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."