María Luisa Bombal 1910-1980
Chilean novella and short story writer.
Hailed by José Donoso as “the first contemporary Chilean novelist” and Carlos Fuentes as “the mother of us all,” María Luisa Bombal is credited for altering the form and substance of Chilean letters, which prior to 1935 was overtly realistic, masculine, and regional. Although she wrote only two novellas and a handful of stories, Bombal's avant-garde works have won consistent praise for their narrative experimentation, complex poetic imagery, and psychologically convincing characters. Even so, criticism of Bombal's oeuvre has been slight. This has been attributed to a number of causes, including her unwillingness to adopt the popular literary methods of her day, her modest output, and her preoccupation with themes centering around women during a time and in a place where such themes were not in vogue.
Born into a privileged family in Viña del Mar, Chile, Bombal moved to Paris at the age of twelve where she attended Nôtre Dame de L'Assomption and La Brùyere before graduating from La Sorbonne with a degree in French literature. In Paris her intellectual development coincided with the rise of the avant-garde movement, an exciting period in the arts marked by experimentation and innovation. Shortly after returning to Chile in 1931, Bombal moved to Buenos Aires where she soon became acquainted with such literary figures as Victoria Ocampo, Jorge Luis Borges, Federico García Lorca, and Pablo Neruda. The 1930s were productive years for Bombal; she published two novellas and wrote stories for Ocampo's journal Sur while lodging with Neruda and his wife. After shooting and seriously wounding her lover Eulogio Sánchez, Bombal moved to New York in 1941. There she married Count Raphael de Saint-Phalle and translated several of her works, including a significantly revised and expanded edition of La última niebla. The last years of her life were spent in Chile where she died after a brief illness.
In highly poetic works about women trapped within the constraints of a patriarchal society, Bombal fused realism with the supernatural, or fantastic, to express the displacement, isolation, frustration, and loneliness of her female protagonists. In La última niebla, for example, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage takes a lover one evening while lost in a deep mist. Because the story contains a first-person narrative and takes place in the immediate present, the lines between concrete reality and fantasy are blurred. As the story progresses, both the protagonist and the reader begin to doubt that the lover exists, revealing the complex and dismal state of the protagonist's mind. In La amortajada a dead woman reflects on past experiences and observes those who knew her from the confines of her coffin. Multiple narrators in this work—the dead woman, individuals surrounding her coffin, and an omniscient narrator who provides alternating panoramic and closeup views of the setting—offer varying perspectives of the woman's character, lending it shape and credibility. All of Bombal's works are replete with imagery, particularly nature imagery. According to Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman, “the natural world becomes a type of magical looking glass through which these women protagonists perceive and depict their inner dramas.”
Despite early acknowledgment of Bombal's significance in Latin American literature, her fiction has incited little critical response until recently. Many scholars have focused on her craftsmanship or have sought to interpret the many images in her fiction. The majority, however, have been drawn to her depiction of the feminine experience. As Phyllis Rodríguez-Peralta has written: “The woman in her novels is caught in the confusion of her roles. She reflects present-day themes of futility and alienation and she appears as a marginal figure, an outcast like the contemporary authors' version of her. She is, therefore, far from the stereotyped woman of Latin American literature before this era, and she does not reflect the traditional Hispanic concepts of femininity. At the same time she herself offers little or no positive rebellion against her diminished humanity, and, instead, longs for the romantic role once assigned to her. She feels human estrangement, but she has nothing to substitute for the old ideals.”