The Obscene Bird of Night Critical Evaluation
by José Donoso

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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The clue to the meaning of the novel appears in the epitaph, a passage from a letter by novelist Henry James, in which the following sentence appears: “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 aim of José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night is to chart that human territory. In exploring the depths of the human mind, one important insight is revealed: Human beings hide from themselves the true realities of things because of their painful nature, just as the character Jerónimo de Azcoitía tries to shield his son from the reality of his ugliness.

Because The Obscene Bird of Night focuses on the world of the unconscious mind, Donoso deliberately chose to divest his narrative of linear sequentiality, thereby producing a flexible text in which the narrative voice darts quickly and without warning from the mind of one character to that of another. Often the reader is given the bare bones of an event and has to construct probable scenarios for what is being read. Sometimes the narrative swerves unexpectedly, as if it were a dream sequence. This is an appropriate device because, as Sigmund Freud once pointed out, dreams are the royal road to the unconscious mind.

The succession of the thoughts of Mudito (“little mute”) operates as the voice verbalizing the events in the novel. Mudito is clearly the alter ego of two other characters: Humberto and the imbunche. The embodiment of imbunche is acquired by Mudito/Humberto when he ends up living in the Casa de Ejercicios Espirituales de la Encarnacíon, which is inhabited by socially abandoned old ladies who are the personifications of witches, a few orphans, and Mother Benita. Through the world of the unconscious minds of Mudito, Humberto, and the imbunche, the narrative voice also traverses and becomes the rest of the characters in the novel. This type of narration, similar to that of stream of consciousness, does not permit a logical or a chronological unfolding of events. Nevertheless, the zigzagging recounting produces a story.

A number of scenes in the novel challenge the reader’s comprehension and are good examples of Donoso’s craftsmanship. The first narrative is the old wives’ tale recounted in chapter 2 of the first part of the novel. It tells the spine-chilling tale of a young blonde girl who has nine brothers and, as a result of a bad harvest, is accused of being a witch. The father is reluctant to believe this, but he agrees to investigate. One night, he bursts into the room where his daughter is sleeping with her nursemaid and discovers the nursemaid in a strange state between life and death. The father accuses the nursemaid of being a witch, and the men take the witch’s body, tie it to a log, and sail it down to the sea. The father sends his daughter away to a monastery, and she is never heard from again.

An important detail in the story concerns the description of a yellow bitch, a dog that starts baying outside the window when the men seize the nursemaid’s body. The implicit suggestion is that the witch’s incubus had inhabited the dog and is now unable to return to the nursemaid’s body. The yellow bitch subsequently disappears without a trace. This scene has an impact, like a story within a story, on the narrative being read, because there are many references to a “yellow bitch” in the narrative proper. Though the novel never spells this out explicitly, the reader is persuaded to interpret the yellow dog as the witch’s incubus. At one point of the story, when Humberto is having sex with the old woman Peta (he thinks she is Inés de Azcoitía, but he is being deceived by Peta), the noise of a dog howling is heard outside the window. Likewise, when Iris Mateluna has sex, called “yumyum” in the novel, with her clients, dogs often appear to watch. Thus, the novel works by the suggestion of association rather than by explicit metaphor.

A further...

(The entire section is 1,195 words.)