent nature, even when the final inversion, the surprising reversal, would seem to put an end to its movements." Yet, we may add, it is precisely the unconscious fantasy of an integral and infallible narrative anchor that undergirds the novel: this figure is clearly related to the pre-oedipal or phallic mother, whom Jane Gallop describes in Lacanian terms: she is "apparently omnipotent and omniscient until the 'discovery of her castration,' the discovery that she is not a 'whole' …" Omnipotent and omniscient: what better words to characterize the hidden Gloria, who has managed to pass off a convincing first-person narration in her husband's voice? She then becomes the all-seeing eye, the spy whose gaze penetrates into the most remote corners of Julio's being. It would be she who has Julio engage in ruthless self-examination, she who authors the devastatingly ironic remarks about herself: "la odio porque está fea o mal vestida o porque saló demasiado el tomate …" In keeping with modern functions of the first person, the I of Julio's text fails to be self-referential and really stands for another: thus, the masculine I harbors a latent she, who eventually dislocates the unstable I to subordinate it as a third person, he. The narrative filter is thus a veil that cloaks the shocking, naked reality of the female author at the work's core. Here we have two veiled portraits, as the cover of El jardín graphically symbolizes with its version of René Magritte's The Lovers. In this extratextual sign system, Magritte's painting is superimposed on portions of a draft of El jardín; these typewritten lines, containing crossed out words and hand written corrections, extend from the front cover of the book to the back. The couple's shrouded faces partially block the traces of the text-in-progress, thus mirroring the process that occurs within the novel. In El jardín, words, both in their semiotic and semantic powers, remain buried, literally under cover. The association of text to art constitutes a most important medium through which Donoso explores the couple's relationship to each other and to writing, and it is through an interartistic analysis that we may gain access to the deep structure of desire in El jardín de al lado.

The apartment in Madrid, home to Julio and Gloria for the summer, belongs to Chilean Pancho Salvatierra, a painter. Julio describes one wall of his friend's apartment: "En el salón, dos ventanas simétricas, desnudas, que descubren sólo cuadrados de verdure como si fueran tapices, y entre ellas, de exactamente las mismas dimensiones, un cuadro que reproduce los cortinajes blancos de toda la casa, cuadro en que reconozco la maestría para reproducir la engañosa realidad que es don de Pancho Salvatierra." Bijou, son of Chilean exiles living in Paris, bursts into laughter when he first spots Pancho's trompe l'oeil painting. Bijou's reaction gives Julio cause to reflect on Pancho's apparent success: "Poseer un punto de vista tan original que se acerque a lo cómico …, pienso en Dalí, en Chirico, en Magritte, que también son envolventes e instantáneos y divertidos…. Eso envidio." Pancho's trompe l'oeil consists of false curtains that cover nothing (except empty wall space), while the bare windows in the room create a painting-like impression as they open on the lush garden next door. Donoso's novel, itself a study in trickery with regard to characters and readers alike, also plays with the notion of naked revelations and veiled portraits. But to equate Pancho's work with Magritte's, as Julio does, is to err significantly, for while there are similarities in theme, an important difference stands out. Magritte creates not the trompe l'oeil, which hinges on deceiving one's perception of physical reality, but instead cultivates what Picasso has called the trompe l'esprit, a type of metaphysical questioning. Pancho's work of art may best be compared to one of Magritte's paintings, such as The Gioconda that show what would be a physically impossible reflection. In this painting two free-standing black curtains are placed against a dark background; the superimposed panel in the shape of a curtain appears to be an isolated patch of sky with clouds. Of course, the black curtains in The Gioconda do not fulfill their traditional function of shading out light, whereas the curtain-shaped sky panel defies even more dramatically the function of real draperies. Magritte's The False Mirror depicts a giant human eye, but filling it is a reflection of blue sky and clouds. The "painting philosopher" challenges the seeing function of the eye and instead turns it into the object viewed. Similarly, in El jardín, the fascinating woman in the garden next door, the Countess Monika Pinell de Bray, has Magritte-like eyes, which serve as false mirror to Julio: "como en una cabeza clásica de mármol, sus ojos son vacíos. Pero con una diferencia: en vez de ser un vacío de piedra en blanco, son dos ventanas abiertas al cielo por el cual transitan nubes o donde juegan niños o …, cuando mi amor es más doloroso, los agujeros almendrados me dejan ver olas rompiendo sobre riscos, y más allá, el horizonte del mundo entero." Like Magritte, Donoso takes up the problematics of "seeing" in El jardín, where the subject sees himself reflected in the eyes of the (female) other, who in turn views herself through the male's desire.

To pursue the painting analogy, central to the confessions in Donoso's work, we must now turn to the Odalisque paintings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres; it is here that we find the interplay of desire and vision carried out in full depth. Julio first associates Gloria with Ingres' Odalisque on their wedding night, an image he continues to evoke throughout the decades of their marriage. He describes Gloria as she showers: "el torneado de la otrora perfecta Odalisca de Ingres—deleitosa cadera plena, largo arco de la espalda para acariciary y pierna larga, largo cuello, y ojo alargado bajo el turbante envuelto en la cabeza volteada—se dibujaba más allá de esa puerta, pero, sóbre todo, más allá del tiempo, por el reconocido roce de la ropa al caer por los contornos de aquel cuerpo. Hasta que, contemporánea, doméstica, imperfecta otra vez, la oí dar la ducha y meterse debajo." This description corresponds most exactly to the Grande Odalisque (Fig. 1), but may also be related to like paintings such as the Valpinçon Bather or Odalisque with the Slave. For Julio, Gloria lives on as the imperfect, deformed Odalisque whom he attempts to resuscitate through physical contact and mental fantasy.

This comparison between Gloria and the Odalisque rests on a solid basis, as revealed by Julio's knowledge of the artist's technique: "Ingres, pienso al mirarla ahora, sabía dibujar como nadie: le bastaba la más sutil modulación de una línea, variar su espesor, su densidad, hacerla más profunda o casi eliminarla, para hacer real la sugerencia de masa y de peso y el satinado y la sensualidad y el calor de la espléndida carne de su modelo …" While the equation Gloria-Odalisque serves to keep Julio's wife attractive to him but at the same time to show painfully how she has aged and changed, the association also keeps Gloria in her marriage, as she discloses in the last chapter to Núria Monclús during their meeting to discuss Gloria's accepted manuscript: "¿Y por qué no abandonaste tú a Julio?", inquires the literary agent of Gloria, who responds: "La Odalisca, que tan orgullosa me hace, no existe fuera del recuerdo y la fantasía de Julio…. ¿Qué otro ser puede restituirme mi cuerpo de entonces, hacer presente la realidad de esa Odalisca del pasado, sino Julio? Un beso, la toalla envuelta en la cabeza, basta." The subtle implications of this linkage become apparent when we examine Ingres' paintings, which reveal a remarkable similarity in artistic vision to Donoso's portrait of Gloria in El jardín. For example, Robert Rosenblum makes these comments on the Grande Odalisque: "the prodigious ductility of the line … suggests a flesh of voluptuous malleability, yet this pliant stuff is polished to a marmoreal firmness, so that it seems alternately warm-blooded and cold, slack and taut, a fusion of opposites." Is not Gloria forged precisely as a flesh-and-blood woman whom her husband believes to know completely, yet simultaneously as the unknowable, unreachable, unreadable controller of the text and consequently of its primary narrator? And while the Grande Odalisque has been compared to a titillating pin-up girl, most critics instead agree that these paintings "generate erotic power precisely because they elude the imagination's hot embrace," as John Connolly puts it. More radical is Norman Bryson's opinion that sexuality in Ingres "is not a positive or plenary force, but a force of vacuum"; he claims that the Grande Odalisque "is not offering herself at all," but rather is presented in terms of highest unreality, and "constitutes a radical disruption of the standard and homogeneous image of woman." This self-dissolving and self-unravelling movement that Bryson sees in the implausible physical form of the Grande Odalisque causes her to be Ingres' most impossible creation.

Paradoxically, it is this impossible creation that incarnates the structure of desire both in Ingres and Donoso. And returning to our original thesis, what would represent the structure of desire better than the fantasy of the phallic/castrated woman who threatens the male protagonist or viewer with a terrifying manque-à-être? Any text, Sarah Kofman argues, "is always a tissue that, for fear of castration, disguises a terrible and most tempting nudity …" Like the spider, a phallic mother symbol, Gloria spins narrative threads to cover her nakedness and perhaps to entrap her victim. But she is also the Odalisque, who, let us remember, is a female slave or concubine in a harem, to which men are forbidden access. This is Gloria speaking in Tangiers, near the end of Julio's part of the text: "¿Qué pena que el idiota de Carlos Martel ganara en Poitiers!… Si no, andaríamos todos vestidos así, yo viviría cómodamente en un harem precioso…. En fin … por lo menos andaríamos con la cara velada." Julio wonders to himself, "velada para disimular la vergüenza …": that is, the facial veil has been displaced upward from the true locus of corporeal shame. So it becomes clear that Donoso's evocation of the Odalisque is far from casual: it symbolizes Gloria's conflictive double role as tempting slave and terrifying slave-driver. Looking back at Ingres' paintings, we notice that the Odalisque indeed remains partially veiled, but not her face: it is her genital nudity that remains out of sight, either because she has her back to us (Grande Odalisque) or because she is shrouded by the diaphanous cloth that extends provocatively from her thighs to other regions (Odalisque with the Slave). Ingres did indeed paint total nudes, but the Odalisque guards her mysteries, like Gloria. Lacan tells us that "the phallus can only play its role as veiled, that is, as in itself the sign of the latency with which everything signifiable is struck as soon as it is raised to the function of signifier." Ingres and Donoso touch upon a common fantasy when they cast their Odalisques in the mold of a veiled woman who defies man's attempts to possess her, and who remains alluringly attractive because of what she hides, or more accurately, because she hides it.

This hidden schema of temptation and terror, of strength and impotence, of hostility and affection, goes beyond the immediate duo of Gloria and Julio. Let us consider the role of Núria Monclús, the literary agent who twice rejects Julio's novel. She is intimately associated with Gloria, first by Julio, who proclaims of his wife: "ella y Núria son, igualmente, mis verdugos." A mythical devouring female, Núria represents all that is terrible: she preys on weaklings like Julio with her "carnívoro sadismo." While Julio finds some comfort in the vox populi that makes Núria out to be a frigid, avaricious and opportunistic woman, he cannot escape her tyranny: "¿Si recupero mi facultad de sentir placer en vez de aceptar pasivo mi ciudadanía en esa provincia tan extrañamente reglamentada que es la del fracaso personal … podré adquirir la libertad para escribir otra o la misma novela …? No: aunque saque ahora mismo los papeles de la maleta, la figura de Núria Monclús con la telaraña velándole los ojos y la espada de fuego en su mano ensangrentada se interpondrá entre yo y el placer." Julio feels himself imprisoned in his novel, with Núria as his jailor. Unlike his wife, this spiderwoman shows no positive reverse side to Julio: Núria is par excellence the castrating, phallic mother who impedes the son's absolute pleasure. Núria admonishes Julio to "see" his novel: "verla," she says from beneath her own veiled eyes. And yet sight belongs specifically to the phallic order, since the discovery of castration revolves around a vision, a prizing of that which is seen above all. What Julio ultimately sees is himself as failed writer: "Soy inerte, castrado, malescritor …"; "el falso triunfador el macho falsificado, el ladrón, el delincuente, el mentiroso …" And while Julio struggles to assume his own failure, as he puts it, he nevertheless incriminates Núria, agent of his literary nonexistence.

Julio's failure extends to Gloria, not only spouse but also collaborator and reader of his fiction: "El fracaso es de ambos, yo no la arrastré a él, yo tengo esperanza aún, y hasta ella suele tenerla, sólo que a veces todo se torna negro, como si todo ocurriera detrás del antifaz sin ojos …" Gloria's black night mask is one way of seeing, or rather, of blocking out a vision. For if Gloria "sees" Julio's novel when he reads it to her during her recovery from severe depression, she also is blinded because, as she states, "no puedo juzgarla porque es tan mía como tuya y te quiero …" Or rather, the successful novel is hers alone: Julio is blinded to the fact that Gloria will write a triumphant version of their intimate story. Julio dons his wife's black mask to obliterate all visual sensations, a symbolic gesture that represents the overall irony of his textual predicament. In his naiveté, he fears that Núria's rejection of his novel would be an equally terrible blow to his wife: "Núria tiene la culpa, puesto que ella me impide triunfar: ella tiene atrapada a Gloria en una telaraña, que es su cárcel." But, instead, the two web-spinning women form an alliance in the book's final chapter. Gloria's opening line undoes the frightful picture Julio had painted of Núria: "Ninguna de las terribles leyendas que circulan sobre ella son verdad: es fina, encantadora, generosa, sensible." Thus, the portrait of Gloria that Julio sketched throughout "his" part of the narration is shown to be distorted as well: no longer ensnared in anyone's net, she has instead become the trapper. Julio's derogatory comments about Gloria's creative abilities turn ironically against him when their source is revealed. Or do they? Must we disavow the authority who really engenders these transfigurations? Does not the figure of the male author—not the fictional Julio, but José Donoso—stand clearly behind the many masks assumed by the writer-characters in the text of El jardín? After all, Gloria is his creation. Could we not apply to El jardín and Gloria what Donoso himself has said of Manuela, the protagonist in his El lugar sin límites: "a man who poses as a woman who poses as a man who poses as a woman." El jardín harbors a futile search that crosses gender boundaries: much like Ingres' Odalisques, who exude desire and yet thwart it, the narrators and their masks seek through the Other a knowledge impossible to attain. Every object of desire, according to Lacan, will show itself to be "necessarily ephemeral and destined to be supplanted because it is incapable of stopping up the lack inscribed in the subject from the start …" Donoso's characters cannot fathom the nature of lack in the Other, precisely because they fail to recognize it in themselves, and their incessant search for (phallic) plenitude edges them closer to the void.

If Gloria's apparition at the end of the work symbolizes the male narrator's blocked access to knowledge, vision, or truth, then so does the garden nextdoor to the apartment building in Madrid where the couple is staying. Much like the self-representative figure of Hieronymous Bosch above the abyss in The Garden of Earthly Delights, Julio observes the spectacle of the neighbors as they dance, laugh, and splash about in the pool, a veritable "Pond of Lust," and he wishes to join them: "El anhelo es de pasar al otro lado del espejo, que ellos habitan …" This hallucinatory garden next door serves as a cruel mirror that forces Julio to "see" himself as incomplete or disassembled, the same image that Núria reflects back to him. Julio's fascination with this garden centers on the young Countess, who changes before his ever-watchful eyes from ordinary hausfrau into passionate adultress. In a reversal of the classic primal scene, Julio, the middle-aged adult, glimpses the youthful participants in their orgy: "me abro en una oquedad de melancolía al darme cuenta de la irreparable exclusión de mi cuerpo y mi mundo del desenfadado vigor de esos cuerpos que continúan nadando … abrazados en racimos."

Julio describes the Countess and her lover as follows: "el hombre desnudo toma en sus brazos a la mujer de la túnica que se entrega a su cuerpo en un abrazo tan sexual como el de la pareja de Klimt, en que sólo se ven las cabezas envueltas por la algarabla de colores de oro, pero que los ojos cerrados de la mujer describen como el placer de la entrega total." Klimt's The Kiss indeed transmits the total self-laden of the embracing pair as they merge into one gold-laden sphere. But this bliss in Klimt is short-lived: the erotic, the "doomed-to-transiency embrace," as Alessandra Comini calls it, leads to the spectre of aging, destruction, and death. This stifling colorful ornamentation in works like The Kiss engulfs the couple in an over-lush garden, one that gives way to the stark, deathlike embrace of, for example, the clinging pair in Klimt's Beethoven frieze, done mostly in grisaille. According to one critic, Klimt's female is sexually destructive, "her eroticism cloaked, layered and ultimately kept untouchable by a glittering surface of elaborate gold painting," a vision close to Ingres' and Donoso's. It comes as little surprise at the end of El jardín when Gloria reveals that the Countess had committed suicide. Gloria thinks: "tal vez no haya pasado de ser una fantasía cuya clave se encuentra en El abrazo, de Klimt…." This fantasy, as we will see, interconnects with the other artistic themes so richly woven throughout Donoso's novel.

When at the end of Chapter 2 Julio, from his darkened room, hears the sounds of splashing water in the pool, he mentally recites part of the third stanza of T. S. Eliot's "East Coker": The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy / Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony / Of death and birth." Donoso's interartistic dialogue once again strikes deep chords; T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, which belong to the confessional mode, treat precisely the writer's struggle to "see" his work and himself. Further ahead in "East Coker" we read: "So here I am, in the middle way … Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt / Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure / Because one has only learnt to get the better of words." Julio's lost garden, like Eliot's, is a paradise of words that could somehow magically take shape on the page to transmit feelings or to communicate experiences. But words, for both writers, remain insubstantial signs that call attention to themselves, that constantly threaten to unveil their status as "shabby equipment always deteriorating," as Eliot says. Julio, like all humans, must mediate himself through words—doubly so, since he is writer. When he becomes caught up in the other's look in his attempt to see himself, he only becomes further alienated from the truth he so desperately seeks. This may explain Julio's desire to exchange himself, to become another, be it the adolescent Bijou, the Bachic revellers next door, or the ailing beggar in Tangiers: "quiero ser ese hombre, meterme dentro de su piel enfermiza y de su hambre para así no tener esperanza de nada ni temer nada, eliminar sobre todo este temor al mandato de la historia de mi ser y mi cultura, que es el de confesar esta misma noche … la complejidad de mi derrota …"

Yet the deepest level of surrender to another, or of disappearance into another, occurs metafictionally when Gloria steps out as the "real" author of Julio's story. May we then say that she, too, wishes to be another, to trade in her identity for, perhaps, that of her husband, whose narrative voice she usurps? This undoubtedly is one reading the novel allows. Let us not forget that Gloria presents herself as a potential author: "¿Si supieras cuántas novelas no escritas tengo encerradas dentro de mí, como gatos locos en un saco, que pelean y se destrozan …!" This remark meets with Julio's scom: "¡No digas leseras! ¿Me quieres convencer ahora de que eres una escritora frustrada?" Gloria mockingly retorts: "En fin, ¿quién sabe? Puede ser sólo la clásica envidia del pene …" That writing is a phallic activity has of course been questioned by feminists, and even silence has been called woman's true voice. Silence serves as a way for Gloria to avenge herself: it is a weapon she uses effectively against Julio. But, as Kerr demonstrates, Gloria breaks silence and turns to a more powerful weapon to achieve her final revenge: writing her own and Julio's story. Through writing, Gloria shuns her exclusive role as Odalisque, object (and creation) of man's desire. By writing herself, Domna Stanton points out, woman may reappropriate the female body, "which man has confiscated as his property." These issues of gender and writing are firmly planted and debated on the multiple narrative planes of El jardín, not as detached, theoretical constructs but as an intimate portrait of two people's trials and triumphs.

But this gender-writing conflict leads not to the destruction of the couple's relationship, but to reconciliation and a "Glorious" triumph. Julio realizes that his wife has shared his vision of Tangiers and most likely would be able to write a superior chronicle of the experience; thus he encourages her to take up where he trails off. So the gender-crossing in El jardín must also be considered as a positive force, since it touches on an androgynous spirit, which, Heilbrun says, may be identified in literary works "where the role of the male and female protagonists can be reversed without appearing ludicrous …" In his reversal of narrative voices Donoso perfects this structure of androgyny: Gloria is not only plausible, but also invisible, in as much as she actually passes unnoticed under Julio's cover.

Despite Gloria's decision to stay with Julio, she nevertheless expresses dissatisfaction with her marital role, and formulates this wish: "Ser yo, por fin, no parte incompleta de lo que Lawrence Durrell, falazmente, llama 'that wonderful two-headed animal that is a good marriage', ideal que durante tanto tiempo me sirvio para apoyar mi matrimonio." Yet, ironically, the two-headed animal must be seen as the purported creator of this fragmented novel, for neither of the two main voices in El jardín would be possible without the other. When joined they form what may be called, in Melanie Klein's terminology, a fantasy of combined parents, in which the mother retains her phallic powers through her link to the father. But if on the one hand the image of combined parents in El jardín stands for phallic power, on the other it disguises a lack-in-being. Much like the hydra, which reproduces a slain head with two new ones, the fused narrative authorities of El jardín only manage a thin cover for their individual wounded selves. For in order to generate new phallic heads, the hydra must first suffer decapitation: and that is precisely what Gloria undergoes by means of the portrait that Julio calls Retrato de la señora Gloria Echeverría de Méndez.

After Julio learns from Núria that his novel has been rejected for a second time, he enters Pancho's study, where he spots a painting with an electric, phosphorescent blue background: "un bello cuerpo de mujer desnuda, sentado, pero invadido por cientos de insectos meticulosamente pintados que cubren como joyas la carne fresca y bella de esa mujer, cochinillas, libélulas, moscardones, escarabajos, grillos, saltamontes, arañas. La figura sentada tiene un batracio sobre una rodilla, de modo que le cubre el sexo: los ojos del bicho son penetrantes, y la boca húmeda y lívida, abierta. El marco es un listón de plata que decapita la figura, cuya cabeza queda fuera del cuadro." On the back appears Pancho's title, Retrato de la condesa Leonor de Teck, which Julio promptly blackens out and replaces with Gloria's name: he then wraps up the painting and proceeds to bootleg it. This is not the first time a painting of Pancho's disappears from the apartment: Bijou apparently stole the one depicting a package wrapped in Manila paper, which Julio and Gloria desperately tried to recover (exactly like the couple in "Atomo verde número cinco.") Nor is the Countess's portrait the first object to be wrapped up and shipped off: Julio's novel manuscript received the same treatment. After hearing it read, Gloria exclaimed: "Mandémosla ahora mismo. En la despensa hay un rollo de papel de Manila y una madeja de cordel …" The manuscript, in its package form, is a material sign that reproduces the one contained in the painting Bijou stole: both packages disappear, their insubstantiality confirmed in loss.

Julio's description of the portrait of Leonor/Gloria does not, as far as I know, refer to a real painting but to the work of a character in a novel, and as such is just a verbal construction. It nevertheless may be related to paintings by artists such as Bosch, Magritte and Dalí. Bosch of course captured on canvas the images of the nightmare of humanity in his Garden of Earthly Delights, including bestial torments not so different from the insect-covered body of Pancho's painting. Following Bosch's lead, the surrealists, particularly Salvador Dalí, cultivated horrifyingly beautiful dream imagery. In Dalí's Hallucinogenic Toreador, with its shocking blue background (also present in a good number of his other works), we may appreciate affinities to the fictional Retrato de la condesa Leonor de Teck. Like Magritte, Dalí often studies the duplication of a figure; in Hallucinogenic Toreador, multiple versions of the Venus de Milo are depicted in floating positions throughout the center band of a coliseum-bullring, her lower torso draped in bright garb. Twice she is shown frontally; four figures of the status in descending proportions appear with their backs to the viewer. Also visible are several heads and faces (one of whom represents Gala, the painter's wife), and tiny replicas of the Venus de Milo posed like classical statues around the upper ring of the coliseum and below the large female figures. What disturbs this serene beauty is the juxtaposition of life-sized flies at the base of the large statues; the motif is repeated in the sections of dots covering much of the painting that sprout wings as they menacingly approach the Venuses. Most interesting is the misproportioned figure seen from a lateral angle posed between two of the large Venuses: this human form is the only one to possess arms, which are raised, with hands fused to an oval-shaped object. Covering the upper torso of this figure are hundreds of the winged dots, creating the impression that the body is victim of an insect attack. Typical of Dalí's work, in which erotic elements are often bound up with counterparts from the realm of the sadistic or the destructive, the Hallucinogenic Toreador comes very close to the fantasies expressed in Pancho's portrait.

We have made numerous references to the fantasy of the phallic woman and to the discovery of her castration, themes that manifest themselves in both paintings. In Dalí's the multiplicity of the Venus de Milo, with her truncated (castrated) arms, creates poliphallic cover for feared loss; Pancho's painting severs the woman's head, leaving it outside the frame. Dalí's abundance of winged insects serves as grotesque cover for the profiled figure, much as Pancho's bugs and creatures provide a hideous cloak for his Countess. The frog that obstructs view of the Countess's sex organs itself creates a bulge where there is none; its eyes are described as "penetrating." This horrid phallic creature sees, but the woman who is the subject of Pancho's portrait is deprived of sight, much like the woman's face in Magritte's The Rape, which is composed of breasts for eyes, and sex organs for mouth. Turning back to Magritte, we may discover a possible source for Pancho's painting style: The Dangerous Relations (Les Liaisons dangereuses), which depicts a nude woman holding a mirror that almost completely hides her. The frame of the mirror cuts off part of her head, which is downcast, with her eyes half-shut. The woman shown in the mirror appears in profile, an impossible angle of reflection, given that the woman is holding the looking glass in a frontal position. The reflected image is completely headless, and like the holder of the mirror, she attempts to shield her nude body from view. This deformation, according to Mary Ann Caws, may be read as central to the self, "for the woman divided is also watching herself—without seeing us see her from behind." Caws proposes that Magritte's painting may be aptly named Woman Reading Woman; in Donoso's novel, which could be called Woman Writing Man, it is Julio (and the reader) who cannot perceive the female observer-author until she chooses to reveal herself.

Michel Foucault remarks of The Dangerous Relations: "Through all these scenes glide similitudes that no reference point can situate: translations with neither point of departure nor support." Pancho's painting also reveals a lack of departure point or support. Does not the woman whose head is cut off by the painting's frame represent the whole-hole of El jardín, where the female author rears her head only outside the main frame of the work, in the final chapter? And isn't woman's body covered over with layers of narration that shield her from view and turn her into a type of fetish? Julio never sees Gloria in her role as triumphant writer, nor does he witness the unveiling of her nakedness at the work's end. He manifests affection and hostility (normally accompanying fetishism) toward that obscure, shifting, supportless construction that arouses insatiable desire in him but that he can never "see" or totally possess. The fetish is of course the metaphor for the maternal phallus, a notion we have linked to several female figures in Donoso's work. We have also stressed Julio's ambivalence toward woman, and so if we interpret Gloria's writing as fetish, it comes as no surprise that "like all other compromises, the fetish can never be totally satisfying for either of the two positions, castration or its denial." Julio's text mutates before him into the female body, the other against whom man defines himself. The loss of mother, one key to Julio's crisis in El jardín, also signifies the loss of the garden of youth, the "beautiful land" of Melanie Klein's theory of artistic creation. The work of art, then, would stand for the mother's body, repeatedly destroyed in fantasy but restored or repaired through the act of creation.

If the text takes on the form of a palimpsest or, to use the artistic metaphor, a pentimento, then perhaps we have succeeded in uncovering a layer or two. Donoso charts the course for readers, following Julio's and Gloria's lead, to "see" El jardín from a variety of angles, including some impossible ones similar to those of Magritte's paintings. Ingres said: "art never succeeds better than when it is concealed." Magritte supplies a possible corollary: "What is invisible cannot be hidden from our eyes." Donoso tells us that we must go through the way of ignorance and dispossession to arrive at a vantage point from which we may contemplate the hallucinatory garden next door or within, a place that perhaps is devoid of ecstasy but never lacking in humanity.

Juan Carlos Lértora (essay date Spring/Summer 1989)

SOURCE: "José Donoso's Narrative: The Other Side of Language," in Salmagundi, No. 82-83, Spring/Summer, 1989, pp. 258-68.

[In the following essay, Lertora discusses several of Donoso's works, focusing on the unusual approaches in narrative and structure that the author employed. Lertora notes Donoso's departure from realism, his use of magic and surrealism, and comments on the multiple narrators or points of view presented in Donoso's novels.]

A characteristic trait of the narrative produced by Spanish American writers like Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Julio Cortázar, G. Cabrera Infante, M. Vargas Llosa, and José Donoso, is its attempt to explore human experience by way of the secret codes associated with the instincts, the unconscious and magic. The discourse that founds these narratives is situated in the labyrinthic space of the characters' consciousness. Characters are no longer conceived as representatives of social class or as psychological types, but as subjects of inner conflicts for which they cannot always find lucid or logical understanding or expression. Consciousness is assumed as chaos; it has its corollary in the language that expresses it, whose categories contradict the rational, "objective" thinking of a positivistic discourse in order to explore a new "logic" that, as paradoxical as it may seem, has its constantly changing center in human ambiguity. There is where this new coherence dwells, in the inner space created by new, sometimes dizzying associations that generate new meanings.

The narrative discourse is not monologic and assertive about the world it deploys, but polyphonic (in Bakhtin's sense of a "plurality of voices and consciences independent and distinct, expressing different worldviews"). The space of the discourse is shared by multiple narrators (or different and contradictory manifestations of one consciousness) that sustain different view points without a prevalent enunciating instance (or authoritarian narrative voice) that would sanction one particular discourse as carrier of the truth about the represented world. This multiplicity of discourses is yet another expression of the fundamental ambiguity that Donosian narrative develops and that has as a corollary the manifold or labyrinthine confusion of personal identity.

To this consideration of human being, unreachable in its complexity, corresponds a treatment of a narrative time that, heavily influenced by Henri Bergson's theory, flows and stands still at the same time. A broken chronology, inconstant flow, that disperses itself repeatedly, is consonant with the nature of the human situations it narrates: time and space are conceived as inseparable entities, constituting, as Bakhtin defines it, the chronotope. It is in this coordinate that José Donoso's narrative should be placed.

From the outset Donoso's narrative fiction has challenged the institutions and conventions that regulate language and determine our response to it. Even in such early works as The Blue Woman and The Poisoned Pastries (both written in English), as also in his collection of short stories—Summertime—, and his first novel, Coronation, a number of characteristic concerns begin to appear.

These early works deploy a constellation of recurrent meanings, which are also present in the later works, according to which the world is perceived as ominous, deteriorating, mad, grotesque. These categories signal the fundamental precariousness of the world and of human existence. They form the basis of a nihilism that finds expression in the merciless destruction of myths and beliefs which are customarily introduced in order to hide from us the tragic ambiguity of the human condition.

In Donoso's narrative, human relations and social institutions are considered by means of a discourse which finds, in the rupture of conventions, its best definition. In Donosian fiction characters who defend (and believe in) an apparent order of the world are relentlessly destroyed. Tragedy is brought on by the search for rational meaning in a world dominated by instinct and irrationality. The world is inevitably destined to end in the decadent, the absurd and the abominable, the zones whence characters derive their definition and destiny. The tragedy of human being is basically provoked by an obstinate search for a rational explanation in a world in which the instinctual and irrational prevail.

Already in Coronation, with its grotesque and carnivalesque ending (the crowning of a dying crazy old woman by her servants who dress her as a Queen), Donoso's narrative sets itself apart from the characteristic traditional realism of the previous generation of Latin American novelists. It explores yet other existential dimensions which place the fiction in a marked frame of irrealism, penetrating reality from a new, obverse perspective. Another work entitled This Sunday subverts the interior consciousness of its characters while revealing their degraded existence and their anguish before the terror which alienates them from the world they inhabit. Later works would refine tendencies that are unmistakably a part of Donoso's distinctive voice and vision.

Given the nature of the world he depicts, the exasperating quality of his narrative situations, and the ambiguous condition of his characters, the Donosian narrative is connected in a decisive way to the carnivalesque tradition, with all it contains of spectacle, transgression, fragmentation, transvestism, defiance of all rules and hierarchies, inversion of whatever is established; in sum, le monde á l'envers. That is why, in Donoso's fiction, antithesis and parody are central figures. Certain categories of the carnivalesque, again as formulated by Bakhtin, are central to the understanding of this aspect of Donoso's narrative: "eccentricity, like intimate relations, is a special category for perceiving the carnivalesque nature of the world; it allows itself to open up (and to express itself in concrete form) to all that is normally repressed […] It is necessary to add another category, that of profanity, sacrilege, and the whole system of debasement, carnival mockery, and the inconveniences having to do with generational forces of the land and of the body, the parodies of texts and sacred words."

El lugar sin limites represents a considerable breakthrough for Donoso into the realm of the carnivalesque as described by Bakhtin. Its pessimistic portrayal of the condition of personal existence through the presence of the absurd and the total disintegration of the self goes further than his earlier works in its depiction of a world corroded in all its components. This novel is itself an anguished metaphor of an inverted utopia, an impossible paradise without God, love or solidarity; it is a version of a lost Paradise, or the antibiblical prediction.

Desecration in the novel works at all levels: that of the body, of identity, and of the official discourse that attempts to impose a false sense of order and generosity. The novel depicts the inversion (which along with transvestism and antithesis are, at the figurative level, its basis) of all social roles, and bitterly shows the absurdity of absolutes.

By showing the impossibility of categorically limiting dichotomies such as man/woman, good/evil (which in Donoso's earlier works functioned as structuring principles based on a clear appearance/reality opposition), El lugar sin limites presses towards a radical perception of the ambiguity which, for Donoso, is essential to the human condition. There is no one identity; there is no authenticity; we are all fragments, pieces, a human kaleidoscope.

This conception generates narrative structures without center, works in continuous self-transformation and mutation, and a discourse in constant displacement that shows the emptiness of everything, the nothingness which finds its greatest expression in The Obscene Bird of Night. In this work, the reader cannot differentiate between what is dream or hallucination, "reality" or fantasy; between what supposedly has taken place, and what can only be conjectured. This is a novel in which Donoso's grotesque realism achieves the standard defined by Bakhtin: "The images of the Romantic grotesque," Bakhtin writes, "usually express fear of the world and seek to inspire their reader with this fear"; "madness acquires a somber, tragic aspect of individual isolation" and "discloses the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life. It leads men out of the confines of the apparent (false) unity of the indisputable and stable." Donoso's obsession with the diffuseness of individual identity gives shape to an alienating view in which the monstrous and the obscene ritual and magic, regularly interact with objective reality.

The novel depicts a world of hallucinatory indeterminacy, of constant interruption of narrative sequences, the elimination of absolute dichotomies, so that the "same" and the "other" complement each other, "are" each other. The rupture of chronology, and the total elimination of the narratorprotagonist-witness are but components of a relentless procedure in terms of which reality and fantasy freely intermingle. This is, of course, also the case for much contemporary Latin American fiction, a tendency described by the labels of "Magical Realism" or the "Fantastic."

In this novel reality is perceived from its underside, as it were, at a level prior to, even resistant to, that of coherent formulation. It depicts profanation of the body, or identity, but also profanation of any official language that attempts to impose the appearance of order, of harmony, of human generosity. Chaos rules, relentlessly producing substitutions, transformations, and distortions of personality. "El Mudito" is the unreliable narrator, character and witness of different stories that have, as a common element, ambivalence and sequential instability. Inversion, transvestism and transgression are structuring categories of the novel; accordingly, the configurating narrative discourse is also ambiguous, the "other side" of what traditionally constitutes narrative discourse. In The Obscene Bird of Night the reader has no way to formulate valid reading hypotheses, or to come up with definitive answers to the questions raised. Everywhere the reader is confronted by narrative procedures that interrogate themselves and continue to open up disturbing questions.

The Obscene Bird of Night expresses a deeply pessimistic conception of the world and of human being as essentially anchored in the absurd. The ceaseless, maze-like changes in spatial structure are just one more manifestation of the novel's lack of center; the subject of discourse is plural; in the discourse there is always a displacement of center. If there is any order in the novel, it is of a precarious sort whose fragile membrane is constantly threatened. At best, we are given an illusory, transitory order which in the end cannot sustain itself. Most of the story corresponds to the delirious inner discourse of the narrator-protagonist-witness, a discourse delivered without sequential organization and originated from different levels of a fragmented inner consciousness, the reflection of a disintegrated identity. Donoso creates a series of substitutions at both the level of énonciation and the level of énoncé (—Humberto Peñaloza/writer/secretary/the seventh hag/giant head of papier maché/son of Iris Mateluna/dog of Iris Mateluna/"imbunche"/light ashes dispersed by the wind—) so that the subject of the narrative enunciation is never fixed, and the narrative discourse does not have a stable generating center. Julia Kristeva explains this narrative feature when she says that "The mechanism of this mutation is insured by a shifter or specific connector: the MASK, which is the mark of alterity, the rejection of identity". Bakhtin claims that the mask is related to "the merry negation of uniformity and similarity; it rejects conformity to oneself. The mask is related to transition, metamorphoses, the violation of natural boundaries."

In The Obscene Bird of Night, the mask does not have a single specific symbolic value; it does not constitute a concrete entity. It gives way to other masks but there is no concrete personality at the end of this permutation process, no unique or authentic identity. As Donoso puts it: "It is my obsession with the no unity of human personality. Why am I so interested in disguises? Because they are ways of dissolving the unity of human being, of undoing the psychological unity, that horrible myth we have invented".

This view of human life as fragmented is sharply shown in Sacred Families: In "Chatanooga Choo Choo" the characters are like manikins whose faces can be erased and later be painted in different ways ad infinitum, and whose limbs can be assembled and disassembled whichever way one wants. In "Gaspard de la nuit," the main character exchanges his identity with a clochard of identical appearance, thus losing his own identity while "the other" is now "himself". With this, Donoso expresses his rejection of the myth that assures the unity of the self and emphasizes, instead, dispersion and ambiguity as main features of our condition.

By refusing to acquiesce in a stable image of apprehensible reality, Donoso's narrative questions the mimetic nature of fiction in general, and poses new ways to explore its possibilities. One interesting aspect of the larger theoretical problem is nicely signalled in The Obscene Bird, where the character "El Mudito" ("The Mute") is the narrator; but as his words can't be spoken, there can be no communication. And if that is so, can there be narration? At this level the Obscene Bird stands as a metaphor of the impossibility of conveying deep inner experience, the experience of an identity in crisis, for example. What seems real is narrated from the other side of language, not from the side that "tells" but from the side that cannot "tell," that can give at most only an incomplete view of what we might call "Reality."

By denying the traditional mimetic condition of narrative, Donoso seeks to convey what is essentially a project of liberation or, in bakhtinian terms, the "carnivalesque spirit": "The carnival-grotesque form exercises the same function: to consecrate inventive freedom, to permit the combination of a variety of different elements and their rapprochement, to liberate from the prevailing point of view of the world, from conventions and established truths, from clichés, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted. This carnival spirit offers the chance to have a new outlook on the world, to realize the relative nature of all that exists, and to enter a completely new order of things." It is this freeing of the individual from the stifling weight of conventions, from the rigidity and falseness of institutionalized rituals, a salient aspect of Donoso's fiction, which finds its best expression through a discourse that seeks to break away from that other discourse, generated from power, that presumes to hold the truth.

The image of power and its carnivalesque transgression is the organizing principle of A House In The Country. The novel is organized by means of a narrative-authorial discourse that attempts to control all components of the represented world, but which the fiction itself contradicts. Complementary to this discourse there is another, multilevel discourse, which gives the novel a polyphonic structure, generated by different groups of characters. Characters are organized in a series of circles, or rings, which in turn correspond to the structures of power in the society; accordingly, their discourses represent the variety of social discourses, the social heteroglossia. The novel becomes, then, the space in which different discursive practices meet. The old members of the Ventura family, representative of the old aristocracy, owners of the gold that they exchange for money to foreign investors, are at the outer circle. Inside this hierarchical ring we find the younger thirty-three Ventura cousins, who already are, in essence, a micro version of what they will be when they grow up: just like the old Venturas. At the time the story takes place, they plan an endless game whose title corresponds to Valéry's well known line: "La marquise est sortie á cinq heures." Among them, there are transvestites and homosexuals, some sadistic, some greedy, in anticipation of what their life will be.

The next circle consists of the servants who, by not owning anything (not even their lives), have no identity; they are anonymous to the Venturas, and they are "recognized" only by the function they have in their domestic tasks. However they do have some power: to watch the children after a certain hour at night and punish those who are caught breaking the house rules.

House In The Country is the space whose limits separate two worlds, two intertwined social orders, generating a chaotic rebellion which is quickly quelled, and whose end is also the dissolution of an aristocratic dynasty which gives birth to another that, in turn, destroys the former. This example of social cannibalism belies the standard understanding of cannibalism used by the aristocracy as a way of reinforcing its power. Ironically enough, the so-called "cannibals" of the novel, who constitute the last of the three "circles" of characters, are revealed to us late in the novel as "vegetarians."

House In The Country is a novel open to different readings; it transcends a simplistic interpretation which would bind it, in a mechanical way, to a historical pre-text that might function as its referent; that is to say, to Chilean history after the military coup. Even so there are plenty of "winks to the reader's complicity," as Cortázar would put it, and a number of "coincidences": The initials of Adriano Gómara, the doctor being held in a tower for the "insane" and "dangerous," correspond to the initials of the assassinated President, Allende Gossens; the servants would be the military; the Venturas, the richest of Chilean society; the darkening of the home, an allegory of Chile's isolation, an image of death, etc. More important, the novel symbolizes the structuring of human relations based mainly on the exercise of power at all interpersonal levels. But the different discourses that organize the novel are structured in such a way that ultimately it is the nature of fiction that emerges as the text's final objective. The narrative discourse explores its own structuring possibilities as textual productivity regulated by the needs of writing.

It is this same principle that supports the represented world of La misteriosa desaparición de la marquesita de Loria, and certain novellas included in Sacred Families and Cuatro para Delfina. These are not political texts in any traditional sense. However, they do express both an "historical and ethical responsibility," quite as Roland Barthes saw it as the task of writing to do. The more overt manifestation of this responsibility is to be found in Curfew, Donoso's latest novel. The action takes place in twenty four hours, and is centered on the wake and burial of Matilde Urrutia, Pablo Neruda's widow. As an allegorical novel, Curfew depicts life in Chile after more than a decade of dictatorship, showing social contradictions, misery, and most importantly, hopelessness. The main character, Mañungo Vera, is a returned exile who embodies many characteristics of the well know composer and singer Victor Jara, brutally assassinated by the Military Junta in the first days of their murderous coup. Here, as elsewhere in Donoso, political concerns are enmeshed in a matrix which contains a range of other issues, equally compelling and disturbing.

Donoso constantly questions the ontological status of fiction and challenges its traditional mimetic function. This questioning informs his conception of reality as incapable of allowing for true insight and of power as the main obstacle to genuine human interaction. The obsession with power, inauthenticity, masquerade, irrationality, and the fragmentary makes for a persistent and painful exploration of the dark side of human existence. The language, which is equal to the large purpose assigned to it, is the final mark of Donoso's mastery and of his commitment to the excesses and obliquities of the carnivalesque.

Ricardo Gutierrez Mouat (essay date January 1991)

SOURCE: "Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics in Donoso's El jardin de al lado," in PMLA, Vol. 106, No. 1, January, 1991, pp. 60-70.

[In the following essay, Mouat discusses the "artistic crisis" presented in The Garden Next Door, which focuses on "a contradiction between modernist and postmodernist aesthetics." Mouat concludes that the novel successfully explores "the ground that separates politics from the autonomous work of art."]

José Donoso's El jardín de al lado [The Garden Next Door] dramatizes an artistic crisis that has ethical and political implications. The novel focuses on the contradiction between modernist and postmodernist aesthetics in the context of political upheaval and on the attendant challenge to literary intellectuals to choose between representing their individual self-contained subjectivities and representing a collective subject repressed by dictatorship. This ethical choice, furthermore, must be made in a milieu alien to the modernist ethos, that of the literary marketplace promoted by the culture industry. Here exchange value subverts the narrator's more traditional values and undermines narrative authority. Simultaneously, the culture industry reinterprets the notion of artistic autonomy by divesting it of its traditional "aura," to which Donoso's narrator remains attached. Thus this narrator, who is also represented—deceptively, we discover—as the author of the novel, disappears from it when his narrative project reaches a dead end. Yet at a different level the novel finds a way out of its contradictions and sublates them by replacing the authority of the canonical author with that of the subaltern. Reading El jardín de al lado, then, implies a dialectical movement from erasure to inscription and reveals the collapse of the hierarchies that supported the modern bourgeois novel.

The method of this essay is both heuristic and dialogic to the extent that our elucidation of the complex interaction among aesthetics, ethics, and politics relies on a counterpoint between El jardín de al lado and one of its implicit subtexts, Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice." This approach allows us to insert Donoso's text in the mainstream of European modernism and to view El jardín de al lado as a troublesome supplement to that tradition. The essay is divided into two main parts, each of which focuses on a dialectic shared by both texts but worked out differently by Donoso and Mann: bohemian pleasure versus bourgeois discipline and textual production versus textual reception. Each of these areas of inquiry subsumes all or part of the contradictions dramatized by El jardín de al lado and permits us to move freely between the two texts. But first the intertextual pertinence of "Death in Venice" must be established.

El jardín de al lado is both the story of a failed novel and a trompe l'oeil text that reflects and refracts itself and several other texts situated within Donoso's cultural horizon. The narrator's allusive strategy appropriates the literary images that surface on his reflecting mirror and roots an insecure creative project in the solid ground of canonical literature. T. S. Eliot, Mallarmé, Joyce, Proust, and Henry James, together with the great figures of the Latin American "boom," parade through the novel's pages as cultural signposts leading back to a text whose identity remains undefined. The most significant borrowing, however, is from "Death in Venice," a text whose name is repressed in El jardín de al lado but whose blurred image hovers over the novel and can be appropriated as an interpretive tool.

Both works deal with the crisis of an author driven to spend a summer holiday in foreign surroundings in the hope of replenishing his creative energies. In Mann's Venice and Donoso's Madrid a middle-aged protagonist meets a perturbing youth who challenges his social authority and ultimately leads him to destruction. Aschenbach dies in Venice, but Julio Méndez (Donoso's tortured protagonist and the narrator of all but the last chapter of El jardín de al lado) disappears in the clandestine mazes of Tangiers after fleeing his literary failure in Madrid. Julio's imagined guide in his descent to hell is Bijou, the youth he had met earlier in Madrid and who had destroyed his certainties. The scene replicates Aschenbach's pursuit of Tadzio through the labyrinthine streets of Venice in Mann's novella, especially as Mann endows his Venice with oriental traits similar to those that characterize Donoso's Tangiers.

Other incidental details contribute to the affinity between the two works, though there are obvious differences as well. Tadzio's Polish family in "Death in Venice" includes his mother (a lady of aristocratic bearing and finery) and a governess, characters who recall Donoso's duchess of Andía and her Austrian daughter-in-law (a baroness who serves as governess of the duchess's grand-children), two of the figures Julio scrutinizes from his observatory window. The lyrical association between Tadzio and the sea contemplated by Aschenbach from his own observatory post, on the Venetian beach, is replayed ironically in the opening chapter of El jardín de al lado, where Bijou is found not as we might expect, bathing on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, but, rather, sleeping prosaically in a parked car. And there are other, more subtle elements shared by both works, such as the dynamic motif of passage. The narrator of "Death in Venice" speaks of Aschenbach's passage to Venice, a journey invested with symbols of death and enveloped in an uncanny, fearful atmosphere. Donoso's passages, by contrast, are phantasmic and framed by the window through which the novel's narrator constantly stares at the garden scene below. This window marks the division between the inside and the outside worlds, Chile and Spain, the past and the present, even while inviting reflection on these categories. The Spanish garden is also the lost garden where the narrator spent his childhood and where now his mother lies dying, just as the window is also the trompe l'oeil paintings that decorate the Madrid apartment and the blank page where a deceptive writing is inscribed and the mirror that both tricks the reader and returns Julio's tortured image. The ultimate passage for Julio, of course, is through the mirror, into which he disappears, leaving his wife, Gloria, as the narrator of the final chapter and as the "author" of El jardín de al lado. Mann also uses specular tactics to trace the progress of his protagonist's deterioration, particularly in the scene where Aschenbach is repelled by the sight of the old wigged and bejeweled reveler making merry with a group of young clerks on the steamer to Venice. Aschenbach becomes this sorry figure at the end of the tale, when he accepts the ministrations of the Italian barber who dyes his hair and applies cream to his wrinkles and carmine to his cheeks. (Another link between the works is Julio's proposed trip to Venice to recuperate from his failed attempt at having the revised version of his novel accepted for publication.)

"Death in Venice" dramatizes a transvaluation of values affecting the protagonist. This crisis is described in grotesque terms by a narrator who wavers between parody and direct statement and who becomes progressively more distant from the character. Much of the novella's complexity, in fact, stems from the way that the authority of the narrative voice shifts, reproducing the ideological contradictions inherent in Mann's conception of the artist's role. These contradictions are aesthetic, ethical, and political, though politics becomes an issue for Mann only after "Death in Venice." The same contradictions resurface in Donoso's novel, but from a different source. If Mann's Aschenbach is a writer who is canonized by the traditional literary institutions, who represses in his life and works the very pleasure necessary for artistic creation, and who takes his public, magisterial role too seriously, Donoso's Julio is the practitioner of a traditional bourgeois literature that is radically challenged by historical crisis and by the rising authority of the culture industry, whose market mechanisms eclipse the literary institutions.

Bohemian Pleasure versus Bourgeois Discipline

"Who shall unravel the mystery of an artist's nature and character! Who shall explain the profound instinctual fusion of discipline and dissoluteness in which it rests?" asks the narrator of "Death in Venice," who describes the protagonist's crisis as the gradual imposition of a formal discipline at the expense of the primordial joy of composition and expression that has the "power to delight the receptive world":

As time passed, Gustave Aschenbach's presentations took on something of an official air, of an educator's stance; his style in later years came to eschew direct audacities, new and subtle nuances, it developed toward the exemplary and definitive, the fastidiously conventional, the conservative and formal and even formulaic.

Not that discipline has no legitimate role to play in the production of aesthetic pleasure. Without its agency, form could not be achieved or, alternatively, form would be excluded from the domain of bourgeois morality. Ethics would be separated from aesthetics, a split already latent in the notion of form itself:

And is form not two-faced? Is it not at one and the same time moral and immoral—moral as the product and expression of discipline, but immoral and even antimoral inasmuch as it houses within itself an innate moral indifference, and indeed essentially strives for nothing less than to bend morality under its proud and absolute scepter?

Aschenbach succeeds in repressing desire to become a model of bourgeois morality and accede to the highest honors that bourgeois society can bestow on the artist. He even condemns the pursuit of knowledge, because knowledge subverts the will and promotes the forgiveness of transgression. And yet Aschenbach is wholly dedicated to the pursuit of artistic form, an endeavor that ultimately cannot be separated from the risk of the abyss. But he is no Baudelaire or Rimbaud. Aschenbach explicitly renounces "all sympathy with the abyss" for the sake of conventional morality, an effort that the narrator finds problematic because of the ambiguous morality of form itself and because such exclusion of psychological material would actually constitute a forbidden realm and hence a temptation bound to corrode the ethically acceptable self. When Tadzio appears to Aschenbach in the guise of an aesthetic vision of sublime perfection, the truth of art (the truth according to the universalizing logic of the ideological discourse) is revealed. As the passage from the Phaedrus quoted near the close of the narrative states, "[F]orm and naiveté … lead to intoxication and lust; they may lead a noble mind into terrible criminal emotions …" It is true that neither the narrator nor the implicit author accepts responsibility for the quoted passage; nevertheless, the implication is clear: Aschenbach in his canonical works sacrifices the integrity of art because to acknowledge it would mean subverting the moral economy of bourgeois society and the artist's privileged social position. The novella's dialogic narrative and ambiguous texture defer the resolution of the ethical-aesthetic dilemma, but the antinomy between a repressive conventional morality and an aesthetic libertinism points up the possibility of a greater and more authentic participation by the artist in society, a possibility that would require the artist's abdication of the throne on which the bourgeoisie seats its cultural heroes. At least this potential is implicit in Mann's own evolution as public figure and writer. As Charles Neider affirms, Mann's "work and life constitute the development of the isolated artist-type into the artist as one of and provider for the people."

The same critic writes that Mann's entire artistic and didactic output is based on the burgher-bohemian contradiction afflicting the bourgeois author:

Because of his burgher forbears and his own naturally conservative temperament Mann tends to regard the artistic impulse in himself as something suspect, verging on the criminal…. [This] has led him to a personal variation of the artist myth, a consideration of himself (and the artist in general) as the middleman between burgher and bohemian, nature and spirit, tradition and revolt. It has also led him to attempt to bring the artist back into the fold of good society after his nineteenth-century escapades….

The reference to Mann's progenitors recalls a passage from "Death in Venice" in which Aschenbach brings the genealogical law to bear on his "illicit" attraction to Tadzio. Recollecting his ancestors' "decent manliness of character," Aschenbach asks himself:

What would they say? But for that matter, what would they have said about his entire life, a life that had deviated from theirs to the point of degeneracy, this life of his in the compulsive service of art, this life about which he himself, adopting the civic values of his forefathers, had once let fall such mocking observations—and which nevertheless had essentially been so much like theirs!

The artist's deviation or degeneration is not outside the genealogical law but is inscribed in it according to the naturalist discourse "quoted" by the novella's narrator. Thus, if Aschenbach's ancestors on the paternal side "had all been military officers, judges, government administrators," those on the maternal side included a Bohemian musical conductor whose daughter is the author's mother. The synthesis is contradictory: "It was from this marriage between hard-working, sober conscientiousness and darker, more fiery impulses that an artist, and indeed this particular kind of artist, had come into being."

This contradiction, developed further in "Tonio Kröger," unfolds itself in El jardín de al lado. Julio Méndez represents an entrenched bourgeois subjectivity confronted by the same type of nineteenth-century nonconformist verging on the criminal that both repels and fascinates Mann's bourgeois artist. The role of bohemian in Donoso's novel is played by Bijou, whose literary model is Rimbaud. The descriptions of Bijou emphasize both the beautiful ("sus rizos dorados de angelo musicante" 'his golden ringlets of a music-playing angel') and the corrupt ("la malvada suciedad rubia, los inmundos dientes defectuosos" 'the wicked blond dirt, the rotten filthy teeth'), the aristocratic and the déclassé ("pese a susuciedad, a su aire malévolo … tiene la allure de un señorito" 'despite his filth, despite his malevolent air … he has the allure of a young lord')—traits that are physical and moral, underscoring the ambiguity that unnerves Julio's monologic subjectivity and that extends into sexuality. Julio's response to this hybrid creature (hybrid also in his Franco-Chilean nationality) traces a path from irritation and rejection to desire. The narrator's fantasy of "breaking through the mirror," formally realized by the novel through its authorial inversion, gradually becomes the exasperated need to exchange identities with the "low Other," to find liberation from the rigid structure of bourgeois (inter)subjectivity but also from the oppositions conjugated in Bijou's body and morality. Not the least important aspect of the fantasized exchange of identities (which takes the form of a descent into hell, into the abyss, thus recalling Aschenbach's plunge into the abysmal depths of his illicit passion) is liberation from history, since Bijou rejects the political defeatism of Julio's generation and dismisses his elders' commitment to a historical past that holds no meaning for him. Thus in both "Death in Venice" and El jardín de al lado the protagonist must traumatically shed the bourgeois ethic and aesthetic of composure in order to achieve what he desires—artistic truth or productivity.

In Mann's novella the contradiction inherent in the bourgeois artist leads to the repression of desire and ultimately of aesthetic joy. A contradiction between ethics and aesthetics also seizes Donoso's authorial subject, who is consequently unable to experience pleasure: "Puritano receloso del placer en que me ha transformado nuestra historia reciente" 'Our recent history has turned me into a Puritan suspicious of pleasure.' Historical crisis (namely, Chile's military coup of 1973) imposes on the erstwhile authors of domestic novels and stories (both the early Donoso and Julio Méndez) an ethical imperative, which Julio fails to express in an adequate aesthetic form. His first attempt to write the crisis is only an obsessive repetition of it, a mere chronicle of well-known and roundly condemned events that lacks aesthetic value Núria Monclús, the Catalan editor who rejects Julio's manuscript, passes the following judgment on the novel: "falta … la habilidad para proyectar … tanto situaciones como personajes de manera que se transformen en metáfora, metáfora válida en sí y no por lo que señala afuera de la literatura …" '[the novel] lacks … the ability to project either situations or characters so that they become a metaphor valid in itself and not for what it refers to outside literature …' Instead of an autonomous work of art Julio produces a record of his brief incarceration, which occurred immediately after the military takeover. There is no liberating transformation of the prison experience by means of artistic creation, but instead Julio's novel becomes its author's prison.

The revised version of the manuscript does not so much represent the Chilean political crisis as it does the "petite histoire" of the Chilean bourgeoisie before the September coup, intimately shared by Julio and his wife but lacking in public validity. Although Gloria finds in this novel an "authentic political exaltation", the contradiction between ethics and aesthetics is suspended, especially in the light of Núria Monclús's devastating evaluation of the novel's aesthetic merits. Politics has become sexual politics in Donoso's novel, and the denunciation of authoritarianism has turned into a struggle for authority whose object is the text. As Lucille Kerr remarks in her analysis of narrative authority in El jardín de al lado,

The combatant in whose defeat and virtual capture Julio's powers to write seem to be generated is thus not one of the literary rivals about whom he obsessively ruminates throughout his narration … It is instead Gloria, his spouse, the apparently powerless woman…. The significant point here is that when Julio tells how he finally begins to write his novel the description coincides with the description of his wife's nervous breakdown and slow recovery. It seems that it is only when Gloria appears to be defeated or virtually imprisoned … that Julio no longer is blocked nor defers writing.

Gloria's emergence as author in the final chapter of El jardín de al lado yields what can be considered a third version of Julio's novel, one whose condition of possibility is the resolution of the contradiction between ethics and aesthetics that had undermined the production of the previous versions:

Te quiero explicar que yo, como persona, no es que no siga exaltada, políticamente…. Pero sé que eso es ajeno a la literatura, quiero decir, ajeno por lo menos a mi literatura. Asumí esta ambivalencia analizando mi enfermedad de Madrid desde mis cuadernos de Sitges, y dándome cuenta que fue mi cárcel. Y asumir el "tono menor" fue, tal vez, mi salvación.

I want to explain to you that it's not that I as a person have ceased to be politically exalted…. But I know that that is alien to literature, I mean, alien at least to my literature. I became aware of this ambivalence while analyzing my Madrid illness in my Sitges diary and realizing that [the ambivalence] was my prison. And to assume a low-key style was, perhaps, my salvation.

Gloria's statement is an implicit criticism of her husband's second version of the novel. Earlier she had approved that version on the strength of its "political exaltation," the very notion that she now calls "alien to literature." Gloria's liberation from the "prison" of her subjectivity results, then, from a displacement of the ethical question, specifically from the detachment of ethics from politics. At this point El jardín de al lado is about the (re)emergence of narrative authority, a process grounded on an ethical insight: namely, that politics is beyond the ken of the novel's "author"—Gloria—and perhaps of Donoso as well. The honest thing to do is to acknowledge this limitation, an act that permits the construction of a valid artistic object freed from the constraints of subjectivity—that is, freed from any suspicion of authoritarianism. The form of the framing novel duplicates and legitimates Gloria's position to the extent that El jardín de al lado is an autonomous work of art that formally sublates the political novel. That is, the mimesis and the testimonial mode of authority that characterize Julio's narrative project are transformed in the novel's Magritte-like structure into the (self-)representation of a distorted mirror—a mode in which perspective is refracted and the referent oscillates. (For more on the analogies between the novel and its references to painting, see Feal.)

This emphasis on form, however, does not mean that El jardín de al lado is an aestheticist novel or that its authorial subject is exposed to the formal temptation that dooms Mann's Aschenbach. Insofar as a working theory of the novel can be disengaged from El jardín de al lado, it is a psychological theory that envisions literary creation as the exorcism of private obsessions:

Tortura, injusticia, derechos humanos, sí, desgarrador, es necesario tomar parte en esa lucha. Pero a mi modo, por favor, a mi modo y no ahora;… déjenme tranquilo, por lo menos hasta que la demencia de Gloria haya logrado exhumar del acertijo de este jardín sus propios, y tal vez nuestros, fantasmas.

Torture, injustice, human rights, yes, it's necessary to join that struggle. But in my own way, please, in my own way and not now;… leave me alone, at least until Gloria's madness manages to exhume from the puzzle of this garden her own, and perhaps our own, ghosts.

A stronger, somatic formulation of exorcism can be found in the many references to disease in the novel: "Yo también, como quien convalece, voy llegando al fin de mi novela…. Sólo sé que me quedan las llagas de una prolongada enfermedad…. Eso sí, siento que me he extirpado algo maligno que era necesario extirpar" 'I'm arriving as someone who convalesces at the end of my novel…. I only know that I'm left with the ulcers of a prolonged disease…. But I feel that I have extirpated something malignant that had to be extirpated.' The psychological burden of the novel is not limited to Julio as author-narrator but is also transferred to Gloria, who assumes the authorial position only after she has managed to evict the narrative material out of her interiority, to a space where the novel becomes a mirror of the crises that she and others undergo. Therefore the authorial subject's legitimation of the novel as politically inoperative cannot be dissociated from the text's therapeutic function, which bears exclusively on the individual (bourgeois) subject. Julio's remark that the Chilean historical crisis has for the first time allowed him to identify himself with a collective destiny is symptomatic of the contradiction between the bourgeois and the collective subjects, which is resolved by collapsing collective experience onto the individual's inner space and later expelling the intrusive material in a mediated form.

All this is important because it allows us to generalize the ethical-aesthetic contradiction beyond the confines of Donoso's novel. Suffice it to recall the early 1970s debate between Mario Vargas Llosa and Angel Rama on the contradiction between a subjective, bourgeois aesthetic and a sociopolitical legitimation of literature. Rama objects to the "theological" view of the author put forth in Vargas Llosa's massive study García Márquez: Historia de un deicidio, the concept of the author as a suprahuman individual who recreates reality and writes to exorcize personal ghosts or demons. For Rama, who regards literary production as a mediation of social reality, his opponent's poetics is idealist and archaic. Vargas Llosa retorts that the writer's "demons" have a sociohistorical origin and can be rationally "hunted down," so that an author can be both a "deicida" 'god killer' and a social laborer.

Both antagonists miss the historical logic of their debate. If literature can be considered autonomous, it is because literature was institutionalized in the historical development of the bourgeoisie, a fact that comes fully into view with the rise of aestheticism in the middle of the nineteenth century (Bürger). Autonomous art is a legitimate by-product of societies characterized by the economic and political ascendancy of the middle classes. In Latin America this rise was sufficiently advanced at the turn of the century to generate a distinctly modern poetry. The novel had to wait another fifty years to undergo the same modernization and still longer to come to terms with the contradictions of autonomous art in underdeveloped societies. Rama's call for a sociopolitical ethic of literary production is a symptom of these contradictions, but his argument fails to take into account the institutional status of modern literature.

Textual Production versus Textual Reception

Mann is quite aware in "Death in Venice" of the central role played by the institutions that regulate artistic production. To a large extent, in fact, Aschenbach's output is the product of its public, his texts determined by the possibilities of their reception: "His talent, equally-remote from the commonplace and from the eccentric, had a native capacity both to inspire confidence in the general public and to win admiration and encouragement from the discriminating connoisseur." As a young man Aschenbach writes for his contemporaries and fascinates "twenty-year-olds with his breathtaking cynicisms about the questionable nature of art and of the artist himself." His more mature work wins the approval of serious critics and later becomes conservative and exemplary enough to be canonized as textbook material, even as its author is conferred the letters patent of nobility. At this point the relation between the artist and his public is mediated by the academy (itself linked to the state), and Aschenbach becomes a national figure to whom foreign countries pay homage.

But the exalted position of the artist is not ethically safe. On the contrary, "Death in Venice" is an exploration of the moral risk inherent in such a status, a risk that bears equally on the work and on the artist. The theme is explicitly stated in the Phaedrus passage:

The magisterial poise of our style is a lie and a farce, our fame and social position are an absurdity, the public's faith in us is altogether ridiculous, the use of art to educate the nation and its youth is a reprehensible undertaking which should be forbidden by law. For how can one be fit to be an educator when one has been born with an incorrigible and natural tendency toward the abyss?

The danger of corruption underscored here assumes the identity of the work and its producer, while "Death in Venice" thematically separates the artist and the work. Socrates wants to eject the poets from the republic because they either would corrupt their charges with the kind of knowledge that poets have access to or would have to betray the integrity of their aesthetic mission in the service of the state. Poetic "nature" is anarchic and licentious because poets "cannot tread the path of beauty without Eros" and therefore can be neither "wise nor dignified." Poetic integrity, in addition, requires that the text reflect the true image of its maker—that is, that poets must be in a position to guarantee their words. This contract is feasible for Socratic instruction but becomes more problematic when a written text mediates the relation between master and disciple. In "Death in Venice" it is precisely in the space of this mediation that a moral gap opens up between the artist and the work, showing that the magisterial elevation of the poet endangers not only youth and the populace but also the poet (who is potentially deformed by a responsibility that is not necessarily consubstantial with art), as well as the work, which must conform to its canonical status by repressing its formative impulses.

That art and morality are not consubstantial is asserted, however reluctantly, by Mann himself in a lecture given in 1952, four decades after he wrote "Death in Venice." the lecture returns to the aesthetic and ethical issues raised by the novella and by his other works from the first quarter of the century, issues that by the 1950s had become political as well. The lecture's title is "The Artist and Society," but already in the opening paragraph Mann slides uncomfortably from society to politics and from politics to morals, attesting the indissoluble totality of social existence, of which art forms a part. Mann was traditional enough to perceive this totality (and of sufficient stature to operate authoritatively in its several dimensions) but modern enough to realize that art is, nevertheless, an autonomous sphere, for he states that the "essence" of the artist is aesthetic and not moral, just as the "essence" of art is free play and not virtue. But only the aesthete (the "bohemian") would force a rupture between a dependent art and an autonomous one. Mann (quoting Goethe) preserves a link between them by stating that if artistic production does not have to legitimate itself by a recourse to ethics or politics, art may nonetheless have moral consequences.

Mann pursues this theme by pointing out a moral contradiction between the production of art and its reception, its institutionalization. Recounting his experience with The Magic Mountain, the novel that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1929, he implies that the artist who writes a novel is not the same one who is rewarded for it later. During its production a novel is the scrawl of a private subject, a network of private allusions, to be read in the intimacy of the author's circle of family and friends. At this stage the artist is assimilated to bohemian psychology, characterized by "social disorder, a bad conscience dissolved in frivolity, humor, and self-irony with respect to bourgeois society and its demands" ("Künstler" 328). But this bohemian is transformed into a bourgeois by the successful reception of the work and by its subsequent canonization. This is the gap that Aschenbach cannot cross. He gives in too readily to external demands and accepts the risks of social recognition, prematurely relinquishing the risks that are just as inherent in the pursuit of art. In his 1952 piece Mann counsels modesty as the appropriate ethical response of the artist to this dilemma. Mann's own life constitutes a similar response:

It does Mann no moral dishonour to say that his campaign for truth and human decency was always inwardly qualified by his participation in Nietzsche's belief that human life wins dignity only in proportion as it is lifted up "into the significance of works of art," into the sphere signifying for Mann a "matter-of-factness undisturbed by any moralism."

In El jardín de al lado the traditional cultural institutions are not represented as mediating the exchange between artist and reader, and in fact the very notion of artist loses its validity or becomes presumptuous. In the postindustrial and cosmopolitan ethos surrounding the production of fiction in Donoso's novel, the forms of authority developed by traditional bourgeois society are corroded by the power of the culture (or consciousness) industry that tends to collapse the aesthetic and ethical value of cultural productions into exchange value. The emergence of a culture industry in Latin America coincided with the modernization of the Latin American novel, a revival that culminated in the boom of the 1960s, to which Donoso was a latecomer and which he equivocally portrays in El jardín de al lado from Julio's perspective, that of the writer excluded from the boom's movable feast.

Julio sees the boom as an outmoded literary fashion engineered by mercenary publishers such as Núria Monclús and characterized by formal experimentalism devoid of substantial value. This perspective, not fully authorized by the narrative discourse and in fact contradicted by it, generates an aesthetic paradigm that not every critic would consider fair to the novels of Fuentes, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and "Marcelo Chiriboga" (the fictitious embodiment of literary superstardom propagated by news media fascinated with the boom). But it does allow Donoso's authorial subject to vindicate his own narrative project as ethically (if not aesthetically) superior:

No podía adaptar el dolor que mi país había experimentado a las exigencias de las modas literarias preconizadas por Núria Monclús…. ¿Cómo impedir que se esfumaran y palidecieran mis seis días de calabozo, que eran como el trazo que definía el contorno de mi identidad?

I could not adapt the pain that my country had experienced to the literary fashions proclaimed by Núria Monclús…. How could I keep my six days in jail from going up in smoke and paling away, when they were the outline that defined my identity?

The opposition between political content and aesthetic form dooms the first draft of Julio's novel, as his inability to connect with the public dooms the second. Julio recognizes that he lacks the talent he attributes to the likes of Chiriboga, to Salvatierra (a painter friend), and to certain key figures of modern painting:

Poseer un punto de vista tan original que se acerque a lo cómico … pienso en Dalí, en Chirico, en Magritte, que también son envolventes e instántaneos y divertidos…. ¿Es por eso que Núria Monclús no me incluye, porque elimino ese estrato de inconciencia y humor que se relaciona como un chispazo que conecta con el público?…

To have a point of view so original that it might approach the comic … I think of Dalí, of De Chirico, of Magritte, who are also involving and spontaneous and funny…. Is that why Núria Monclús doesn't include me, because I eliminate that unconscious stratum of humor that like a spark connects with the public?…

Dalí, De Chirico, and Magritte, of course, represent the aesthetic paradigm that Julio cannot realize but that Gloria achieves by fruitfully exploiting her husband's multiple failures. In this sense El jardín de al lado is about the production of success from failure and of aesthetic form from political crisis. Gloria's novel, moreover, exchanges the currency of modernism (as embodied by Julio's literary references) for that of the commercially successful avant-garde, thereby articulating an implicit critique of the author figure in postmodern mass culture.

Jean Franco identifies three "technological" paradigms present in the boom novel, three competing versions of narrative authority that also function as allegories of social formation. One is the archaic storyteller, whose skill is derived from an oral culture and who serves as a repository for collective memory; another is the founder or creator of an original universe text, a figure conditioned by the emergence of print culture and closely linked to history; and the final type is the superstar, produced when the age of mass culture overtakes the Latin American novel in the 1960s. There is no doubt that according to this typology Donoso's failed author is located in the problematic transition between cultural hero and media star. The author as cultural hero is concerned with the life of the individual in society (and particularly of the artist in the historical moment known as modernism), while for the author as media star (at least for the consumer of mass culture) individualism and even the sense of history have become inoperative. This contradictory transition can readily be grasped through the notion of aura that Walter Benjamin associates with the traditional authority of art and that comes to an end with the advent of modern technology. The development of film, photography, and mass communications makes late-nineteenth-century aestheticism obsolete by creating a new popular audience for artistic production, an audience excluded by the "negative theology" of autonomous art. According to Benjamin's argument, aestheticism is forced to deny the social function of art while attempting to preserve the aura linking art and cult or ritual. Thus what comes to an end in the modern age is the concept of art as something mysterious and distant that subjects the viewer or reader to its transcendental authority. Modern art dispels the transcendental illusion and offers itself as materially produced, changing the role of the addressee from contemplative subject to critical or participatory agent.

Now, Donoso's narrator is dazzled by the novelist's aura: "[P]ara mí el escritor … está dotado de un aura incomparable" 'The writer for me … is endowed with an incomparable aura.' Julio is caught between the mirror images of Rimbaud and of Marcelo Chiriboga, who is the novel's aura-bearing figure. He also confesses and reiterates that his "idol" is Chiriboga,

este escritor … que habla de igual a igual con el Papa y con Brigitte Bardot, con Fidel Castro, Carolina de Mónaco o García Márquez, y cuyos pronunciamientos sobre política o sobre cine, o sobre moda causan tempestades….

this writer … who speaks face to face with the Pope and Brigitte Bardot, with Fidel Castro, Caroline of Monaco or García Márquez, and whose pronouncements on politics or movies or fashion unleash storms….

Appropriately, this tropical media star appears surrounded by rare silver antiques representing mythological and probably Christian motifs. Julio describes Chiriboga as "one of those figures created by Renaissance artisans," a statement attesting that Julio has a talent for appreciating beauty even if he is unable to create anything resembling the objet d'art that is Marcelo Chiriboga, a curious blend of ritualistic and pop art. But the novel as a whole does not fully legitimate the literary figure's aura and particularly questions its own aura-endowed status as a work of art. El jardín de al lado is characterized by an unstable and deceptive point of view, modeled on the trompe l'oeil paintings that decorate the narrative space, and this strategy is intimately linked to narrative demystification, achieved by denying the reader a central perspective from which to consume the "beautiful illusion" of the novel. The demystification, however, is not total, for the "author" safeguards at least one secret, that of the surprise reversal of perspectives in the final chapter. This with-holding of information ensures a certain mastery, a control over readers, at the same time that it preserves the work's aesthetic integrity (autonomy). Thus, on the one hand, the scene of writing is opened to direct scrutiny by readers, who get the impression that they too can be authors. If the novel stuck systematically to this path, it would be an avant-garde work, in the historical sense of the term: it would be "close to the state of freedom, of something that can be consciously produced and made." But, on the other hand, the "author" refuses to yield entirely to this democratic and materialist temptation, and the novel retains something of the fetish character imputed by Adorno (following Benjamin) to autonomous or aura-endowed art. Self-mirroring is the narrative device that lodges the novel's aura. El jardín de al lado is symmetrically composed around a clearly identifiable central scene: the fortuitous meeting in the marketplace (which is also a hall of mirrors) between Julio and Marcelo Chiriboga, attended by Gloria, Bijou, Núria, and other minor characters. The description of Julio's "vision" of Chiriboga mimics the language of photography (or film) and painting and thus joins the artistic technologies that compete with the written word in the marketplace. Onomastic signifiers also reflect one another, as in the Rimbaldian play of vowels between Julio and Bijou, or they reflect larger narrative units. "Gloria" refers to the literary glory denied to Julio but achieved by Chiriboga, a name whose last two syllables form the word meaning "vogue."

Thus, El jardín de al lado takes the modernist author who is the protagonist of "Death in Venice" farther down the road of history, where modernity crosses over into postmodern mass culture. There, at that liminal boundary, Donoso's modern author battles the twin forces of political engagement and the ethics of the marketplace but succumbs to the aporia of a modernism that cannot transform itself into a viable form of reading and writing. At a different level, of course, El jardín de al lado is a successful exploration of the contradictory ground that separates politics from the autonomous work of art, an exploration carried out by the transference of the notion of crisis from the political realm to the aesthetic.

Antonio Benitez Rojo (review date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: "The Obscene Bird of Night as a Spiritual Exercise," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 50-5.

[In the following essay, Rojo defends his idea that The Obscene Bird of Night can be read as a spiritual exercise in which the reader imagines an experience of self-annihilation. Rojo asserts that this experience represents a grappling with death, and is similar to religious observances such as Lent, Sabbath, or Ramadan.]

From time to time, in accordance with the prescription of the majority of the world's religions, all believers must perform a ritual of self-annihilation. This has to do, of course, with the enactment of death. Accordingly, practices such as fasting, sexual abstinence, physical penitence, silence, worldly withdrawal, and meditation often play a role. In general, these practices not only limit to a greater or lesser degree the natural appetites of the body, but also affect the social activities of the individual in everything from work to recreation. For a period of time the believer is supposed to remain in a state of limbo in which he negotiates with death, and one can call this Lent, Sabbath, or Ramadan.

After this metaphysical plunge the pious individual emerges convinced of the futility of worldly values and fortified in his faith. Though results are not usually enduring, the various religions provide innumerable opportunities to strengthen the soul in the daily renouncement of small pleasures and worldly honors. Any hour of any day can be used for prayer, penance, sacrifice, mystic trances, or meditation. In the Catholic faith one may recall the spiritual exercises instituted by Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

Of course not all of humankind believes in an afterlife; there are those who are atheists or agnostics, and those who subscribe in only a nominal fashion to some religion or belief. By this I mean to say that millions and millions of human beings do not feel obligated by any religious code to simulate death, in even the most trivial way. And yet all simulations of death, including deep reflections on the subject (which implies dying a little), are productive experiences. In effect, one must agree with the ancients that to submerge oneself under the crust of the earth, if possible while fasting, skeptically leaving behind the bulky garments of vanity, pride, and self-importance—even if only for a short time—will be more enlightening than any moral harangue arising from the fear of divine punishment. To approach death without the hope of eternal life, and brush against the ashen folds of its cloak as a ritual initiation to a higher plane of earthly existence, is the best moral exercise that anyone could undertake if one is sincere.

If one accepts this proposition, what incentive do the incredulous have to experiment with this useful and economic initiation? Here literary creation doubtless performs an important role, because it provides a half-dozen models that can successfully substitute for the most demanding spiritual exercises. Notice, from the Bronze Age to the present, the enormous number of heroes and heroines who descend to gloomy depths and later resurface in the warm light of victory. Or the affectionate feelings that characters like Don Quixote, Hamlet, and Colonel Aureliano Buendía arouse by the mere fact of having lived exemplarily in their madness, which is to say, in death. Or, beginning with the minotaur and ending with the lugubrious entities of Stephen King, the fascination that otherworldly creatures have for us, as if those who traffic in them are part of an unmentionable pact. Or the disturbing compassion we bestow on human freaks, no matter how low their condition. Isn't having been born Quasimodo a case of starting life half dead from the beginning? Or the suspicious tenacity with which we read expiatory books like Crime and Punishment and Under the Volcano, whose realism is perhaps more awful than any fantastic monstrosity ever imagined. Anyway, to continue, it's obvious that without being aware of it, the most skeptical reader has died and revived to his heart's content through the medium of literary catharsis. And of course for those who only read the newspaper, there are always the radio, movie, and TV versions.

In any case, world literature produces every now and then truly exceptional works within this popular and varied genre. In my experience as a reader, for example, I treasure the readings of the first editions of Nausea, Curzio Malaparte's Skin, The Tin Drum, The Subterraneans, The Plague, and The Obscene Bird of Night. If including this last work leaves me open to a charge of regionalistic or linguistic chauvinism, I can only respond sincerely that I have never read any book by a contemporary author more devastating than that novel by José Donoso.

On what do I base my judgment? Well, I think it's a matter of density, of saturation. This in the sense that Donoso's book superimposes several of the aforementioned models to induce in the reader the imaginary experience of self-annihilation. To begin with, there is the epigraph chosen by Donoso to inform the reader from where he took the title of his novel and, in passing, to prepare him for one of the most anguished journeys to nowhere ever seen in the history of literature. The quote isn't brief (it comes from a letter by Henry James, Sr., to his sons Henry and William) but it is necessary to recall it in its entirety to allow us to approach the novel productively:

Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce; that it is not genteel comedy even; that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths of the essential dearth in which its subject's roots are plunged. The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.

The remaining 500-plus pages of text should be read as a pragmatic reflection on James Senior. If a reader, through excessive haste or carelessness, misses that passage, he could end up thinking that Donoso's novel is unnecessarily long, that it is repetitive, that its settings hardly differ among themselves, that the subject matter lacks suspense and excitement, that its characters are intolerably paradoxical, that its narrative structure is chaotic, and that its discourse is abstruse. However, it would never enter the reader's mind that he had just finished reading a minor work: frivolous, badly written, unoriginal, in short, forgettable. It is indeed possible that the reader will arrive at an unjust conclusion: too bad about that book; it could have been a masterpiece but the editor wasn't very good. Of course, if the reader considers the James quote as the first paragraph of Donoso's text, he will know very well what to expect. He will know that he has just entered Diogenes' tub, where he will have to accommodate himself for several days in order to meditate upon the irreparable indecency of the world and of that which we call reality—that abject convention we use to deny ourselves the most elementary answers: where did we come from? why are we here? where are we going? This takes for granted that the reader "has reached his intellectual teens" and "is capable of spiritual life."

In any case, Donoso connects the epigraph with a shadowy antechamber to facilitate the reader's entrance to the rigorous labyrinth that is the novel. In effect, upon turning the page, one suddenly encounters the death of the aged Brígida, and one has no option but to attend her wake in the chapel or the House of Spiritual Exercises. Forty decrepit old women, three nuns, and five orphan girls live there. But, most importantly, the principal character, Humberto Peñaloza, lives there as well. His tortured body will serve as a sarcophagus for the readers both male and female through the grace of catharsis. It is obvious in the previous sentence that I have emphasized the idea that the reader's gender is not important. Either sex will be able to identify with the protagonist. The same thing happens with particulars such as age and profession because Humberto Peñaloza, like the narrator in Borges's "Lottery in Babylon," has performed the most diverse moral roles (victim, executioner, sinner, penitent) and has worn the masks of man, baby, crone, giant, deaf-mute, and writer. In short, Humberto Peñaloza is everything and nothing, and his physical disappearance in the last night of the novel—a necessarily eschatological night—symbolizes the ethical initiation of which I have spoken, beyond which the individual has to go on living with the gnawing certainty that nobody knows anything and that life is nothing more than this: the existential frustration of knowing that nobody knows anything, beginning with oneself. Once the anguish has reached this extreme point, one should reach a kind of hopeless serenity that has favorable repercussions on the individual and, by extension, on society.

In reality, Donoso's novel is an inverted epic where the laurels do not belong to the victor but to the vanquished, to him who knowing from the start that all is lost tries, as Ernest Hemingway would say, to give it his best shot. And not to win accolades but for the sake of self-fulfillment. History, of course, counts for naught here since every event, once extracted from its manipulating discourse, lacks all organic meaning. For Donoso, in accordance with his fortunate metaphor, history is no longer anything more than a miserable sack stuffed with old newspapers whose photos and headlines tell us nothing.

To comment at length upon what happens in the novel goes beyond the intent of this quick rereading. Nevertheless, I would have to point out that the paradoxical behavior of the characters is due to the fact that in the text several worlds—or, if one prefers, spaces of seclusion—coexist: for example, the space of the Rinconada and that of the House of Spiritual Exercises, each with its own language and narrative model. The first is a kind of bestiary full of deformed and lewd people (dwarfs, giants, the grotesquely obese, hunchbacks), night-marish creatures who drag their monstrosity through the luxurious pavillions and gardens of the place. But the lives of these defective beings are not far removed from our own. In reality, these beings are the moral monsters we carry within, that dark Other that wavers between elemental passions and the grossest sentiments, this perverse and crippled Mr. Hyde whom we do not always succeed in keeping at bay; this obscene bird of night of which James spoke to his sons.

Superimposed on the Rinconada is the House of Spiritual Exercises, a labyrinth of humid cells, tumbledown rooms, and patios full of rubble. At one time it was a structure of piety dedicated to perfecting souls. Now it barely functions as a shelter for a group of invalid and sterile women. In my reading—and possibly in Donoso's as well—these useless cellars that are about to be abandoned symbolize religion. I'm not referring only to Christianity but to any religion or belief, to any hope for a hereafter, or to any faith in a transcendental locus of eternal redemption. One could say that God once lived in these ancient cellars or, rather, someone passing himself off as God, taking advantage of kind souls. But that God, false or inefficient, has died and all that is left are his remains: tattered angels, one-armed virgins, patched sheets, rags, bits of string, burlap bags, old newspapers, broken objects, and leftovers.

Humberto Peñaloza resides simultaneously in both spaces. He suspects he is a sinner but doesn't know what his sin is. His life, minuscule and mediocre, never quite comes together in the eyes of reason; it is a coming and going full of sound and fury signifying nothing. From this precarious observatory Humberto Peñaloza mythicizes reality, that is to say, whatever he doesn't understand inside or outside himself. So his desire to become someone worthy (like Don Jerónimo de Azcoitía) and to be desired by someone estimable (like Doña Inés) not only compels him to live in La Rinconada and in the House of Spiritual Exercises, but also in a third space which, like the others, has its own language and narrative codes: the space of myth. In effect, lost in the night and the turns of an indecipherable labyrinth, Humberto Peñaloza lives the life of the minotaur. As in myth, the notions of time and space are blurred. Furthermore, the characters with whom he interacts allude more to transpersonal symbols than to real people. There inside, in the shadowy passages of the labyrinth, one never quite knows who is who and who is the Other. Consequently, all life is multiple, a sequence of masks that one must put on so that one can try to know oneself better. In the end, with the years and the vicissitudes of life, things seem to become simpler. The masks begin to disappear by dint of resembling themselves. It is precisely at this critical juncture that Donoso's narrative discourse apprehends Humberto Peñaloza. For a moment, the reader who accompanies him in his anguished adventure has the illusion that he is going to emerge from the text with an answer. A futile hope. Suddenly an old woman comes, grabs Humberto Peñaloza by the scruff of the neck, and stuffs him in a burlap sack. She immediately sews the mouth of the sack closed and puts the package in another bag, and so on. Then the old woman throws the bundle on her shoulder and begins to wander about aimlessly. Outside the bundle (which suffocates us and denies us access to any revelation) it is dark and cold. The old woman huddles over a bonfire, falls asleep, and soon everything turns into ashes which the wind disperses. In the end Humberto Peñaloza and the reader are reduced to a black smear on the stones, and the spiritual exercises that Donoso proposes for unbelieving humanity end right here.

Is The Obscene Bird of Night a pessimistic novel? I think not, but one must conclude that it lacks the sugary flavor of metaphysical explanation. Perhaps it could be taken for a pessimistic work if nothing remained of the human being. But something does remain: a black smear that the trip to nowhere does not succeed in blotting out. Well—the reader with certain expectations will say—a black mark and nothing are the same. And I nevertheless would say no, they aren't the same, and I would refer the reader to a curious belief of the Navajo Indians.

This belief or tradition is related to the beautiful blankets that the Navajo weave and that can be purchased in any store specializing in handmade textiles. These Indians believe that the weaver's dedication in carrying out her task is so intense that, thread by thread, her spirit passes into the cloth. So that she won't lose her spirit in the symmetrical labyrinths of the design (which to the Navajo implies losing one's reason) the weaver leaves a loose thread that interrupts the pattern of the cloth in some place. The Navajo believe that this loose thread provides the spirit with an escape route, and thanks to it the spirit can return to the artisan's body. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this belief is that the "lifeline" is, at the same time, the weaver's signature. Naturally one will say that such a practice is useless, given that ultimately the loose thread becomes part of the geometric pattern of the design. But it is also true that the thread, even though it can be read as a necessarily unsuccessful path of escape, also speaks of the individual's desire to leave an identifying mark, a signature, as an irrevocable record of his plan of escape. It is in this sense that I read in the black spot the name of Humberto Peñaloza and also that of the reader.

Charles Bowden (review date 29 November 1992)

SOURCE: "An Autopsy of a Generation," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 29, 1992, p. 7.

[In the following review, Bowden gives a brief plot summary of The Garden Next Door, and asserts that the book relies on images that conjure up "the emptiness of modern life."]

They sag with failure, are in their fifties, and live as exiles trapped in Spain with no money and no future. They possess but one asset-their pasts. Julio and Gloria fled Chile after Allende's fall. Julio had been a university professor of English literature, the author of two promising books, the son of a congressman, and she had been raised to be the proper wife of a professional man.

In Chilean José Donoso's bittersweet novel The Garden Next Door this does not prove to be sufficient material for starting a new life. Or even remembering their past lives. Julio struggles to rewrite a massive novel which pivots on his six days of incarceration in one of Pinochet's prisons. An earlier version of his tale had been rejected by Spain's leading agent as lifeless. Now he suspects he will be a flop, a dropout from the Boom generation of Latin American writers. Their teen-age son despises them for their fixation on the failed left government of Allende and has disappeared into Marrakech. They wonder if he is now a male whore. Julio's mother is dying in Chile and he lacks both the money and the will to visit her deathbed. Then, a rich friend offers them his luxurious apartment in Madrid for the summer and they grasp desperately at this opportunity.

The flat in Madrid looks down on the lush garden of a neighboring Duke and this green sanctuary becomes a metaphor for a lost Chile, for a dead marriage, for lives either in decline, or possibly never truly lived. "Why not accept failure once and for all?" Julio thinks. "I have nothing to say. Nothing to teach. I can't create beauty, but I know how to appreciate it." So Julio proceeds to drink the summer away, swallow valiums and putter at his novel. Gloria slides into a mental breakdown. This mutual descent is punctuated by experiences with characters seemingly more alive: the aristocratic woman next door in the garden who takes lovers easily and moves gracefully in her nakedness by the pool; a vagabond friend of their son named Bijou who is a male prostitute, thief, peddler of drugs and resolutely apolitical; a famous Ecuadoran writer who ostentatiously enjoys the rewards of his fame.

Donoso's book moves by images more than actions and the images all conjure up the emptiness of modern life—"From the terrace above we could see the reddish sky … with its festive summer lights: international jazz or horror film festival?" Solutions are systematically rejected: youth culture proves an empty mannerism; literature is both unreachable and unreal; politics are bankrupt; the flesh a fraud betrayed by age; personal integrity a fantasy that cannot be sustained without status and money. Julio and Gloria cling to memories of favorites snatches of classical music which they hum almost as prayers as they confront a world in which they no longer have a place. Donoso, born in 1924 and a leading member of the South American crop of writers called the boom generation, operates as a pathologist performing his generation's own autopsy. He writes very deftly and yet coldly. The novel has a clinical, morning after feel to it.

Julio ends his summer a total failure, just as the garden next door goes to temporary ruin during the August holiday of the aristocratic family. His revised novel is scorned by every major house in Spain and so he steals to taste the rewards of a success he has not achieved. Gloria utterly breaks down. The memories of Allende's fall prove inadequate for either fiction or a life. "I'll be the one," Julio decides, "for whom revolutions will catch fire, yet not the one who commits himself to fight or defend the rights of others with his blood. No: I'll remain outside the struggle and outside history."

In almost a wicked sendup of both magical realism and pulp fiction, all is made right in the end and Julio and Gloria are either restored to their proper standing, or-depending on the reader's point of view-condemned to their limited lives. Money and station descend, classical music once again seems to correctly express the actual world. The plot hardly matters in a book that insists history does not matter, a novel which ends with the injunction, "Please do not disturb!" This is not the book for Fidel Castro or Ronald Reagan but it seems appropriate for this weary moment at the end of a bloody century.

Lawrence Thornton (essay date 22 December 1992)

SOURCE: "The Muses Answered the Missus," in Washington Post, December 22, 1992, p. C2.

[In the following review, Thornton provides a plot synopsis of The Garden Next Door, and defends his view that there is "no better meditation on the agonies of writing" than the one presented in this novel.]

The entrance to Writers' Hell isn't marked by Dante's "Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here!" but by the resounding "No!" thundered by an agent. Out of that little damnation the Chilean novelist José Donoso has fashioned a bittersweet story laying bare the psyche of an artist on the verge of failure, a man well past 50 who is deeply aware that his life's blood is going into every sentence of a book that may not be good enough to publish.

Donoso has already produced seven books to considerable praise, and this latest novel to be translated into English will further burnish his reputation. There is no better meditation on the agonies of writing than in The Garden Next Door, which explores the fortunes of one writer on his way to rejection and another on her way to fame.

Julio and his wife, Gloria, are Chilean exiles living in a small Spanish town where they worry about money, the sexual proclivities of their son and their contentious marriage. Drinking too much, able to sleep only with the aid of liberal doses of Valium, they are both rapidly going downhill when an old friend offers them his Madrid apartment for the summer.

This elegant retreat boasts a view into the garden of an estate next door where beautiful people spend their afternoons in erotic play.

As the book opens, Julio is nursing a wounded ego after the first draft of his novel has been turned down by Nuria Monclus, a powerful agent whose disdain has made it almost impossible for him to work. Speaking of his visit to her office he says, "She had let me know, without saying it, that I didn't interest her as an author for her stables, something it hadn't been difficult for me to predict when I saw her surrounded by portraits, framed manuscripts, personal mementos, gifts, inscriptions, fetishes from all the 'greats' and their families; this made my hopes come crashing down right there, even before she had passed sentence." Fortunately, the apartment and garden give him new hope, enough to begin revising the novel, which deals with his imprisonment during Pinochet's rule.

As much as he wants the book to be his masterpiece, Julio is acutely aware of its weaknesses and he vacillates between despair and the conviction that he can still make a name for himself. One of Donoso's achievements is his ability to render the anguished envy of a writer who has never quite been successful and alternately hates and admires those who are. At one point or another, Julio castigates Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, Cortazar and others associated with the Latin American Boom. He sees conspiracies among agents, argues that publishers invented these writers to make fortunes, while in the next breath admitting that they can all do things that are beyond him.

His problem, as Gloria points out, is that he "only knows how to live within structures imposed on him from outside and can't create for himself the imaginary world that answers only to its own laws, the artist's world." When she proves to be right and Nuria Monclus turns down his manuscript a second and final time, Julio is so despondent that he cannot tell Gloria. Instead, he sells one of his host's paintings, claims the money is an advance and hustles his wife off to Tangier.

By shifting the point of view at this point from Julio to Gloria, Donoso allows us to revisit the period when Julio was writing and Gloria had started drinking so heavily that she finally had a breakdown. From time to time she had mentioned her own creative ambitions, which Julio discounted, arguing that she ought to be content plying her trade as a translator. But in the depths of Gloria's depression she had begun keeping notes on herself, on Julio, on everything of importance in her life, and out of that work emerges a novel that Nuria Monclus finds exceptional.

One of the things that makes this book so fine is Donoso's refusal to look away from the hope and fear that accompany the artist's enterprise. But while The Garden Next Door is a cautionary tale for both published and aspiring writers, there is a feeling that even though we may not hear again from Julio, he has made peace with his muse while Gloria has just begun courting hers. Her spiritual rebirth and Julio's acceptance of his limitations as an artist are poignantly and profoundly rendered.

Tony Talbot (essay date 10 January 1993)

SOURCE: "Caught in a Sweet Trap," in The New York Times Book Review, January 10, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following review, Talbot contends that The Garden Next Door is about exiles who have fled dictatorships to live out their lives in more pleasant places. Commenting on the autobiographical aspects of the story, Talbot claims the novel to be about "our universal terror of disintegration when everything seems to be losing its meaning."]

Latin American fiction, since the boom of the 1960's, has been identified with the novel that is bigger than life: Jungles teeming with extravagance, grotesqueness, fantasy and absurdity. How else to make sense of the Latin American reality? José Donoso, Chile's most prominent fiction writer, is the author of one of these multilayered books, the highly acclaimed 1973 novel The Obscene Bird of Night. But in his 1981 work The Garden Next Door, the novel bigger-than-life retreats into the backyard of his protagonist's imagination.

Mr. Donoso's narrator, Julio Mendez, is an exiled Chilean writer. He and Gloria, his wife of more than 20 years, have been living amid a circle of other exiles in Sitges, a coastal town near Barcelona, for seven years. Julio is trying to revise a novel about the six days he spent in a Santiago jail after the fall of Allende, a novel that has been rejected by the formidable Catalan literary agent Nuria Monclus, who finds that it needs "a wider dimension." Gnawed by self-doubt and money concerns, constantly bickering with his wife, obsessed by their estranged teen age son (who has vanished into the maze of Marrakesh), guilty because he can't return to his dying mother in Chile, adrift with other uprooted Latin Americans. Julio finds scant relief in his menu of stimulants, tranquilizers and sleeping potions. Just as Gloria does in alcohol. Escape, at least for the summer, comes when they are offered the use of a luxurious apartment in Madrid by Julio's childhood friend Pancho, now a famous artist.

Through the bedroom window, Julio discovers the garden next door: a luminous, erotic realm inhabited by a young blond aristocrat and her charmed coterie. Julio's fantasies about the days of his childhood and adolescence—about his mother's lovingly tended house and garden—grow around this magical Eden, where all is fertile and transcendent. But the messiness of his real life inexorably intrudes. Gloria plunges into depression and requires treatment from a Uruguayan psychoanalyst friend who flies in regularly from Barcelona. 'Julio's rewritten manuscript is turned down for good by the literary agent. His mother dies and his brother in Chile presses him to sell the family homestead. Julio commits a theft out of desperation and flies to Tangier with Gloria. There, after five introspective chapters, The Garden Next Door might plausibly have concluded. But the twist ending of the sixth chapter gives the book a juicy narrative spin.

This deftly translated roman a clef is primarily about exile—about those former guerrillas, writers, painters and intellectuals who have fled dictatorships to lead their lives in places like Sitges, "a sweet trap as sticky as flypaper." In almost documentary fashion, Mr. Donoso depicts exiles who are torn by eroding political commitment, unable to transmit to their children an identity with their homeland, nostalgic for their native country and yet fearful of going back. But he also relentlessly exposes a writer in his 50's who has lost his bearings and vigor, detailing his bitterness, envy, hypochondria, depression and paralysis—and, finally, his reconciliation to defeat and failure. The Garden Next Door is about our universal terror of disintegration when everything seems to be losing its meaning.

Twenty years ago, recalling his childhood home. José Donoso wrote that the "house and especially the garden, which became beautiful under my mother's care, is identified in my emotions with her fancy and delight in things. Only when that garden no longer exists shall I feel finally, really on my own." This brutally honest novel may be that final purging.

David Streitfield (essay date 8 April 1993)

SOURCE: "Writing from the Gut," in Washington Post, April 8, 1993, p. D1.

[In the following article, Streitfield provides a brief commentary on Donoso's life, specifically focusing on the lies he told as a youngster about stomach problems, and his real ulcer later in life.]

When José Donoso was a boy, back in his native Chile almost six decades ago, he hated school. So the clever lad invented an ache in his gut.

For a time, the malady did its job; Donoso didn't have to eat with the rest of his classmates or participate in sports. But there came a day when faking wasn't necessary. It was real, all right, this sharp spasm in his belly.

Maybe early on it was psychosomatic. Yet as the decades passed, the ulcer became genuine. Finally, during a lecture in Colorado in 1969, Donoso had a hemorrhage and nearly died. He left the hospital with only part of his stomach.

Donoso sees this as a truly painful lesson about the nature of fiction. "I was creating something out of nothing, out of my own innards, which then had to be taken out. Isn't that just like writing a novel?"

It was also, he adds, a little like a macabre fairy tale, one that warned how easily the roles of master and servant can be reversed. "You tell the story, and at some point the story becomes true. You write the book out of your life, and then the book gains control of your life and begins to throttle you."

He's sitting in his office at the Woodrow Wilson Center, that unlikely publicly funded think tank ensconced in the Smithsonian's castle on the Mall. It's a plain place, almost a cubicle, with the only idiosyncratic note two postcards, each of which depicts an enormous woman—inspiration for a projected novel about "a nice American big fat girl."

Across the hall, behind a half-closed door, a seminar is taking place. Droning voices contemplate the post-Cold War economy or the Russian crisis or maybe the post-Cold War Russian economy. The Wilson Center is egghead academic, which makes Donoso a bit of an oddball. Of the 30 or so current fellows, he's the only novelist.

That's partly because not many apply, but the selection criteria are also fairly narrow. "Every novelist we've had—and there's never been a year we've had two of them—has been historically or politically oriented," says Wilson Center Director Charles Blitzer. "The idea is, you can learn as much if not more from a first-rate fictional treatment of historical events as from a social historian."

Donoso, now 68, is possibly the finest novelist living in the metropolitan area. Over a 40-year career, he has published about 20 distinguished works of fiction, half of which have been translated into English. But only three are in print, including the newly issued novellas Taratuta/Still Life With Pipe, and publishers aren't exactly assaulting him for new work….

At a distance of 20 years, the Boom has taken on the dimensions of myth. Cortazar is now dead, Vargas Llosa and Fuentes influential statesmen, Garcia Marquez probably the most acclaimed author in the world. And Donoso?

"I lead a much more inner life, a more subjective life, than novelists generally do," he maintains, comparing himself in this regard to Flaubert, another writer with "a strange devouring thing inside him."

He was gravely ill last year, which only made the situation worse. "I still haven't got myself together. I used to be a much more outgoing person, much more willing to relate to people. I don't do that much anymore. I ache, to put it bluntly."

In the way that couples over the years begin to resemble each other, perhaps novelists start to take on the qualities of their characters. In The Obscene Bird of Night, there's something called the "imbunche," a nightmare creature born with all its orifices sealed. It's a metaphor for being unable to create, for having work inside that you're unable to release.

This is Donoso's greatest fear. "For several periods, I felt I wouldn't be able to write—that I'd be hampered by something physical. And that would be the death of me. I have nothing else to fall back on."

Donoso would like to be remembered as a street in Chile. Many of them bear the names of people, so why not his?

"I see myself as about two blocks long," he says. "Maybe with a few trees."

"Or a little plaza?" asks Maria Pilar.

"A very small plaza," the writer agrees. "Maybe something secluded. Hidden places have a sort of unity, I think …

"I'll be happy as a street. Even though people may not read me, they will walk me. They'll still speak my name."

Reviews Of Donoso's Recent Work

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Christopher Leland (review date May 15 1988)

SOURCE: "Stay and Fight, or Leave and Love?," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 15, 1988, pp. 3, 13.

[In the following review, Leland gives a plot synopsis of Curfew and comments on the political structures described in the novel as they relate to Donoso's own experiences.]

Fifteen years have passed since the overthrow of Chile's last elected government, the Popular Unity regime of Salvador Allende. Other Latin American nations—Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia—have passed in this period from democracy through dictatorship to democracy again. Chile, however, which for more than half a century maintained one of the continent's proudest liberal traditions, has remained under the heel of the military. An entire generation has now matured beneath the gloomy authoritarianism of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

It is into this world that José Donoso, Chile's most famous living author, thrusts us [with] his new novel, Curfew. Mañungo Vera, a famous protest singer, returns to his native land after a 15-year Parisian exile. His relationship with the mother of his son at an end, his career in abeyance due both to a recurring tinnitus and a personal crisis before the prospect of middle age, he arrives in Santiago the day of the wake of Matilde Neruda, the widow of the nation's greatest poet, Pablo Neruda, dead himself in the earliest days of military rule.

In the 24 hours that follow, we witness Vera's re-entry into a world no longer his. At the wake of his old friend from the days of the Nerudas' residence in Paris, Vera is drawn to Judit Torre, a former revolutionary herself returned from exile, apparently reintegrated in the society and yet secretly involved in a complex and intensely personal conspiracy. At the Neruda house, amid the crowd of mourners, the two individually confront old comrades-in-arms, young radicals with romantic revolutionary visions, the privileged opposition distrusted by their more intensely politicized friends. Later, after a chance meeting on the street, Vera and Torre together come in contact with other elements of Pinochet's Chile: the ever-growing army of the country's dispossessed, ragtag ragpickers whose only hope must be apocalyptic revolution, as well as those who to a greater or lesser extent have made their peace with the gray and implacable monstrousness of institutionalized repression, informing, torture.

Donoso, who himself spent long years as an expatriate, documents the perverse effects of a decade and a half of dictatorship. A government which, as most of its ilk, sees itself as above politics, has created a society in which politics permeates and predetermines everything. He shows us the uneasy alliances and furious infighting among various factions of the Left, which reduces all the groups to equal impotence as the country stagnates in economic and spiritual torpor. Among the regime's supporters, meanwhile, there is an equivalent kind of jockeying, the peevish concern for minor privilege which can determine life or death for someone run afoul of the authorities. Trapped in a world in which, overtly, the personal is political and vice versa, in which one's fate can be determined by bad timing or caprice, Donoso's characters can make no plans, live with no assurance. Judit Torre, for example, embodies the contradictions of life in a military police state. Of privileged family, she nonetheless became a revolutionary and the companion of one of the movement's leaders. Captured, she was arbitrarily saved from rape, released from her secret prison by bureaucratic oversight, issued a passport by a sympathetic functionary himself later disappeared. Anxious for revenge for a violation that never in fact occurred, yet ravaged by a sense of unworthiness beside those who have suffered more gruesomely, she still imagines almost against her will a possible happiness with Mañungo Vera in Paris: safe, distant, private. Vera is himself torn, tempted constantly to flee back to the Rue Sevastopol at the same time he is drawn further and further into the drama of his martyred homeland.

Unlike much of Donoso's other work, including his most famous, The Obscene Bird of Night, this book depends little on the magical, on that dreamlike mix of the quotidian and the supernatural we have come to expect in much Latin American literature. Magic is here, however, woven sparingly throughout the text, and, is, finally, the sign of the very faint hope with which Donoso concludes. Magic. Children. Art. These are perhaps the means by which Chile and its people may achieve some future redemption. Yet, this is a land, for the last 15 years, populated by people who "defined themselves through hatred, (and so) their lives gave them intolerable pain because of this sad mutilation history had imposed upon them." The novel ends not with love consummated, but merely with the notion that, in a day not too far distant, the word might be uttered aloud. It is a bleak but fitting conclusion to this dark and moving novel.

Donoso is fluently served by his translator, Alfred MacAdam, though, interestingly, Curfew is not what the book is called in Spanish. Perhaps the translation of the original title seemed to publishers here too grim or dramatic for the American audience, so many thousands of miles from the realities of Santiago. There, in Chile itself, the book is called La Desesperanza. It means despair.

Joanne Omang (review date 22 May 1988)

SOURCE: "Home to Santiago: The Return of the Exile," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 22, 1988, p. 7.

[In the following review, Omang discusses the plot of Curfew, noting that this work is more accessible than any of Donoso's other novels. Containing less "magic realism" than his other books, Omang maintains that Curfew is a work of "riveting clarity."]

For two or three years after the 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile, the Chilean left was more or less in hiding, frightened, but somehow smug. In the slum apartments that hid them in Santiago, in their mountain hideouts and their Parisian exile cafes, the activists knew the dictator would fall any day now: there would be a popular rising, there would be revolution. There was no need to change tactics.

There was no need, in other words, to do more than paper over the doctrinal chasms and personal feuds that split the dissidents' families and kept everyone arguing late into the curfew hours, always too late to do anything today.

Twelve years after the coup, in 1985, the sobered leftists of José Donoso's new novel, Curfew, are no longer smug, but paralyzed, taking their cranky children to the amusement park, drinking too much, despairing of change, dreaming bitter dreams.

Mañungo Vera, an exiled singer of revolutionary songs, comes back to Santiago with his young son, born and raised in France, for the funeral of the widow of leftist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Mañungo has lost his convictions over the years, and his career as revolutionary symbol is slipping. He wants to find "the mutilated pieces of his history" among the graying radicals who gather to fight over the relics of the departed Neruda saints.

After several obscure, mannered novels smothered in just too much magic realism, Chilean writer José Donoso has produced in Curfew a work of riveting clarity. It is a keen and compassionate look at a single day in the lives of those educated, cultured Chileans whose anguish after a dozen years under Pinochet is that they have survived.

"We keep telling ourselves that the people united will never be defeated, when for more than ten years they've had us more defeated than I can imagine," says Lopito, Mañungo's lost and repellent old buddy. With his greenish teeth and drunken opportunism, Lopito is doomed by his guilty, passionate rage: he embodies the defeat of all his friends. In Chile, Donoso says, "all personal pain had to have at least a political subtext."

Mañungo also, encounters the aristocratic guerrilla legend Judit Torre, an old lover whose cold fire hides the torturing secret that she too escaped torture. "I'd like to talk about music," she says, "but in my heart I'm afraid it would be frivolous." She drags Mañungo through the ominous noman's-land of Santiago's deserted streets after the midnight curfew, when bodies are dumped on sidewalks and helicopters chug over the gardens with searchlights. Together they stalk the army officer who years ago made Judit pretend to scream in pain, crippling her beyond the rapes inflicted on her friends. But like everything else in today's Chile, he turns out not to be what they expected.

Watching Judit, watching all of them with a greedy eye for everyone's price, is Judit's cousin Freddy Fox, the overweight, overbearing and all-knowing government official. His comfortable arrogance and easy access to all of them demonstrate far more effectively than any torture scene the dictatorship's unassailable strength.

Chile is a place, Donoso says, of convents "where nuns embroider sheets for brides who no longer stain them" and where "everyone can be the incarnation, if he or she dares, of history." He shows the way history can turn in Chile on an issue as obscure as whether William Randolph Hearst secretly funded Leon Trotsky in Mexico.

People's index fingers are growing shorter in Chile, Lopito says, worn down like those of the Spanish Republicans who pounded their fingers against the table for 40 years, saying "this year Franco will fall, this year he will fall." Donoso's novel ignores those who are happy in the new Chile; this is a story of those whose political goals "wasted away and became impoverished in a kind of prolonged verbal masturbation."

Donoso brings all the forces together at the great chaotic funeral of Matilde Neruda, held before the cameras of muscular men in gray-glassed cars without license plates. The aging firebrands are distracted by their difficult children: Mañungo's truculent son, Lopito's ugly little girl and Judit's anxious preteen daughter, who for all their appalling flaws are the country's future. In this story Donoso celebrates the crippled half-people, dwarves and freaks weaving pathetic, futile plots, and the toothless lions roaring out complaint to an uncaring world: a people not quite repressed enough to die.

Donoso, now 64, lived in Europe for 15 years before returning to Chile with his wife and daughter. Several passages are, annoyingly, left in French in the otherwise excellent translation by Alfred MacAdam, and Donoso's prose can sometimes recall an unpruned wisteria: a little too exuberant in spots, a puzzling twist here and there. But the occasional excess stands out for its rarity, and the novel is the most accessible of any yet to come out from under Pinochet's enduring dictatorship.

Suzanne Ruta (review date 29 May 1988)

SOURCE: "What's Become of Chile," in The New York Times Book Review, May 29, 1988, p. 9.

[In the following review, Ruta asserts that Curfew is a study of "the many ways politics mutilate and distort the private lives of [those] confronted by Pinochet." In her review, Ruta lauds the novel as "an urbane comedy of manners, a love story, a fairy tale," and praises the book's romantic themes, as well as its commentary on dictatorships.]

The exile's return to his native land is the subject of some of the best writing from Latin America in recent years. Julio Cortazar in Hopscotch and Alejo Carpentier in The Lost Steps have played brilliant variations on the theme "you can go home again." José Donoso returned to Chile in 1980 after 15 years in Europe. He now lives in Santiago. In Curfew he has created a small masterpiece in the familiar genre. The book's protagonist is a famous singer of protest songs named Mañungo Vera, just returned to Chile after 13 years in Paris. He hasn't been off the plane an hour when someone asks him the inevitable question: "How does it feel to be living under a dictatorship?" We already know by then that Curfew is both the story of a man's search for his roots and a portrait of Chile in the second decade of a military dictatorship no one knows how to get rid of.

Behind Mr. Donoso's engaging fictional hero stands, unmentioned but unmistakable, the shadow of Victor Jara, the young Chilean songwriter, voice of the Allende years, murdered within days of the 1973 anti-Allende coup. With such a ghost at his side, the invented hero Mañungo Vera links those the Pinochet regime destroyed and those it has allowed to go on living, maimed in body and spirit. Curfew examines the many ways politics mutilate and distort the private lives of the generation that was confronted by Pinochet head-on. But the historical figure who haunts the book is the late, great poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda and Pinochet, art and repression, are the immovable landmarks around which the fictive characters must find their way.

Known for the lavishly Gothic imagination of his earlier works (like The Obscene Bird of Night), Mr. Donoso doesn't have to invent in his new novel. It's enough simply to record the facts of life in a country under a state of siege, where not the sleep of reason but the apparatus of state terror breeds monsters. The pivotal events in the plot are the funeral of an old woman—Neruda's widow—and a young man's death by torture. And yet this is not a grim book. To turn somber politics into lively art is some kind of triumph over the politicians. Curfew is a political novel that is also an urbane comedy of manners, a love story, a fairy tale, a thriller, a lyric evocation of landscapes. The large cast of characters spans three generations, both sides of the political spectrum and whole social scale. Chilean place names, legends, food, class accents, literary fads—Mr. Donoso describes it all with the appalled and loving Rip Van Winkle eye of someone just back from a long time away.

The action is concentrated into the 24 hours following the death of Neruda's widow, Matilde, in January 1985. The book divides, like a sonata, into three sections—"Evening," "Night" and "Morning"—each with its own tempo and tone and complement of gripping scenes. "Evening" takes place in the civilized atmosphere of Neruda's house in Santiago, during the wake for Matilde. Mr. Donoso goes into chatty detail about Neruda's tastes in furniture, foods, women, landscapes, friends. He contrasts the poet's humanity and breadth with the shrunken, joyless lives of the next generation.

Was Neruda mixed up in a plot to kill Trotsky in some way? One of the characters raises the question and answers in the negative. To underscore the point and to rescue Neruda from sectarian claims, José Donoso spins an intrigue about the poet's wife's death that is a sly allusion to the plot to kill Trotsky. A Communist Party official plants his mistress in the Neruda household to make sure the party will draw full benefit from Matilde's impending death. The funeral of Neruda's wife will provide a rare opportunity for a show of opposition to the regime. Rather than lose control of the event, the party hack overrides the dying woman's last wishes, blackmails his mistress and sabotages a chance for unity among groups opposed to the Pinochet regime. The party hack has an unwitting ally in a member of Pinochet's inner circle, a greedy culture vulture who collects—a lovely comic touch—Trotsky memorabilia, but who, when push comes to shove, resorts to violence. Repression on the right and stagnation on the left combine to shore up the intolerable status quo in Chile.

There is a sense, Mr. Donoso suggests, in which all politicians, in or out of power, are buffoons. This satirical strand of the plot is urbane and slightly dated comedy, 1920's Evelyn Waugh or 1950's Anthony Powell. But then, one effect of dictatorship in Chile is to have made the country a graveyard of old fashions, political, literary and sartorial.

Another strand of the plot romantically involved the singer Vera with Judit Torre, a former revolutionary who is a daughter of one of Chile's most powerful oligarchical families. If Vera is a singer whose repertory and public image have grown stale and stifling, Judit is an activist who, after arrest, torture, exile and return to clandestinity, finds herself a burntout case. Hatred takes the place in her life that love might have occupied in kinder times. She prowls the city at night looking for the man who tortured her cellmate in jail, in order to seduce and perhaps kill him.

A dark Dantesque concatenation of images, ideas and allusions sets the tone for the second part, "Night," which takes place during the witching hour after curfew, when Judit pursues her obsessions while armored cars patrol the streets and helicopters circle overhead. Bands of guerrilla youth scavenge for salable garbage in wealthy neighborhoods, where they want to plant bombs. Mr. Donoso seems to take these desperate youngsters, doomed to a life where fear and hatred are the ruling emotions, altogether more seriously than he does the old left, with its rote ideological optimism. By the end of a terrifying night on the streets with Judit, Ma ungo Vera is ready to take the plane back to Paris. He wants her to come along. Are they in love? In Paris, it won't matter.

In "Morning," the time of clear sight and harsh revelation, the fairy-tale romance shatters against the banal cruelties of daily life in a police state. The two lovers are united in feeling, separated in fact, by the death, under casual torture, of a mutual friend. Lopito is a character out of Dostoyevsky, an insidious mixture of fake and real humility, a petty thief, a coward, a father who can't help abusing the child he adores. He embodies perhaps a well-known Chilean type, the roto, the guy at the bottom of the heap whom people respect because, since he has nothing to lose, he tells the truth with flair.

Lopito also incarnates everything Chile has to teach Vera, the pop idol whose fame has kept him from danger and discomfort but also from self-knowledge. It's a lesson in powerlessness, frustration, bitterness, despair. Within less than 24 hours of his arrival from Paris, Vera has his moment of truth, his homecoming, in the Santiago police station his friend will not leave alive. Despair (La Desesperanza) is the Spanish title of this beautifully realized and deeply moving work. Alfred MacAdam's translation accurately conveys the many subtle shifts in tone and pace.

Marjorie Agosin (review date 2 June 1988)

SOURCE: "Latin America Seen through the Eyes of Contemporary Writers," in The Christian Science Monitor, June 2, 1988, p. 20.

[In the following review, Agosin discusses Donoso's description of Chile in Curfew, and provides a brief plot summary. Asserting that the novel "manages to combine chaos, absurdity, and the reality of life under a dictatorial government in a masterly way," Agosin lauds Donoso's descriptive passages and attention to detail.]

José Donoso is one of Chile's foremost novelists, and one who is beginning to receive the attention he richly deserves. His story Curfew is very different from Dorfman's "Last Waltz in Santiago." Yet once again the theme, one might say their literary obsession, is their native land. Donoso writes with splendid subtlety. Curfew gravitates around two poles: the wake of Matilde Neruda, widow of the Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and the love relationship between Mañungo Vera, an exiled pop singer, and Judit Torre, an aristocrat involved in revolutionary activities against the junta. In an opening scene that is written with almost documentary realism as well as with irony and humor, Mañungo Vera returns to Santiago from exile in Europe on the day of Matilde Neruda's wake.

Few recognize him and his revolutionary songs. Mafiungo confronts his own conscience. The feelings aroused by his return to a chaotic country unfold as the reader looks through Mañungo's eyes as he walks through Neruda's house and sees the poet's collection of marvelous objects and rare first editions.

Donoso presents many contradictions. Neruda is a communist and one of the richest poets of the 20th century, and Vera as a singer is now unknown, because the revolution no longer needs him. Politics and the sometimes harsh realities of political culture are revealed, as well as the mythical life of the Neruda family. Opposed to the childlike and magical universe of the Nerudas, a Chile of beggars and destitute shantytowns emerges through the confessional voice of Judit Torre, who desperately tries to heal the pain of torture and agony through memory and love.

But Vera is the center of the story. He—and so the reader—feels and understands the agony of a nation in despair. The concluding episode, a tour de force, begins with Matilde's funeral, which is turned into a political rally. The title of the Spanish original; Despair, is much more appropriate than Curfew, the title chosen for the English translation.

This novel manages to combine chaos, absurdity, and the reality of life under a dictatorial government in a masterly way. At the end, the reader feels he is being told about an almost unreal place: "It was a beautiful toy country, the trees and lakes, the snow-capped mountains made of papier-mâché, the delicacy of the historical buildings…."

Perhaps Chile has become an almost demented fantasy besieged by memories of past glories exemplified by Pablo Neruda, a country tormented by a present sunk in hopelessness. In any event, Curfew is an intriguing book. Above all, it invites thinking and reflection on the many ways in which politics criss-crosses between imagination and a maddening reality.

John Updike (review date June 13, 1988)

SOURCE: John Updike, "In Dispraise of the Powers that Be," in New Yorker, Vol. LXIV, No. 17, June 13, 1988, pp. 112-14.

[In the following review, Updike faults Curfew for "too much sticky, tangled prose," and for failing to fulfill its "Dostoyevskian ambition."]

It is sometimes urged upon American authors that they should write more politically, out of a clearer commitment or engagement or sense of protest. Two foreign novels, one by a Chilean and the other by a Nigerian, demonstrate that having a political subject does not automatically give a novel grandeur, urgency, or coherence. Curfew, by the Chilean José Donoso, takes place in 1985, in a crowded time span of less than twenty-four hours bridging the wake and the funeral of Pablo Neruda's widow, Matilde. The occasion collects a number of varied friends and admirers—Mañungo Vera, a folksinger returned from twelve years in Europe; Judit Torre, a blond, aristocratic revolutionary who looks like the young Virginia Woolf; Fausta Manquileo, a matronly literary figure of distinction; Don Celedonio Villanueva, her husband and a literary figure of perceptibly less distinction; Juan López, called Lopito, a former poet and present drunkard and abrasively obnoxious hanger-on; Lisboa, a Communist Party zealot; Ada Luz, his girlfriend and a docile handmaiden of the late Matilde Neruda; and Federico Fox, a corpulent cousin of Judit Torre's and the only significant character who actively works with the ruling Pinochet regime instead of hating and resisting it.

Pinochet (who is never mentioned in the novel's text) came to power in 1973, in a bloody coup that ousted and killed President Salvador Allende, so by 1985 the dissidents have had time to go into exile and return, to be imprisoned and released, to grow middleaged in their youthful fury and frustration, to lose faith and make ironical accommodations and die of natural causes. Lopito says, "All of us have retired from the political scene, even though we keep telling ourselves that the people united will never be defeated when for more than ten years they've had us more defeated than I can imagine, Mañungo. This is total defeat…. A bomb here, another there, but they don't do anything, like swearing by nonviolent protest or violent protest, or the opposition, or the people united, et cetera. They broke our backs, Mañungo."

Pablo Neruda, the triumphant embodiment of Chilean culture and leftwing conscience, "returned to Chile to die of sadness." Now his widow, Matilde, whom he had nicknamed "La Chascona, the wild woman … because of her tangled mop of hair"—Matilde, who had been "a young, desirable woman of the people, as juicy as a ripe apricot," who "took long, wine-soaked siestas with the poet"—has died in a Houston hospital, after receiving last rites and confiding to Ada Luz that she wants a Mass said at her funeral. The suppression of this request—by Lisboa, because the presence of a revolutionary priest at the graveside would detract from Communist domination of the ceremony—is the main political thread wound around the funeral. The main cultural thread is Federico Fox's acquisition of control over Neruda's valuable papers and letters, in exchange for his removal of bureaucratic roadblocks in the way of establishing a Pablo Neruda Foundation. The main romantic thread is the coming together again of Judit Torre and Mañungo Vera, who had first romanced in their student days. The principal moral event, I suppose, is Mañungo's decision to stay in Chile, with his seven-year-old French-speaking son, after his round-the-clock experience of life under the regime. In his youth, Mañungo was a rock star, a "guerrilla singer … possessed by the potency of his guitar-phallus-machine gun;" his career, pursued since the coup in America and Europe, has been lately bothered by a "softening of his politics" and a chronic tinnitus in his left ear, a subjective sensation of noise that he identifies as "the voice of the old woman"—a certain wheezing sound made by the sea on the coast of Chiloé, his native island—calling him home.

Among these many—too many—threads, the most interesting psychological one traces Judit Torre's peculiar form of political and erotic deadness, induced by a traumatic episode when she was being held for questioning with some other members of her shadowy little group of anti-regime women. Tied and hooded and naked, she hears in her cell the other women being tortured and raped; but her torturer merely tells her in his nasal voice, while he puts his warm moist hand on her knee, to shout as if she were being raped. She remembers:

I waited for his hand to touch me again, my skin waited to be caressed by that viscous, tepid hand that never went further although the nasal voice whispered, Shout more, as if you were enjoying yourself, as if you wanted more, as if I were hurting you but you wanted more, and I shout my lungs out howling like a bitch because I'm reaching a shameful pleasure I'd never felt before, not even with Ramón [her lover, a slain resistance leader]. Shout, shout, he repeated, and I call for help because his whisper threatens me if I don't shout, and I shout with terror at myself, because in this totally unerotic situation I shout my shame at my pleasure while in the other cells my friends are howling like me, but because of tortures different from the torture of being exempted from torture…. I didn't shout because of the tragedy of the other women, I didn't take part in the feast of that majestic collective form, from which the soft hand excluded me in order to satisfy God knows what fantasies, this impotent monster who demanded I shout with greater and greater conviction without knowing that my shouts of terror and pleasure were real.

This moment of feigned torture evidently constitutes Judit's supreme orgasm and forms the novel's most intimate and meaningful vision of the relation between the regime and its enemies. It also warrants revenge. Judit is given a pistol by her women's group and goes forth in the night to find and slay the impotent torturer whose "complex humanity" robbed her of solidarity and unqualified revolutionary purpose: "Sensitive, the bastard with the nasal voice. His sensitivity tore away my right to hatred and revenge." This loss is cause, in the murky atmosphere of contemporary Chile, for murder.

Curfew packs a baggage of Dostoyevskian ambition which its action and conversations do not quite carry. Judit seems not so much tormented as whimsical, in the way of wellborn beauties. The novel in Spanish was titled La Desesperanza (Despair), but the English title refers to a section of the narrative which shows Judit and Mañungo wandering the "green ghetto" of an upper-class Santiago neighborhood during the five hours of curfew, from midnight to five. The curfew, to judge from the number of people they encounter and noisy incidents that take place, isn't very effectively enforced. With her feminist pistol Judit shoots not her impotent torturer/savior but a skylight and a little white bitch in heat who has attracted a disgusting crowd of nocturnal dogs. This eerie section, called "Night," in which the hiding, sometimes sleeping couple haunt the empty streets and merge with the vegetation, is the one effortlessly magical passage of the novel. The hard-breathing prose evokes a dreamlike atmosphere: "On the sidewalk, in their pale clothes, their arms around each other, hidden by plants that were so strong they looked carnivorous, Judit and Mañungo resembled inhabitants of a strange universe which barely needed the flow of love and sleep." Latin-American writers have a way of seeing their major cities as desolate and powerful, as wastelands of a natural grandeur—one thinks especially of Borges' Buenos Aires but also of Vargas Llosa's Lima, Cabrera Infante's pre-Castro Havana, and the Buenos Aires meticulously traversed in Humberto Costantini's "The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis." Donoso here does something like that for Santiago.

Elsewhere, however, his will to significance generates too much sticky, tangled prose. "The only sure way to eliminate his demons was to eliminate himself, to drown in the slow green waters of the Cipresales River that mirrored the vertigo of the air tangled with the vines of madness; waters in which the tops of the oaks and elms sank, and out of whose lazy current emerged trunks of tortured pewter, bearded with moss and covered with a cancer of lichens and fungus." Just across the gutter of the book, a shorter sentence also numbs the mind: "Five years ago, Bellavista seemed immersed in the anachronistic anorexia of oblivion." The translator, perhaps, should share the blame for such heavy-handed conjurations as "Sartre, with whose words he had fertilized the Chiloó dirt from which he'd sprung" and "She gave him only the scrap of her body, which she did not succeed in relating to herself, leaving Mañungo outside the tangle of her feminine failure." Donoso's touch has lost lightness and impudent ease since The Obscene Bird of Night, written during the democratic rule of Eduardo Frei and published in 1970, the year Allende took power. In Curfew, the dominant metaphor—a mythical "'ship of art,' the Caleuche, which was manned by a crew of wizards"—fails to float. The symbols in the background of the book—Carlitos, the toothless lion in the Santiago zoo; Schumann and his attempted suicide in the Rhine; the floods and fogs and witchcraft of Chiloó—have more life than the foreground. The links between history and the novel's character disorders seem forced: "Nadja [Mañungo's former lover]'s coldness was gratuitous, an aesthetic, an experiment with her own limits and the limits of others, while in Judit it was a vertiginous destiny that someone else, or perhaps history, had established." Woolflike Judit and Mañungo with his "rabbitlike smile" are rather pale and wispy posters to be blazoned with such portentous words as "the incarnation of the despair the current state of affairs was pushing them to" and "lives with no meaning more complex than the simplifications wrought by obsession." Most unfortunately, the novel's climax of political violence befalls a character, Lopito, so repulsive, verbose, adhesive, and tiresomely self-destructive that the reader is sneakily grateful when the police do him in. The surge of indignation and sympathy that the text indicates should greet his demise does not come. Lopito makes a poor martyr.

Jacobo Timerman wrote in these pages seven months ago, in whole-hearted praise of Curfew, that in it Donoso "reveals that even those who fight against the dictatorship may be cowards and antiheroes. Most important of all, he shows that not everything in Chile is clear—there is also confusion and despair…. No individual act of political protest is more telling than the sad lives that Chileans are forced to lead." Perhaps in Spanish the novel is more persuasive, less wordy and diffuse and slack, than in English; but in any translation the unhappy revolutionaries must quarrel and drink and seethe and drone in a political vacuum. Donoso, who returned to Chile in 1981 after an absence of eighteen years, generously credits the personnel of the regime with "human complexity," and perceives that the anti-regime forces can sink into "a hatred of all for all." In his exposition, however, the regime has little face and less philosophy, and those who oppose it have no dream or memory of good government. How things came to this claustrophobic pass is not explained, nor is a way out indicated. What human virtue we see resides in the oldest characters, the two venerable writers, Fausta and Don Celedonio, survivors from a more gracious time; in the last chapter, they are taking care of the novel's children, since nobody else will.

Selden Rodman (essay date 23 January 1989)

SOURCE: "Tale of a Politicized Bard," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXII, No. 2, January 23, 1989, pp. 21-2.

[In the following review, Rodman discusses the plot of Curfew. Faulting it for not adequately fleshing out the two main characters, Rodman feels the novel does succeed in the end because of the change produced in the protagonists.]

Pablo Neruda, the great poet, divided his time while in his native Chile between two houses he owned. In the one at Isla Negra, south of Valparaiso on the Pacific Ocean, he kept his collection of monumental mermaids, angels and ships' figureheads, wrote most of his poems, and entertained those of his friends who could appreciate his art. In the one in Santiago, high on the outcropping called San Cristóbal, near the zoo, he and his lovely wife Matilde held more formal functions and (presumably) conferred with officials of the Communist Party, to which Neruda belonged for 40 years.

I met the poet and his wife in the San Cristóbal house in 1967, and I spent several delightful weeks with them during the two following years at Isla Negra. Our friendship foundered following a violent argument about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the party-line politics of his friend Salvador Allende, who had begun to campaign for the presidency. Coincidentally, Neruda died of cancer in San Cristóbal on the very day in 1973 that Allende was overthrown by the Chilean military—who are still in power under General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.

José Donoso's novel opens in January 1985 with a conclave in the San Cristóbal house where Matilde, who has just died, lies in state; and it concludes the next day with every faction from Right to Left at the funeral trying to capitalize politically on the event. The time and place are well chosen. Chilean democratic liberalism has always been a house divided. Allende, whatever his good intentions, was overthrown because the 400-600 per cent inflation that threatened to wipe out the most prosperous middle class in Latin America was followed by a last desperate attempt to give free rein to the extreme Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MRI), engaged in seizing unconstitutionally the rich individual farms of the south. Up to that point the military had stood by.

Neruda's double identity symbolized, and still symbolizes, liberalism's split. Was he the great bard of national unity and all-encompassing love? Assuredly he was. But he was also the party loyalist who, as Chilean Consul in Mexico in 1938, gave the Communist painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, the leader of the armed attack on Leon Trotsky, a passport and a commission to paint murals in Chile until he could safely return to Mexico. And what about those fulsome odes to Stalin? And what about the millionaire poet's role in his friend Allende's rise to power and ultimate attempt to subvert democracy in Chile?

All of these contradictions are alluded to, although not too explicitly, in the politicking that surrounds Matilde's obsequies. Donoso, who had lived abroad and achieved fame both as a novelist and as an anti-Pinochet activist, finally came home and was permitted to publish Curfew in Santiago. It was a courageous act. He does not pull his punches. About one character, eligible for a national prize, he writes: "The regime, of course, had refused to hear of it, since she was a Communist—something she never was—or because she was a dissident, which for the government was the same thing as being a Communist."

The principal characters are Judit, who has rebelled against her aristocratic family almost from birth, and has witnessed the torture of her fellow militants in jail; and Mañungo Vera, born on the primitive island of Chiloé but an internationally famous pop singer just returned to Chile to expiate his guilt for making a fortune out of his "revolutionary" songs. Mañungo seems an obvious stand-in for the author, though he may also be modeled after Victor Jara, a pro-Allende songwriter killed within days of Pinochet's coup.

Mañungo's son, Juan Pablo (named after Sartre, not Neruda), has never recovered from the Paris experience. His mother "made him choose so many times that the poor kid viewed any situation that presented more than one option with horror-stricken eyes." Here in Chile, how could Mañungo "demand that the boy be decisive, when even he isn't sure where his acoustic nightmares could take him?" Where did Mañungo belong? In Paris' rue Monsieur le Prince? Among the fishermen and weavers of Chiloé? Or here with the would-be revolutionaries?

Judit's neurotic behavior perfectly complements Ma ungo's. He first embraces her after watching her fearlessly fondle and even provoke a sex-maddened Doberman watchdog: "Mañungo felt that Judit took danger as the raw material for play." They toy with the idea of escaping to Chiloé or to Paris, rather than yielding to the romanticism of the famous song Ma ungo had been goaded into singing in Neruda's house:

I shall walk the streets againOf a Santiago bathed in bloodAnd in a beautiful plaza now freeI shall stop to weep for the dead.

What finally eases the two into an opposite decision, to face the (ambiguous) music, is a ludicrous yet tragic encounter at a local police station. The hopeless alcoholic, Lopito, is being beaten with sticks in the courtyard because he refuses to stop insulting the police, who had arrested him to begin with for provoking them in the streets. Even when Judit first encountered Lopito years before, as an informer for the MRI who gave her access to the revolutionary Left, he was a repulsive creature. He begged her to let him see her naked so that he could masturbate dreaming of her. Judit yielded to him then, out of pity, and four months later the MRI had expelled Lopito for stealing money from a student union. Still, now Judit pities the drunken Lopito again when she sees him being carried inside to die after suffering a heart attack in the courtyard.

Judit and Mañungo accuse the police of one more brutal murder. They are allowed to go only because the police feel threatened by the enormous publicity that would result from holding the famous pop singer under arrest. ("Did everything have to be used, then? Wasn't even a drop of pain allowed to go to waste?") In a closing scene Mañungo lifts Lopito's daughter to his shoulders, his face transformed by his decision to stay in Chile. Mañungo and Judit will go underground to pursue the revolution together.

All of this would be a little more credible if the author had taken the time to tell us more about the early lives of Judit and Mañungo. Why was Judit's family so repulsive? What caused her to rebel and become a loner? Did Mañungo fail to take Judit to Chiloé in the beginning because he had to do more than seek redemption in the primitive existence there that apparently meant so much to him? Did both of them have the need to expiate their guilt violently? Was Matilde Neruda's deathbed request for a priest ignored because politics in Chile rules everything?

José Donoso's novel, despite these loose ends that are never pursued, succeeds because his two principal characters do change. To see them gain a sense of purpose in the final chapters is a moving experience. Neither of them is likable, but they do become believable. Chile's future, if it has a future as a pluralistic society, is in their hands. And the author's.

George Roth (review date 10 September 1989)

SOURCE: "The Burden of Chile's Night," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 10, 1989, p. 15.

[In the following review of Curfew, Roth reminisces about his years as a student and friend to Donoso. The critic also focuses much of the review on the political climate in Chile, General Pinochet, and the poet Pablo Neruda.]

I had not seen José Donoso for 30 years. Then, late last year, I visited him at U.C. Davis as he finished leading a three-month graduate seminar on himself and his work and prepared to return to Santiago. I remembered my high school teacher, a man in his early 30s, wearing alien Ivy League suits from Princeton, rocking from foot to foot as he yelped at the class to shut up and pay attention. I found one of El Boom's grand old men (aren't they all GOM's by now?), complete with white beard and hair curling over his collar.

The 30 years have yielded Donoso a harvest including Spain's gloriously bejeweled Order of Alfonso X the Wise, four New Yorker magazine pages of John Updike's faint praise, more than 500 theses, and a catalogue listing 800 separate writings about him and his opus, and status as a "banner" to Pinochet's opposition.

Because the Pinochet government doesn't allow me to visit Chile, my awareness of Donoso's fame there was incomplete. He was frozen in my mind as the dear teacher who persisted in opening a window out of Santiago's provincial smother; who kept alive hope that there really was a world "out there" where people discoursed coolly, meaningfully-and with precision, about literature, philosophy, justice and taste.

To my classmates and myself, Donoso was unquestionably a writer. We granted him that status long before concrete evidence emerged as a slim paperbound volume of cuentos (stories) which, like his first novel, Coronaclón, a few years later, the faithful peddled to friends, relatives, and anyone who came up with the equivalent of a couple weeks allowance. I seem to remember selling 18 copies. Maybe 50.

Donoso said he had rehearsed the writer's role since he was 12: lectures, literary prize acceptances, awards, lionizing … the whole thing. As a teacher, he would warn his students not to confuse life and literature. For at least one of them this truth remained hidden until the rebirth that middle age is for the lucky. I wonder still how "Pepe" Donoso, then a mere boy of 30-odd, acquired that wisdom.

El peso de la noche, "the burden of night" was another of Pepe's gifts. He attributed the phrase to Diego Portales, a dictator assassinated after he cudgeled Chile out of anarchy in the 1830s. Portales, a merchant, wrote in his letters, Donoso told us, that he created order solely to pursue his passions for women and money more smoothly. Exasperation must have driven him to coin el peso de la noche: exasperation at his naturally gifted countrymen, suffocating in their miasmas.

There are countries and regions that are overlush or too harsh. (La banana es el peor enemigo de la civilización: "Bananas are civilization's worst enemy," my junior high school teacher, Maria Marchant, a militant Communist, used to say, explaining why Central America is more at U.S. mercy than the rest of Spanish America). Much of Chile is just challenging enough. The young Donoso once complained that the land is inhospitable, at least compared to the friendly green pastures of New Jersey. Nowhere in Chile can one live off the (uncultivated) land, except perhaps spiritually. Much of it is heartbreakingly beautiful, a land that won't harm you but won't feed you. The web of Chilean society, on the other hand, pervades everything and lies over everything, and never stops demanding.

Donoso's latest novel, La Desesperanza, (Curfew) is really about el peso de la noche, the burden of night under the Pinochet regime. Characters act out fear, greed, the search for love, with the dictatorship casting a straining, nightmare glow, as in an Edward Hopper painting. The scenes are uniquely and thoroughly Chilean, developing naturally from a curiously immobile social order that only lets you go in one direction: away. And even that takes some effort.

Donoso (an oligarch born and bred) left and stayed away—mostly in Spain—for 20 years. He went home because Chile is a highly rewarding habitat for literary lions, particularly of the home-grown variety. One of the more literate peoples in the world, Chileans uncritically revere internationally known (home-grown alone don't qualify) writers and poets, no matter where they are from. Arnold Toynbee, the historian, remarked to Donoso at Princeton that Chile had to be a fascinating country: It was the only one where Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain" was a best seller.

Where successful intellectuals are concerned, Chileans trade their whiplash wit for craven awe. Donoso said he went home from Spain because he wanted recognition, to "be what one is." In Santiago, he is recognized on the street as the reigning king of the literary jungle who is a member of the oligarchy. He is also, as his wife proudly declared, a "banner," a rallying point, for Pinochet's opponents. And he is also the survivor of the trio (with Nobel Prize-winning poets Pablo Neruda, 1971, and Gabriela Mistral, 1945) of Chile's unofficial equivalents of Japan's National Treasures.

Although Chileans love jokes—the more irreverent and dirtier the better—and tell them constantly, not once in 20 years did I hear a joke about Mistral or Neruda (or Donoso, for that matter). Neruda's absence from the pillory is specially surprising because he was, from all accounts, a pompous, self-indulgent ass who allowed himself, while flaunting his lifelong Communist Party membership, to be kept in a luxurious Paris mansion as ambassador to France.

Poverty is the norm in Chile and always has been, no matter what the government; working people live on hunger's edge. Still, the wolfish humor of the poor and the constantly dispossessed middle class tenderly avoids literary idols. The savage wit is the bastard twin of an almost religious reverence of education which, in turn, is bonded to Chile's national self-esteem. This secular religion of education produced what used to be and maybe still is one of the best elementary-through-university education systems in the world.

Like other peoples, Chileans use literacy (statistically at the level of the more developed European countries and much higher than the United States) and an avid interest in the outside world to help cope with a reality often too painful or dreary to take straight. That reality stems primarily from being semi-willing prisoners of a minority that has ruled for 200 years by, first, owning the land and monopolizing politics, then by extruding itself into a class system that taints every relation and weights lives with the leaden pervasiveness of nightmare: This is the burden of night … el peso de la noche.

Pinochet has named an office building for Portales: Both forcibly brought an arguable order from inarguable chaos. But Portales merely wanted the country to go about business; Pinochet attempts to restore intact the feudal social order. And, somewhere deep in the Chilean psyche there's a thin but unfailing source of nourishment for such an enterprise.

Perhaps that same source animates whatever it is that prevents a mass uprising against military rule. In one Machiavellian scenario, the dictatorship's strategists plumb their imaginations for ways to let imagination make cowards of their countrymen: They let la copucha (Chilean bush radio) spread the stories of live rats pushed bodily up vaginas, besides better-known and more subtle tortures. Under the burden of night, terror doubles its effectiveness and keeps resistance to the level of gesture, and in the cities. The strength of Curfew is in illustrating how terror and the temptation of survival undermine the will to resist. Judit, Curfew's anti-heroine, is unable to shoot the man who had her friends raped by dogs in the dungeons of the secret police. She feels she is an accomplice: The man made her scream as if raped while he sat sweating at her side.

Another Curfew character is Lopito, a former hanger-on at the university. Ugly and poor but tolerated—even to the point of having once slept with Judit, who recollects only his stench and her pity—Lopito is almost literally taunted to death by police who make him pull a turf-roller until his heart bursts. He doesn't even get the dignity and drama of a death by legitimate torture. Lopito (like everyone else in the novel except some background figures) fights Pinochet only with thoughts and words. And as a roto, a low-class person, Lopito gets no comfort from the secular religion that the class system is. Only in death does he set down the burden of night.

Malcolm Coad (review date 19 October 1990)

SOURCE: "Chile's Hour of Despair," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 3, No. 123, October 19, 1990, p. 34.

[In the following review, Coad asserts the political setting of Curfew is a departure from the imaginary worlds typically used in Donoso's novels. Coad praises certain elements of the novel, such as the descriptions of landscapes, and faults other parts such as the psychological portraits of the main characters.]

In one sense, this is an unexpected novel from José Donoso. Normally, Donoso—justly billed on the dust-jacket as "Chile's greatest living writer"—steers well clear of allusion to actual events, preferring entirely imaginary settings for his enigmatic fables of the psychosocial pathology of the Chilean bourgeoisie. While a firm opponent of General Pinochet's recently ended dictatorship, he has always stoutly declared himself a "non-political" writer.

This time, however, not only does Donoso opt for something like realism, but he sets the novel directly amid one of the most immediate and poignant events lived by Chile's artistic community in the latter years of Pinochet's rule: the death and funeral in January 1985 of Matilde Urrutia, widow of the great Nobel prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda.

Urrutia's death came at a particularly low moment for the Chilean opposition, just as the first serious anti-government protest movement since the 1973 coup was fading without direction. Neruda himself, the over-arching symbol of the country's democratic culture, had died shortly after the coup, seen off by a funeral which was the first open demonstration against the military. The death of his widow was therefore both a new symbol of a truncated past and the opportunity for a similar demonstration.

The novel spans 24 hours before and after the funeral. It spares few feelings. Leaders of Neruda's own political party, the communists, plot to wrest control of the funeral from Matilde's friends and ensure that her last wish to have a priest, albeit left-wing, say a mass is suppressed. Neruda's friends and literary colleagues bribe a pro-government collector with part of the poet's private papers (some supposed letters from Trotsky) to unblock permission to set up a Pablo Neruda Foundation.

But such glimpses of petty intrigue are not Donoso's main concern. This centres on the more existential conflicts of three central characters, all of whom represent the ambiguous nature of responsibility in dramatic events like those lived in Chile before and after the collapse of Salvador Allende's socialist experiment.

Mañungo Vera is an internationally famous singer returning to Chile to rediscover his roots after a sham career pandering to Europe's taste for Latin American revolutionary culture. At Neruda and Matilde's house, he meets a former girlfriend, Judit Torre—an upper-class revolutionary considered a heroine by many, but who never suffered the torture she is believed to have gone through while under arrest.

The third character is Lopito, a decaying poet whose revolutionary commitment has given way to a state between despair and nihilism.

Much of this threesome's journey from self-disgust—"the despair" which is the literal translation of the novel's Spanish title, La Desesperanza—to the beginning of a kind of authenticity, at least in the cases of Mañungo and Judit, is telling and true. Many Chileans in the darkest days did feel that their country "seemed on the point of foundering, sinking and disappearing with all of them aboard". The failure of intensely lived utopias, the sterility of exile and its encouragement of false but comforting images of home—such experiences have fractured the lives of countless Chilean leftists since 1973. Donoso has a clear eye for the myths that Chileans use to sustain the triumphalism about themselves which all too readily would re-emerge under Pinochet whenever he showed signs of weakness.

At the same time, Donoso's own fascination with the landscape and legends of his country is finely used in the novel, especially as the memory of the foggy mystery of the myth-bound southern archipelago of Chiloé, Mañungo's home, reflects his psychological state.

In the end, however, the novel falls too far towards an opposite, but equally Chilean, characteristic: a kind of paralysing psychologistic self-doubt. The constant analyses of characters almost before they have time to think are external and wearing. All action tends to be reduced to pathology—to the distinctly tacky extent of making Judit's motive for revenge against her torturer that she enjoyed his sexual abuse of her and wanted more to make her equal with her fellow prisoners.

Increasingly, the well-heeled Santiago suburbs where the novel is set begin to feel like one of Donoso's imaginary locations. There are, for example, groups in Chile who use bombs; but they cannot be reduced to these shadowy networks of lumpen and physically disabled nihilists from the surrounding slums. At this point, the bourgeois fear and loathing which Donoso understands so well appears to have seeped debilitatingly into his own perceptions.

Patrick Parrinder (review date 6 December 1990)

SOURCE: "Superhistory," in London Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 23, December 6, 1990, pp. 24-6.

[In the following review, Parrinder lauds Donoso's Curfew, saying the art is "richly crafted" and that the novel "remains an enchanted space," despite faulting the book for its reliance on history, and for problems in the translation.]

All novels are historical novels, as my late teacher Graham Hough used to say; but some are more historical than others. Novelists can improve on history, and if they are Science Fiction writers they can anticipate it. History can be invented, but most novelists only do so within strict limits. According to Hough, they would tend to invent a Prime Minister but not a major political party, a provincial town but not a capital city. A writer like Joyce can put together an immensely painstaking reconstruction of the past without linking it in any way to a historical narrative, while other novelists treat strictly contemporary events as history-in-the-making, much as journalists do. Rather like Joyce in Ulysses, José Donoso in Curfew tracks his protagonist's adventures during a 24-hour period in the life of a modern city, but there the resemblances stop.

Recognised as the leading Chilean novelist, Donoso seems to have drawn heavily on his own experience of returning from political exile in the writing of Curfew. The novel describes events in Santiago in 1985, the year in which it was composed (it was first published in Spanish in 1986). Mañungo Vera, a famous revolutionary singer, has been absent from Chile for 13 years, having left the country in 1972 to appear at a peace concert in San Francisco with Joan Baez. Mañungo must be seen as a more fortunate version of Victor Jara, the singer murdered in the aftermath of the military coup which overthrew the Allende regime. Donoso's protagonist is a former teenage idol who has given up his repertoire of guerrilla and protest songs, and has lost his youthful certainties. He has settled in Paris, he has a wife and a son, and his politics have gone soft.

Mañungo's return to Santiago coincides with the death and funeral of Matilde Neruda, widow of the great poet who was Chile's only other modern cultural superstar. For an outsider it is impossible to say how far Curfew's vivid portrayal of Pablo Neruda's surviving friends and the members of his entourage constitutes a roman à clef. Many of Donoso's characters expect to draw either personal gain or political advantage as a result of their association with the dead poet. Don Celedonio and the poetess Fausta dream of setting up a Neruda Foundation to serve as a beacon for subsequent generations, while the various political factions are more concerned with orchestrating the massive funeral procession, which may or may not help to undermine the military dictatorship. Most of these characters have a strong sense of the potential historical significance of their actions, but Donoso gently deflates their pretensions. Whatever their real-life originals, most of these squabbling, down-at-heel literati would be comfortably at home in the pages of Olivia Manning.

To the extent that it offers a kind of instant history, Curfew must already be a period piece. The nightly curfew, with its silence broken by the wailing of sirens and the droning of police helicopters, was lifted before the end of the Pinochet years. Donoso's tense and intricate plot turns on routine incidents of torture and police brutality which one must hope are now a thing of the past. If Chile is indeed entering a new period of stable democracy, Donoso's registration of the cowed and vengeful atmosphere of Santiago in the mid-Eighties may itself become a historical resource, once individual memories have faded.

Vengeance is represented here by Judit Torre, a mysterious beauty known as the 'Chilean Virginia Woolf', who is the leader of a group of female terrorists bent on killing a member of the security police. Mañungo falls under Judit's spell and finds himself, within hours of his return, joining the scavengers and thugs lurking in the streets of a wealthy residential district of the city after midnight, at the risk of being shot on sight if he is spotted by the police. Judit, who has been tipped off to watch out for a blue Mercedes, decides that Mañungo will make a useful decoy. The Mercedes turns out to contain a pleasure-seeking couple of off-duty officers, one of whom may have sexually humiliated Judit and tortured her fellow detainees several years before. Mañungo is recognised, and is invited indoors for a drink in exchange for a private command performance; and Judit, still unsure that she has correctly identified her victim, tremblingly reaches for her gun.

Though Judit's mixture of violence, sexual readiness and high-cultural frigidity owes rather a lot to male fantasy, the night of the curfew combines elements of the political thriller with a degree of witchcraft and a farcical unmasking of daytime identities. It is a rite of passage through which Mañungo has to pass if his return from exile is to lead to a possibility of personal and artistic renewal. Sometime after dawn he finds a temporary resting-place in Judit's apartment, but on the morning of the great funeral they are both caught up in the machinations and petty intrigues of Neruda's circle. During his lifetime the poet trod a dangerous path between art and Communism, between connoisseurship and ideology, and one of his legacies is a rich collection of books, paintings and manuscripts which both Right and Left would like to get their hands on. Are the letters that Trotsky sent him in the late Thirties as valuable as is rumoured, and could these and other documents play their part in a final discrediting of the Communist cause, and of Neruda with it? Was he, indeed, implicated in Trotsky's murder? Mañungo tries to preserve his independence from party-political commitment while these and other questions are being debated, but finally, thanks to Judit and to the raffish poet Lopito with whom he renews his acquaintance, he finds himself inescapably, passionately involved. A 'wicked wizard' has transformed him into someone who can no longer stand aloof from the Chilean experience.

Mañungo grew up on the fogbound island of Chiloe, a last outpost on the way to the glaciers in the remote south of the country. The islanders are fervent believers in witchcraft, and Mañungo, by becoming a famous musician, has pursued their legend of the Caleuche or 'ship of art', with its crew of wizards bound for a distant paradise beyond the ice-bound horizon. Only one chapter of Curfew is set among the witches of Chiloe, and Donoso manages to employ the notion of metamorphosis or magical transformation while sedulously avoiding the style of unrestrained 'magic realism' that we have come to expect of Latin American novels. 'It was so easy to imitate Garcia Marquez, and everyone was doing it,' the narrator remarks of the mourners gathered at the Nerudas' house: but the scene from which this comment is taken is less reminiscent of Marquez than of Balzac and Galsworthy. Just as Chile is still perhaps the least American of Latin American countries, so Donoso's art is richly crafted and somewhat old-fashioned, like a racy European grande dame from a previous era.

The notions of the 'ship of art' and of the curfew as a theatre or zone of transformations may not impede Donoso's fictional realism, but they do mark the difference between the novel and journalism or documentary writing. Equally important, in a fiction which often stresses the Lilliputian scale of Chilean culture, is Donoso's use of the figure of the historical microcosm. In a moving final scene, he takes us with Judit's, Lopito's and Mañungo's children to visit the 'toy country' of Chile in Miniature, a tourist attraction in a Santiago park which transforms Pinochet's country into a natural paradise of mountains, beaches, forests and deserts. The architects of Chile in Miniature, Donoso explains, had to leave out the poor and monotonous and uninteresting areas of the country, since there was not enough room: 'not everything can fit into a miniature, and unpleasant things should be left out.' Donoso, who is adequately though far from faultlessly served by his translator, has put back fear and corruption and many unpleasant things, but his novel remains an enchanted space.

Michael Wood (essay date 4 January 1991)

SOURCE: "Purity at a Price," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4579, January 4, 1991, p. 16.

[In the following review, Wood faults Curfew for being "a discursive and rather windy novel," but credits it for providing an in-depth look at the political history of Chile.]

There is a moment which occurs again and again in José Donoso's novels, an instant of malign or obscure carnival, a scene of ruin or disguise. We can think of magical realism in this context, but only if we darken the notion, let go of its implications of whimsy and liberation. The real turns to phantasmagoria without ceasing to be real. We step suddenly into waking, historical nightmare, unfamiliar to us only because it is so close and so insistently denied.

In Curfew, for example, we are in a street in Santiago de Chile, high fences protecting large houses and gardens. A boy opens a gate as we follow him through:

There was no house: an empty lot with the remains of a pool from which the tiles had been ripped, the ruins of a grape arbor, a terrace and a balustrade, the outline of a foundation and holes from the old basements, invaded now by the shoots of sycamore trees, young agaves, and scrub oak….

The trees in the garden seem to move, but there is no magic here, only small-time criminals and conspirators hiding during curfew. The house has been demolished but not replaced, witness to an interrupted speculation. The empty pool is a relic of luxury but also hints at a social order which has been not so much overturned as abandoned. The trees themselves have changed their allegiance, joined the outlaws.

Curfew is a discursive and rather windy novel, not nearly as powerful or haunting as Donoso's wonderful Obscene Bird of Night and House in the Country. It does, however, embody his major themes—class, authority, rebellion, monstrosity—and it does take us into intimate reaches of recent Chilean history, the alluring shallows rather than the depths of terror and repression. The chief narrative occasion of the book is the wake and funeral of Matilde Neruda, the great poet's widow, in 1985. Warring factions want to take over this event as propaganda, and we follow their murky conversations and evasions, elaborated by Donoso with lugubrious affection. The minor poet, friend of the great; the literary grande dame; the Communist operator; the noisy literary layabout; the timid lady companion; the repulsive banker; boastful policemen; various children—all are observed making their way through the evening and the night before, and the day of the ceremonies. The central figures are Judit Torre, a woman repeatedly said to look like Virginia Woolf, but a Woolf turned into an angular 1960s saint in jeans and black shirt, and Mañungo Vera, a famous protest singer who on this very day has returned to Chile from thirteen years of exile. Judit is seeking to bury her upper-class guilt in revolutionary politics, Mañungo is trying to rediscover his music and himself. The two spend the night cheating the curfew, talking, remembering. They fall in love by agreeing not to fall in love; attend Matilde's funeral; wait helplessly while the police harry a drunken friend to death from a heart attack; and decide not to leave together for Paris.

The Spanish title of the novel, La Desesperanza (Despair), reflects the unbearable moral and political alternatives of the time of its first publication, 1986. Exiles from Pinochet's Chile were out of touch with their country and preserved their purity at that price; those who stayed at home were softened or embittered by the years of impotence. "Despair has no music", Mañungo thinks; and later he comes to feel that private life has died in Chile. Everything is politics, Judit argues, "we repress all other themes, blocking out the horizon with our political obsessions". Another character claims that his countrymen need to learn to live without hope, that a deep desesperanza is the only way to start again, to avoid the futility and violence of actions based on a tiny optimism. This is a darker thought than the present, improved situation calls for, but a good indication of the way thought went in the dark times.

"My road had to be rougher, and I had to wander on it forever"; "he knew this rebellious, taciturn traitor hated him, but he also knew she possessed a power over him, a power incarnated in her excessive beauty": even in elegant Spanish, these sentences sound soupy and verbose—a sign, I think, that Donoso has not imagined his characters quite thoroughly enough. They talk like sketches for a novel, refractions of an essay. But the sketches and the essay are those of a major writer.

Fernando Alegria (essay date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: "Goodbye to Metaphor: Curfew," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 77-9.

[In the following essay, Alegria asserts that Curfew serves as Donoso's clear statement about Pinochet's military dictatorship in Chile. Discussing the controversial images and stark description in the novel, Alegria praises the novel's ambitiousness and its explanation of Chilean history.]

For years José Donoso has beaten the path of metaphor to express his way of feeling and understanding Chile, a path both difficult and dangerous. In a bold effort he produced a beautiful and well-structured synthesis of nostalgia, emotions, and sorrows. It was called A House in the Country. It deeply impressed readers in Spain and Latin America, but Chileans did not seem moved. They were dazzled and amused by the novel; yet they couldn't get over a feeling of playfulness, of clues to be deciphered, and failed to grasp the profound tension that surely seized the author when he opened and closed the doors to his risky maze.

Today Donoso lays cards on the table that the reader will have to stack up again but that in the process will open wounds and leave scars, for Curfew is a detailed account of a love affair with Chile that Donoso held in reserve up to now. But the matter is no longer the loose threads that lead to the ruin of aristocratic families confronted by the onrush of lower-class daring. The uneasiness is of a different kind. The sadness that reverberates like an echo in Donoso's stories here begins to be recognized not in the issue of origins and traditions but in wrongs committed, lack of will, and recent failures in today's Chile.

For those who wonder if Donoso finally makes a pronouncement in this novel on the bleak record of Pinochet's military dictatorship, the answer is loud and clear: not only does he take a stand but states it in the harshest terms. Such a change, which might surprise some of his readers, was to be expected. The general's image—coarse, stubborn, cranky—is crumbling today, at century's end, eaten away from within. The country of Curfew is the survivor of a bloody and brutal nightmare in which everything is possible—torture, disappearance, treason, murder—under the drab cloak of a clever and monstrous lie. Perhaps the important thing is not so much to remember the facts (the media repeats them constantly) but to examine objectively what those crimes have done to the character of the Chilean people as they deal with the crisis. It is in this connection that Donoso abandons his typical metaphoric strategy and confronts the collapse of Chilean society in images and portraits bound to cause a stir—and resentment?—among his compatriots. Let me make clear that I'm not referring to literary clues of the kind proffered by the book's jacket to serve as bait for the reader's curiosity. Donoso is too experienced and skillful to fall into that trap. His portraits are like Picasso's: multiple planes and angles, a nose where one expects an eye, a grill in place of a head of hair, a profile that is not a profile but the smudge of a face, and a resemblance dissolved along collective lines.

Who are the characters, the singer Mañungo Vera, the collector Freddy Fox, the minor poet Don Celedonio, the tragic Judit, the legendary Fausta? Those familiar with Santiago's social and literary menagerie will have a field day identifying them—a somewhat useless pastime. To my mind, it is not the who that matters but the what they represent. Mañungo, for instance, is the artist who lost the motivation and inspiration for rebellion in his years of exile. So much time passed! So many guitars wielded like machine-guns! People got tired, but the charismatic performer grew even wearier, and now he suddenly returns to Chile without knowing the why or the wherefore. He will find the reason—will he ever! He will inadvertently become part of the drama, he will plunge into it, thinking to save himself thanks to his art and his boldness—he, the superstar of guerrilla rock—without realizing that he has fallen headlong into a fight to the death against the dictatorship. And Mañungo dives into it with Judit and Fausta, the ugly duckling Lopita and Don César, and the cherub Jean Pablo. In Chile no one seems to be able to help coming face to face with abuse, derision, the thrust of the knife, or escape hearing the death knell of curfew.

The narrator seems not to take sides. But in his own way he does. He skillfully keeps his distance in "Evening"—one of the three parts of the novel—and a little less in "Night." In "Morning," after a scene of torture, imprisonment, and death, the narrator goes along with Judit and joins the resistance. He covers a lot of ground. And he rubricates his commitment with a master stroke: the metaphoric tableau entitled "Chile in Miniature."

History is smoothly framed by the description of Matilde Neruda's funeral [January 1985—Ed.]. Neruda and Matilde always received José Donoso with a cordial embrace and offered him an unwavering friendship. Donoso witnessed the outrages committed against Matilde and watched her struggle till the end. Matilde and Pablo unwittingly gave the Chilean people the occasion to protest with all their strength and soul and without risking a major confrontation: their funeral in Santiago's General Cemetery. As is well known, Neruda and Matilde are buried in a wall just a short distance from Victor Jara [the popular folksinger tortured and killed by military henchmen in the National Stadium in the hours following the coup—Ed.], in the grounds that elsewhere I've called "the slum of death." It is the field of the poor, of wooden crosses, red geraniums, and little paper flags.

Donoso gathers his characters in La Chascona, the Nerudas' house at the foot of the San Cristóbal [a hill just blocks from downtown Santiago—Ed.]. There he lays out their lines of communication and alienation; that is the stage for their loving and forgetting, for their disdain and their rebelliousness; there one can measure what's left of the old social classes, and more than one life falls apart as others come together. From there the characters go out wandering through the leafy streets of the Barrio Alto [Santiago's wealthy district—Ed.] surrounded by the fragrance of flowers and watered lawns. They stop off at garbage dumps that once were palaces, share in the tasks of beggars and trash can inspectors, conspire, make love, flee, and disappear. La Chascona is an island: breached, devastated, besieged, defending with invisible weapons the integrity of an already defunct Chile. Its owners don't rest and neither do their living kin. The city is the site of a free-for-all between the living and the dead.

To orchestrate this vast and agitated danse macabre Donoso displays arresting allegories: a hellish interlude in which an aroused pack of street dogs rape an aristocratic but seedy little bitch. Judit saves her by shooting her dead, Judit, who lives in order to avenge her own interrupted violation. A ghost ship, the Caleuche, signals its witchery from the waterways of Chiloé, and a small scale model of Chile, inspired by Walt Disney, shows off next to a Burger King.

The final dialogue between Mañungo and the journalists defines the novel:

"Why did you come back to Chile at this particular time?" the reporters asked.

"To stay here."

"For how long?"


"Didn't you say last night in Neruda's house that your visit would be short because you didn't understand the situation your country was in?"

"Now I understand it." He thought for an instant and then went on. "I've changed my plans. In any case, after twenty hours in my country, I can assure you that I have never been clearer on any subject than I am on this matter of staying."

"In order to define your political action?"

"Could be."

"Armed struggle?"

"No, except in self-defense or to defend someone else."


"I'd like that. But who knows if bombs won't turn out to be the only alternative? It's their fault. Because what can we do when they force us into violence by taking away all our hope? I am not justifying bombs, but I do understand them."

(trans. Alfred MacAdam)

This dialogue defines one novel among others, because there are several novels in Curfew. The main one is explanatory, mournful, and one might say, tough, if it didn't leave such a lump in one's throat.

Marjorie Agosin (essay date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: "The Poems of José Donoso," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XII, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 70-6.

[In the following essay, Agosin discusses Donoso's Poems of a Novelist, praising the author's willingness to write in a genre that is not his usual form.]

Donoso is a narrator of images, of hallucinatory scenographies that take on life beyond the text, beyond writing and the reader. From his early stories to the majestic Obscene Bird of Night Donoso appears as a great seeker of portraits, of bewitching and overwhelming images; but the images of old houses predominate, houses through which memory perambulates like the typically phantasmagoric and unreal characters. This is why readers and critics alike were surprised when Donoso published a book of poems.

A kind of collective tenderness took hold of the Chilean literary milieu regarding this novelist who seemed to have returned to an innocent adolescence in order to write poems, whose title reflects his implacable metier: Poemas de un novelista. Why should we be surprised that this master of Chilean letters should get it in his head to write poems when his whole narrative enterprise is an immense metaphor of foundation, of creation; that is, a great poem rooted in the myth of a decadent culture recreating itself mythically?

The question takes on added importance because Donoso's poems have little to do with that obsessive and fertile narrative that characterizes his work, but instead retrieve experiences and moods. They seem to be visions from which the typical stage of his previous fiction disappears to allow the birth of an already mature poet who radiates freshness and a voice that allows him to escape the "monstrous demands of prose." [All prose quotations are from Donoso's preface to his book of poems—Ed.]

It is wonderful to sit down and read this collection of poems by a novelist who is also a poet because they contain the most purified language, centered on simplicity, on clean and beautiful imagery, delicately constructed in terms of commonplace images. These poems of a novelist have nothing to do with the prose writer but they belong to a common pattern; they are born of the same essence that inaugurates and celebrates them.

José Donoso writes his own preface and does so modestly as if, taken by surprise, he were trying to explain to his readers why he is writing poetry. Thus he produces a novelist's poetics of poetry. He affirms that

the experience of writing poetry is so distinctively different from that of writing a novel. Why, for instance, did the experience of seeing a pig killed become so markedly split into two? Here, in these verses, that experience has the imprint of a realistic chronicle, an absence of imagination—the characters appear with their real names and are bound to be recognized—a being myself without recourse to metaphor. On the other hand, in my novel A House in the Country the killing of the pig also appears, which is the same killing of the pig in the poem, that scene lived in a wintry night in the stone streets of the town of Calaceite, in the province of Teruel, Spain. But in the novel—in prose—the fact is transubstantiated, made into metaphor, full of disguises and masks, stuffed with meanings, a part of the world of fantasy, the episode and backbone of a sequence.

Donoso's preface brings us closer to the exploration of a language devoid of the baroque and scenic vision.

Repeated readings of Poemas de un novelista betray an unequalled beauty of place because, though Donoso tries to avoid scenography and lavish ornament, Poemas is made up of brief territorial stories in which the somber old houses open their doors and start to talk among themselves as if part of the same landscape. Then the autobiographical fuses with a sense of place and the poet's voice travels through a space that might be populated by the dimensions of a novel:

These poems are then the fruit of at least two things: of my impossibility to write autobiography, to project my intimacy as mine, and let my solitude and tenderness course through my novels, which are never immediate and always metaphorical. On the other hand, these verses are the fruit of my respect for poetry as a perhaps more serious and less bastardized genre than the novel, and my fear, also, of being over my head. I have looked for a tone: I think I found it but since I'm not a professional I don't have at my disposal the required diapason to prove it. The diction and the lexicon also do not appear to have missed their mark. But what about the rest, the important thing, that which constitutes the poet's vision and that is embodied in his rhythm and cadence, or in his rejection of them in order to create another rhythm and another cadence, the vision that stands for personality, style, and for the creation of a poetic universe—these essential things, are they present? I'm afraid not. The plotting of sound at different levels that constitutes the essence of poetry is here frequently replaced by chronicles and anecdotes, itineraries and memories—elements that belong to the novel.

The book presents itself as a travel diary with a perfectly discernible itinerary and geography, but the territories envisioned by the poems are rather portraits of the soul and of the flesh that lure the reader with gestures of love and good faith. "Diario de invierno en Calaceite (1971–1972)" [Diary of Winter in Calaceite, the first of the four parts in which the book is divided—Ed.] is the first stop, a geographical and metaphysical description of the desert region of Aragón where Donoso bought an old house in which he "lived four very poor and isolated years":

     The eyes uninhabited.
     The skin a void:
     the ivy climbs the stone wall
     which can't feel it climb.

     It is the season of feeble,
     silent hurricanes.
     The cloud passes by,
     it seals the landscape in its cold shell.

     The light sharpens eaves and corners:
     through sudden trapeziums of shadow
     people pass hastily stooping,
     turned inward like a glove:
     every surface worn out and unpolished.

     What's left?
     Whom to touch?
     What glance that might crack
     suddenly open like the laughter of a watermelon?…

I touch on this poem, initiation of the rites of solitude at the beginning of the journey. It possesses the lucidity of the lonely and the virtues of a poetry concrete, meditated, and simple, devoid of grandiose adjectives. The images are sparing and delicate; the sound resembles more and more the cadences of silence.

In the second poem Donoso speaks of tenderness, of the need to write these poems as if yanking them away from his interior to let himself be. Then the voice of the woman is heard, whose body becomes the outpost of the territory, the house itself. And in the hollow, the body, warmth, writing:

     Surprise to find you here,
     though I have brought you.

     We entered through our stone arch:
     we closed it because you and I so wished it.
     I probe into the house as if it were
     the hollow under your arm …

     Are we all here?
     Yes, let me count:
     daughter, pictures, dogs, and the music
     that determines our limits.
     This that shelters us is the blanket.
     The paternal refuge of so many books.
     Our sleep devours
     the reversible wakefulness that we are, you and I,
     ten fingers in a hand,
     single glass for the red wine….

The poet's house, space, and fantasy only follow the dictates of love because

     Within this archaic organization
     of stones, rooms, and corridors,
     the world of warmth is reduced
     to a certain sector of your neck,
     to my clenched fist,
     to an amusing phrase.
     It is necessary to eliminate space….

Donoso's concrete and detailed realism conjures up the over-flowing image of the killing of a pig. Although Donoso means to establish differences between poetry and prose, the realism of poem 9 is so brutal that it unfolds into two:

     Julia came up to tell us
     that tonight
     Emilio kills the pig:
     as soon as it is dark
     the ceremonial crime
     is going to consecrate hunger.
     We are invited
     because we are friends …

The second scene begins with the phantasmagoric tableau of A House in the Country, where the names for the world are violence and orphanhood. The ceremony is inaugurated by the atavistic signs of death, with a ripping pain always in relation to the solitary hostility of winter during which the poem takes place. An interplay of voices mitigates the scene but endows it with the attributes of horror and delirium:

     The bloody ritual is displayed
     in the narrow and steeply scenic street:
     gorged with the fragrance of burning rosemary
     the children play rough.
     Voices boom and give orders:
     quick, comer him,
     don't let him go downhill;
     tell Espina to bring the fire and the bucket closer.
     The struggle of the men
     —tougher than last year,
     twice as hard as the neighbor's—
     raises the beast on the altarstone:
     tame on the old table of dark blood and dark smoke
     and generations of boiling water
     that kills the beast while ennobling the pinewood.
     It kicks—as if it knew—in the middle of the street
     so narrow, so crowded,
     so cruel, so intimate….

Curiously, in this poem the ritual forms part of the landscape of Calaceite, where village and culture are deeply fused; the children function as a backdrop, as a vital force in the future, as if evolving towards the presages of death:

     The children I know over there
     would fear a squeal like the one here.
     The hugging night
     is not an adequate stage for its rites.
     They ignore the relation between pain and hunger,
     death and cold.
     But the brutal children of this winter
     know those secrets without fear:
     stones, bursts of rosemary, war,
     hunger and fullness,
     grapevine, cypress, olive tree.
     It is the timeless night of ancient villages
     where hunger is fought with a knife
     and they talk of wolves howling at doors
     though proudly they add
     that they no longer exist….

Poemas de un novelista offers a brief interlude of poems written in 1952 [dedicated to Mario Vargas Llosa—Ed.], but soon the motif of the journey reappears: the third section is called "Madrid, 1979." In this section there is an ever sharper movement towards characterization, barely suggested in the preceding sections. The texts speak of love or of the plaints of love, taking the form of tactile and olfactory sensations, of habitual places that become imprecise in the light of day, dislocated in the poet's rapid memory. The poet notes the austerity of the landscape in order to go into another territorial space, this time more rooted in the idea of the body itself than in objects and belongings. Thus "My Hand" is explored as if for the first time:

       And to sum it up
       it is this:
       Not beauty,
       of course.
       And yet a certain modesty
       eloquent in its restraint.
       It is here daily.
       Weaver? Engineer?
       Did I build it
       or did it build me?
       Yes, daily I have no
       other choice
       but to accept its guidance.
       I touch people with it.
       It touches me, it brings me news
       of all that surrounds
       this distant border of mine
       that when all is said and done
       is me.

       Hot when it grips.
       And when extended,
       the palm draws healthy, fervent lines.
       The knuckles hurt when it's about to rain
       (age, they say …)
       And it throbs with the
       ever renewed exaltation
       when someone makes the tentacles of my fantasy
       climb like ivy.

The landscape as such only appears in the section "Diario de invierno en Calaceite" but it rounds out the book as a concordance to the preface focusing on the poetics of realism. [The book's fourth section is entitled "Retratos," Portraits] That's why Donoso chooses family albums and photographs since only by means of the camera can a visible relation to worldly reality be maintained. Under the influence of Diana Arbus's demented vision and Susan Sontag's aesthetic, the portraits become part of the book and of the real like "Roman Busts in the City Museum" [the title of one of the poems—Ed.]. To reflect on a photograph or daguerreotype is a way of approaching the immemorial, as in the case of "Photograph of My Great-Great-Grandmother Carmen Fantobal de Donoso, Dead at the Age of One Hundred Years in Talca, on 22 November 1867, at 11:30 A.M." The poem's initial question is related to the beginning of the preface where Donoso wonders how it is that all these poems turned up, and thus the coffer is a magic box, a gentle Pandora's box that when opened reveals a profusion of birds, stories, and photographs:

      How did it turn up in my coffer?
      Dead, toothless, furrowed visage.
      Great-great-grandmother of a thousand colonial
      fading ochre,
      so old that not even of your surname
      are there memories or survivors left.
      I know nothing about you.
      You are your nun's habit.
      the centuries
      that leap on to the cardboard.
      No bond joins us
      except for the expendable coincidence
      of blood;

      no anecdotes, no lands, no affection,
      no ennobling tradition.

      And yet somebody loved you:
      a careful handwriting
      recorded your name,
      and the day and the hour of your death
      in the back of your effigy
      by now almost faded.

      This person is
      alive, she talks to me.

      Who was she?

Susan Sontag writes in On Photography: "People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture takers, at home and abroad…. Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation." Donoso rounds out the Poemas with the recovery of a past both real and mythical through photographic realism.

I always remember my conversations with José Donoso in Santiago, surrounded by young poets, and it was beautiful to see him there with his quiet demeanor. Donoso listened to the young poets as they recited their somewhat old-fashioned and perversely romantic verses, but he always felt fascinated by the rhythms of poetry and love. Some of that tenderness is in Poemas de un novelista, and the preface is to some extent the apology of a novelist hounded by his own language. Poemas de un novelista inscribes the stories/poems of a great writer in love with the language of poets and in love with a solitude like a dream, and like a Calaceite winter.

We celebrate these poems and this unheard of phase of José Donoso, and we open Poemas de un novelista as if we plunged into a great coffer and upon opening it dreams appeared, poems, enticing beds in grand old houses, and Donoso's hand writing a luminous verse.

Brad Hooper (review date 15 December 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe: Two Novellas," in Booklist, Vol. 89, No. 8, December 15, 1992, p. 714.

[In the following excerpt, Hooper briefly outlines the plots of Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe.]

Donoso is probably the most highly esteemed contemporary Chilean novelist. His latest book to be translated for U.S. publication is actually two novellas. Taratuta is concerned with a Russian revolutionary of that name whom the novelist-narrator has come across in his desire to learn more about Lenin. The character of Taratuta has beguiling aspects that make the narrator want to ponder and write about him, but the man's historiography is incomplete. The narrator tracks down a fellow who just might be a descendant—but that person proves nearly as illusory as details about Taratuta. The fact that the project must remain incomplete teaches the narrator and the reader an important lesson in life—a lesson Latin American fiction teaches time and again—that separation of fact from fantasy is often impossible and usually less desirable than allowing them to remain in magical blend! The second novella, Still Life with Pipe, is no less cerebral. In the midst of a difficult relationship with his fiancée, bank employee Marco Ruiz Gallardo attempts to revitalize the rather moribund Association for the Defense of the National Artistic Heritage, of which he is a member, but in the process ruins his reputation while at the same time becoming custodian of a museum dedicated to the work of a forgotten Chilean painter. The twists and turns of irony make this tight little tale a brilliant mirror of life's incongruities.

Fernando Gonzalez (review date 5 January 1993)

SOURCE: "A Realistic Fantasy of Vivid Ideas, Shrouded in Gray Words," in The Boston Globe, January 5, 1993, p. 65.

[In the following brief review, Gonzalez discusses Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe.]

This new book by Chilean writer José Donoso comprises two short works: Taratuta, which spins from the name of an obscure figure in the Russian Revolution, and Still Life With Pipe, the story of a bank clerk's fascination with the work of a minor painter. From these modest starting points, Donoso attempts nothing less than a meditation on the power of the word and the role of fantasy in everyday reality, the renewing energy of art.

The results are mixed. Donoso is a master craftsman, but his tone here is so muted, his arguments built on such small details, that when he succeeds he can only succeed modestly.

When his revelations emerge they feel undefined, almost like the faint aftertaste of a mediocre wine. More troubling, while the issues at hand are vital, especially for a writer, Donoso seems merely curious about them, rather than passionate.

In Taratuta, the narrator, Donoso himself, becomes intrigued with the improbable name of a man who appears briefly, and then only tangentially, in the life of Vladimir Lenin. When they mention him at all, historians seem unable to agree on his name, his character or his role in Bolshevik politics. Rather than as a dead end, Donoso sees this as an opportunity. He publishes an article speculating on Taratuta and, surprisingly, adding to the intrigue, a reader named Taratuta writes Donoso a letter.

From then on, Donoso creates a delicate, three-dimensional tableau: In one plane he is the narrator; in another one he is the writer, free to create and elaborate; and in yet another there is the historical reality. They intersect at odd angles and as Donoso moves between them the paradoxes become apparent.

The historical characters, perhaps fictional, are vivid and memorable. The real characters are ciphers or read like literary conceits. Taratuta had red hair, smoked a pipe, drank absinthe, had ambiguous morals. There's an aura of authority around Lenin, even as Donoso mocks his near-sainthood status.

The living Taratuta, perhaps a long-lost descendant of the revolutionary, is unremarkable. We forget the details of his face and his past as soon as we learn them. La Zonga, a fortuneteller of the wealthy, is a breathtaking sexpot who, on a closer look and minus the makeup and the wig, becomes "a country schoolteacher a few years before her retirement."

Yet with so much life swirling around him—real and imagined, present and past—Donoso speaks with the tone of a starchy professor and the urgency of a career bureaucrat.

His approach feels on the mark in Still Life With Pipe, in which the storyteller, Marcos Ruiz Gallardo, is a low-ranking bank employee mired in mediocrity but with upper-class aspirations. On an escapade with his girlfriend to a working-class beach resort, Ruiz finds a house museum dedicated to the work of Larco, supposedly a near-great painter who never fulfilled his promise and became a footnote in the art history of Chile.

Ruiz is unimpressed with the artwork and put off by the museum's caretaker, Larco's longtime valet-assistant-confidant, though he fantasizes about the potential financial gain in his discovery. But little by little, almost imperceptibly, Ruiz is moved by the ugly beauty of the paintings. Then the caretaker dies. Soon Ruiz's life is changed.

Like the paintings it describes, Donoso's language is in soft colors, mostly the grays seen by a gray man. In the story, the pain, the joy, the passion in the paintings transcend form and color. Donoso's ideas are rich and potentially powerful, but they never quite overcome his words.

Los Angeles Times Book Review (review date 14 February 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 14, 1993, p. 6.

[The following article provides a brief review of Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe.]

Does art imitate life or vice versa? Or is the relationship between the two subtler and more playful than either of these maxims suggests? This is what José Donoso, one of Chile's leading novelists (The Obscene Bird of Night), would conclude, offering us these two novellas as evidence.

In Taratuta, a writer tries to uncover the truth about a minor character in the Russian Revòlution, a red-bearded crony of Lenin's whose specialty was "expropriating" (stealing) money for the Bolshevik treasury. The man's true name, character and activities slide into the chinks of biased or slipshod histories and disappear. The narrator's reconstruction of the revolutionaries' exile in Paris is almost entirely fiction, but the fact that Taratuta did, in some sense, exist is enough to give a possible descendant—a wan and disconnected young man the narrator meets in Madrid—a whole new "plot" to live by. And, indeed, the youth's story displaces Taratuta's as the novella's central focus.

In Still Life With Pipe, art comes to the rescue of a stilted bank clerk and his old-maidish fiancée, via a rascally old artist who poses as the caretaker of a museum of his own paintings. Art itself is nothing, the old man maintains; life is art. What does this mean? Well, the strange, ugly Surrealist or Cubist paintings work on the couple until eventually they start a new life within the frame of the old man's vision: a bohemian, Parisian life of wine bottles, checkerboards, guitars and kimonos. Not that their old life wasn't also a work of art. It was just as "framed," as artificial, as the new one. Their new life, Donoso implies, is simply better art; brighter, less kitschy, unsettled enough to give amorous blood room to stir.

James Polk (review date 8 April 1993)

SOURCE: "Labyrinth of the Narrative," in Washington Post, No. 124, April 8, 1993, p. D2.

[In the following review, Polk lauds the two novellas Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe. He asserts that Donoso continues to focus on the relationship between an artist and his art, and social realism, in the two works.]

First, a confession: Although I've reviewed all manner of contemporary fiction over the years, I'm still uneasy about using the word "postmodern" in a sentence.

But surely something different is going on in the work of the Chilean novelist José Donoso, perhaps even something that warrants the term. The richly imagined tapestry of The Obscene Bird of Night, his best known novel, is a tight fabric of ambiguity, stitched through with surreal highlights of switched identities and a meandering plot that falls apart and reassembles itself in unexpected places.

A recurring theme in much of Donoso's fiction is the nature of inspiration and the ambivalent relationship between the artist and his art. The Garden Next Door, for instance, describes a novelist first searching for and then mishandling a theme. The supposed creator and his supposed creation keep intersecting at odd junctures until the former is overwhelmed by the latter and the tale is left to be told by an unforeseen third party.

The novelistic process is also central to Taratuta, the first of these impressive short works. While looking through material about pre-revolutionary Russia, the writer-narrator stumbles across Taratuta, a historically obscure comrade of Lenin's.

Perhaps using a pseudonym, the man was mixed up in a plot to transfer a sizable inheritance to revolutionary coffers. Glimpsed through the fog of distant history, the story is a fun house of mirrors and darkened passages that awakens in the narrator "the impenitent spinner of intrigue that's present in all novelists…."

While the incipient fiction percolates, he writes a magazine article about Taratuta's shadowy adventures along with the obscurities and contradictions he has uncovered. Hardly is the piece published when the novel comes to the novelist.

A letter arrives from one Horacio Carlos Taratuta pleading for a history, "a foundation stone on which to build the table of his origins." This modern Taratuta exists in a void, orphaned in Buenos Aires by a father who revealed nothing of his roots before disappearing in the turmoil of Argentina's Dirty War. Now the son is left with only a peculiar name and a few weakly grounded suspicions about where it came from. Suddenly, in the magazine, he sees that name; maybe there's a reality to it after all.

For the narrator, reading the young man's plea places him in the middle of his own fiction. A "writer's arrogance can make him challenge dragons and work miracles," he says, "and the disorientation of that boy condemned to live a story without any beginning moved me."

Soon, however, the disorientation consumes the writer's own plot, and by the end the young man's story becomes the only story, as the historical saga the narrator had once imagined fades into oblivion. He makes one last stab at reasserting control, but fails and the novella meanders toward what appears an end of its own determining.

Taratuta, in fact, often seems independent of any author's voice. This is not true, of course; it is a creation of José Donoso. Yet the issues it raises take us to the extremes of fiction and to questions about the nature of that beast which sound very postmodern after all.

Still Life With Pipe is more conventionally structured, with clear antecedents, particularly in fiction by such Argentine writers as Humberto Costantini and Vlady Kociancich. But one of Donoso's most singular techniques is to apply his own brand of surrealism to themes more common to social realism—class struggle or the deadening life of the bourgeoisie—with unique results.

We are introduced to the pompous bank clerk Marcos Ruiz Gallardo, who very much wants to become part of the cultural elite. Unfortunately, he has no real idea who the elite is or what it does, although he suspects art may be involved.

Imagine his good fortune then, while on a vacation in the faded resort of Cartagena, to stumble across the paintings of Larco, a forgotten Chilean artist. He has never heard of the man, nor, as it happens, have many others. Although Marcos sees little to recommend the work, it is 'art' and thus may lead him to his goal. The obscure clerk quickly becomes an expert on the obscure painter.

He does not make it to the elite, but the attempt allows Donoso some insightful observations about art, society and human nature. By the end, our perceptions of all these things are not quite what they were at the beginning.

These short works, smoothly translated by Gregory Rabassa, show the author at his near best, challenging, provoking, forcing reexamination. Both are complex but intensely readable, told with generous amounts of irony and wit. All of this may or may not be postmodern, but it certainly is striking.

John Updike (review date 16 August 1993)

SOURCE: "Shadows and Gardens," in New Yorker, Vol. LXIX, No. 26, August 16, 1993, pp. 86-9.

[In the following review, Updike contends that The Garden Next Door is "ruthless, deep and tender." The novel draws on several experiences of Donoso's life according to Updike, and centers the processes surrounding artistic creativity.]

In these last three or so decades, the novel has looked for urgency and energy to two bedevilled backwaters, Eastern Europe and Latin America. The rollback of Communism has left Eastern Europe's artistic compasses spinning, and the rollback of the dictators in South America has left the social terrain there somewhat flat, dreary, and ambiguous—of a piece with the bourgeois prairies to the north and in the overfarmed Old World. So it seems, at least, in two short novels by authors from the cone of our shapely sister continent: Shadows, by the Argentinian Osvaldo Soriano and The Garden Next Door, by the Chilean José Donoso. Soriano's earlier venture into black comedy, A Funny Dirty Little War was a chilling astonishment—a village bloodbath rendered with the hectic, fluid speed of a Keystone Cops comedy. Shadows, too, suggests a silent movie—a parade of clowns on the desolate Argentine pampas, tracing in their dilapidated vehicles vast dusty circles that implausibly keep intersecting. It is On the Road without Kerouac's youthful buoyance and North America's roadside abundance; the first sentence runs "Never in my life had I been on the road without a penny to my name," and one of the two epigraphs displays the late Italo Calvino's opinion that "now the only kind of stories which exist in the world are those that are unresolved and get lost on the road."

Shadows is nothing if not modernist, in the classic, Beckettian manner. Our narrator-hero has no name, save the one that another lost traveller, a former circus proprietor and performer called Coluccini, gives him: Zárate. We learn that this Zárate is a software expert, has been living in Italy, and has a daughter in Spain about whom he feels guilty because he never communicates with her. A train he was riding through the pampas to a town called Neuquén has stopped "in the middle of nowhere." After the second night of nonmovement, he begins to walk, lights a fire, is told by a farmhand that this is against the law, finds a semi-abandoned Shell station, washes himself and his underpants at a pump out back, and encounters Coluccini, who drives a Renault Gordini piled high with suitcases and announces, "L'avventura è finita!" Zárate accepts a ride, and is off on a closepacked series of adventures in a virtually endless, homogeneous landscape: "I tried to identify a point of reference along the road, but it was all the same: wire fences, cows, the occasional tree, a dumb cloud drifting along." He encounters, among others, a truck driver who, his truck having broken down, hopes to sell his load of watermelons to a passing empty truck; a man with "a smooth, insipid face, the kind you forget instantly," who drives a Jaguar, is unlucky in love, and is named Lem; a dog that bites him (Zárate); a priest who feeds him; a travelling fortune-teller called Nadia, who drives an old Citroën Deux Chevaux; two kids called Rita and Boris, who are on their way to Cleveland in a Mercury; some thieves stripping telephone poles of their copper wire; and, the most bizarre of all, a big man called Barrante, who wears a Perón pin, a suit "missing almost all its buttons," a "wide, shiny mourning band," and a length of hose "wrapped around him up to his neck, [so] he looked like a roll of dried beef."

For two-thirds of the way, Shadows is a beguiling farce, an uncanny exaggeration of the shadowy, sleepy, muffled, flimsy, gray quality of modern life, especially life on the road, as the landscape dulls down and lives meaninglessly pass and repass: "It all seemed to be taking place at a distance, as if it were happening to someone else or as if I were seeing it in a movie." But the point is not one, perhaps, that can be made at length; at less than two hundred pages, Shadows is a third too long. A muddled sting operation that Coluccini and Zárate pull off in a town called Colonia Vela and then a no doubt satirical Independence Day involvement with some stray members of the Argentine armed forces exhaust the reader's appetite for the inconsequential; the line keeps playing out, but we are no longer hooked. Soriano is fascinated by messiness, by messes. The civil mayhem of A Funny Dirty Little War was a bloody mess; the messes of Shadows, though there is a fatal shooting, primarily concern automotive malfunction, squalid poverty, drink, food, and flood. Nadia's Citroën is swept off the road by a downpour:

The car floated awhile, then slammed against a hummock, and I landed on top of Nadia because there was nothing for me to hold on to…. Muddy water began to seep in through the floor, carrying away our sandwiches and covering our feet…. I had to dry the ham with a rag. The mayonnaise jar was lost under the seat, but the bread was safe because it had been caught between two cans of oil.

In this dishevelled setting occurs the novel's one scene of lovemaking. Its tenderest scene of healing, stranger still, comes when Barrante removes a speck of dirt from Zárate's eye:

He turned on the lamp and brought it closer while he raised my eyelids with two pudgy and filthy fingers. His breath was bitter, and his teeth were covered with yellow plaque. Everything he had on was falling apart, and the Perón button was just about to fall off his lapel.

The word "filthy" is recurrent: "Two farmhands riding horses followed by a filthy dog were driving some cattle"; "Coluccini grabbed the gin and staggered out of the store, his shirt hanging out of his trousers, a sheet of filthy yellow newspaper stuck to his shoe"; up above hangs "the gray sky, where a rather filthy slice of moon was shining through." Such filth confirms the characters' sensation that they are, as Coluccini says, "in the asshole of the world." On the next page, it is said of Argentina, "A country where finding a fortune is a waste of time isn't a serious country." Zárate has known exile, as has Osvaldo Soriano, and, like him, has returned. There is no place like home. He avows that on the vacant, derelict pampas he has "met more people in the past few days than I had in all the years I lived in Europe." And there are certain magical moments in the provincial wasteland: Nadia's wonderfully insouciant and accurate card-reading, Coluccini's acrobatic bicycling on the wires above the ghost town of Junta Grande, and, in that same desolation, the appearance in a lonely mailbox of a letter from Zárate's little daughter, addressed to him simply "Poste Restante, República Argentina." In such moments, the novel reclaims its hapless, drab territory for magic realism. As in the surreal desert of "Krazy Kat," life absurdly persists.

José Donoso's The Garden Next Door, as the title suggests, offers a more palpable texture. It begins far from the wastelands of the New World, in the snug Catalan resort of Sitges, which is overrun by European tourists and Latin-American political refugees. In addition to our central characters, the Chilean writer Julio Méndez and his wife, Gloria, and their set of expatriate Chileans, there are:

Argentinians of all stripes and colors, with conflicting ideologies, but intelligent and very well prepared for exile: the tragic Uruguayans who fled in large numbers, emptying their country; the Brazilians and the Central Americans, all of them running away like us, some of them persecuted, most going into voluntary exile because back home it was impossible to live and go on being yourself, with the ideas and feelings that made you who you were.

To fill their days, the exiles scrape out a living at what jobs they can find, sell handicrafts to tourists, sit in cafés admiring the parade of "Belgians, Germans, and Frenchmen, stuporous from a whole day lying in the sand … looking as if they'd been squeezed into their reddened skins, shiny with foul-smelling sun cream," attend Argentine barbecues, sleep with "the blond dryads who came down from the urban forests of the north in search of rest or fun, or of their 'sexual identities,'" lament the way their children are becoming Europeans and losing their Latin-American roots, and endlessly rechurn the political issues and antagonisms that have landed them in Spanish exile. In the backward glance of an unusually successful expatriate, the painter Pancho Salvatierra, Chile is—like Soriano's Argentine pampas—"the asshole of the planet." Salvatierra offers the Méndezes the use of his elegant Madrid apartment for the summer, and the impoverished middle-aged couple, worn down by too much booze and Valium and Sitges partying, gratefully accept.

It is the summer of 1980; seven years have gone by since Allende's fall and his loyalists' flight from the Pinochet government. The luxurious apartment, in the center of Madrid, is reminiscent of the Santiago of Julio's past. The floors, he observes, are parquet and have "the eloquence of the wooden floors of another time, lost so many years ago in the silence of Mediterranean tile floors." Back in Chile, "all the floors creak; as well as a characteristic voice, everyone has a characteristic sound, his or her own tread on wood, a personal signature that follows one around, as inseparable as a shadow." The garden next door, an unexpectedly ample and bucolic park belonging to the Duke of Andía, reminds Julio of the garden of his old home on Rome Street, where his mother lies dying, begging in vain for Julio and his family to come for one last visit: "Why don't they come to close my eyes?" For a time, the garden is inhabited—by the duke's youngest son and blond daughter-in-law and their two children, who live in a smaller house apart from the mansion. Julio, instead of working to revise the novel that has become the repository of all his hopes, gazes into this green paradise and falls in love with the young blonde, who is conducting, Julio comes to see, an affair with a dark young man, a "handsome brute." The novel has a number of surprises, which should be reserved for its readers. As a portrait of a struggling writer, of an embittered yet still viable marriage, and of an exile's paralyzing nostalgia, The Garden Next Door is ruthless, deep, and tender. Donoso, like many another writer of the so-called Boom in the Latin-American novel, was infected by Faulkner's circling indirections and cavalier time jumps; this potentially tiresome manner works well enough here, as the meditative Julio obliquely drifts, in his borrowed milieu, toward defeat and renewal.

In an even shorter and more frankly autobiographical recent work, a novella titled Taratuta, Donoso's narrator speaks of "the cultural references without which reality is only a sketch." Like him, Julio is a compulsive alluder, who fondly sees his blond dryad in the duke's little forest and her smooth young friends as "Brancusiesque," and who, when she is folded in the embrace of her lover, instantly thinks of a painting by Klimt "in which all you see is the heads wrapped in a riot of colors and of gold." His own wife, the tall and patrician Gloria, is appreciated in terms of Ingres's famous "Odalisque" so consistently that she plays to it, winding her head in a towel and presenting her nude back to him. An amoral young drifter called Bijou appears to Julio first as a curly-haired angelo musicante from some medieval fresco and then as a Rimbaud-like decadent: "I'd thought I'd recognized the evil blond filth, the perverted defiance in those clear eyes, the dirty uneven teeth of the character in Coin de table!" Magritte, Scott Fitzgerald, and Mallarmé's "L'Après-Midi d'un Faune" are repeatedly mentioned—stroked like lucky stones. A sensibility for which life is already so saturated in art has natural difficulty in creating fresh art. The Boom weighs cruelly upon Julio, who may have some of Donoso's sensibility but does not have his secure high reputation. Julio is especially tormented by the fictional maestro Marcelo Chiriboga, "the most insultingly famous member of the dubious Boom," and by the Barcelona superagent Núria Monclús, a literary discriminator of fearsome chic and decisiveness. Artistic ambition is felt as a joyless burden, and release from it as a longed-for blessing:

Not to go on being a slave to my desire to evoke a poetic universe governed by its own resplendent laws, like the one—in spite of all the unbearable commercial lies—García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Marcelo Chiriboga, and Julio Cortázar are sometimes able to create. To surrender: the sweetness of accepted failure.

The garden next door to reality is art, and the mysteries of artistic creativity—its inhibition, its successful activation—lie at this novel's center. As in "Shadows," blankness has its paradoxical fertility. When the Brancusiesque young woman dominating Julio's fantasy life departs from Madrid, he reflects, "Since the important thing about beautiful things is the pain of the deep wounds they leave, her presence in the garden may have been an obstacle for me; with her now gone, the empty park may be fruitful." For the writers of the Boom, the New World was a garden where fantasy had flourished from the start. At first, America was taken for Asia and the East Indies, then as a source of endless gold and slave-produced wealth and, later still, as a political proving ground populated by noble savages and unprecedentedly free men. Its history is one long disillusionment, broken by spells of renewed enchantment; ideas and dreams have always been part of its unsteady, colorful reality. The final twist of perspective, in The Garden Next Door, is a drastic one, and the reader may boggle at its plausibility, but there is no denying Donoso's essential point: it takes imagination to live as well as to write.

Further Reading

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Friedman, M.L. "Curfew: A Novel." In Choice, Vol. 26, No. 2, (October 1988): 321.

Brief description of Donoso's Curfew.

Friedman, M.L. Review of The Garden Next Door. In Choice, Vol. 30, No. 7, (March 1993): 1155.

Brief description of Donoso's novel The Garden Next Door.

Larisch, Sharon. "Old Women, Orphan Girls, and Allegories of the Cave." In Comparative Literature, Vol. 40, No. 2, (Spring 1988): 150-171.

An essay comparing Plato's Republic (specifically "The Allegory of the Cave") and Donoso's The Obscene Bird of Night.

Levitas, Mitchel. "Writers and Dictators." In The New York Times Book Review, (14 August 1988): 1, 22-23.

Levitas describes the political climate in Chile since 1973, and provides some details about the publishing industry in the country.


Donoso, José (Vol. 8)