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The Body as Society, Prison, and Torture Device: José Donoso’s Fiction

By David Auerbach.

A symbol means nothing to me. What I want is that these symbols be dynamic, vague, ambiguous, opaque.
–José Donoso

José Donoso (1924-96) is a vast writer. Though considered part of the Latin American “Boom” of the 1960s, Donoso remained on the periphery of the movement, little known until he produced his masterpiece The Obscene Bird of Night in 1970. Though Donoso’s work shares some superficial surrealist, political, and indigenous touches with the famous writers of the era (Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, and Cortazar being the big four), Donoso’s achievement is considerably different from theirs, and in my opinion inestimably greater, fit to stand alongside the equally brilliant Juan Rulfo.

Donoso’s basic strategy across his work is to take two or more (sometimes many more) conflicting realities—cosmoses, really—and let them generate a panoply of shifting views onto their intersection. Yet this is to downplay the dark, visceral nature of all his writing, at its peak in The Obscene Bird of Night. It is rare for a work so surreal, so confusing, so experimental, to seem so wholly lived, utterly thought through in all its multiplicative chaos.

Of course, it is easy to say that Donoso did experience so much of the emotions and experience that come through in Obscene Bird, but the question of his methods is a much more difficult one. How were they so effective? Samuel Beckett and Robert Musil managed such things, by very different means, and I think that for any work of sufficient greatness, a writer must inevitably invent his or her personal means of negotiating between emotion and language, never to be reused.

To try to explain the nature of Donoso’s achievement, I want to focus on two books that for me constitute the core of Donoso’s genius: The Obscene Bird of Night and A House in the Country.  The underlying structures he sets up in both books are immensely fertile yet also robust. The danger in adopting a fundamentally unrealistic, surrealistic, or causally impossible narrative is that the result will merely be incoherent. One either must hope for some intuitive logic to trump the incoherencies—never to be relied upon–or set up a network of thematic and metaphorical connections that will sustain the novel in place of the normal devices. Neither of these is at all easy. Donoso’s feat of achieving the latter twice is tremendous.

The Obscene Bird of Night

“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.”
Jose Donoso in interview with Ricardo Gutierrez Mouat (1992)

The Obscene Bird of Night (named, not without resonance, after a quote of Henry James Sr. to his two sons) is the story of Jeronimo de Azcoitia, the last in a long line of aristocratic landowners, forced by his Uncle Clemente to go into politics and protect their land, their birthright. He steals an election, but in the face of an angry mob, he is shot, making him into a hero and allowing him to take his powerful position and live out his days as an esteemed man of state. Yet he and his beautiful, pure wife Ines (his cousin, in fact) cannot conceive a child.

It is also the story of Humberto Penaloza, Jeronimo’s secretary and biographer, who actually was shot on that day, and whose blood was put onto Jeronimo’s arm. Humberto is of low origins, and his father has urged him to become someone at all costs, and so while studying to be a lawyer, he meets Jeronimo and tells him he is a writer. Jeronimo funds the publication of Humberto’s book. Humberto becomes Jeronimo’s secretary and confidante, yet still nurses the idea of writing a book about Jeronimo.

It is also the story of Jeronimo’s horribly disfigured son Boy, conceived with mysterious assistance from Ines’ nursemaid Peta Ponce, a witch who hovers menacingly over the whole story. Jeronimo shuts up Boy at his estate La Rinconada and instructs Humberto to hire freaks to populate it, so that Boy will never know that he is not normal. Humberto is the only point of contact with the outside world. He has difficulty keeping authority over the freaks, however, since he is the freak at La Rinconada, and vanishes.

And most of all it is the story of Mudito, a little mute who is a caretaker at the decrepit Casa, a labyrinthine Azcoitia property housing nuns, old women, and a handful of orphans. While not tending to affairs, he plots to impregnate one of the orphans, Iris, and trick Jeronimo into thinking that the child is his. When Iris falls pregnant, the old women think that it is a virgin birth, and that the baby will be a miracle who will save them all. And yet there is some question as to whether she is really pregnant, and so the old women provide Iris with a baby in the form of Mudito, whose consciousness floats freely among bodies and objects, who is also Humberto and occasionally Jeronimo and even Boy. He does not want to be Humberto, and flees from any hint of his old identity, or perhaps Humberto flees from him. Under the influence of the old women, Mudito slowly transforms into an imbunche, a troll-like being whose senses and orifices are all sealed off, created by witches to serve them.

Hurry, sew me all up, not only my parched mouth, but also my eyes, especially my eyes, so their power will be buried deep under my eyelids, so they won’t see, so never will he see them again, let my eyes burn up their own power in the darkness, in the void, yes, sew them up, old women, in that way I’ll make Don Jeronimo impotent forever.

And behind it all is the witch Peta Ponce, who confuses the plots and identities and timeframes. She is Humberto’s enemy but also his ally, and for all the havoc she causes it is not clear that she isn’t also the force of life itself. She almost never speaks for herself, and when she does, she is nothing more than a kindly old lady. Everything else is reported by others: Ines, Humberto, and Jeronimo. She is always the other, with her strong, bitter cups of mate. She is the agent of change and also the scapegoat.

Humberto and Jeronimo project onto Peta Ponce. When she draws out Ines’s childhood stomach illness and takes it on herself, she heals Ines, but she robs Ines of her procreative power, the same power that Humberto suffers in the presence of his creativity: that is, when he is around Jeronimo. Childbirth and the act of artistic creation are, as so often, analogized, but Donoso’s addition is to require impurity, the admission of a disgusting otherness, as well as the admission of the limits of one’s own self, in order to for the conception to go forward. The search for a hermetic all-powerful refuge leads to solipsism and eventually nonexistence: to the imbunche. By refusing to be trapped by the world, we eradicate ourselves.

The characters mix. Boy is not only the name for Jeronimo’s possibly fictitious disfigured son, but also the nickname Jeronimo had when he lived in Europe, for which Clemente ridiculed him. Humberto is Jeronimo’s secretary, but Clemente offered Jeronimo himself a job as his secretary. Humberto is a proxy for Jeronimo’s abdication of his own inner self (his “Boy”), but also Jeronimo’s adoption of his heritage. Jeronimo is the target of Humberto’s envy, yet also the subject of his book. Jeronimo finds himself by becoming a politician, leaving Humberto as his nameless double. Yet when Humberto is shot and Jeronimo steals his wound, Humberto is the one who remains separate from the political world, writing Jeronimo’s biography while becoming invisible himself. Humberto steals Jeronimo’s potency, in the same way that Clemente stole Jeronimo’s soul. Jeronimo in turn takes the rest of Humberto’s body and shuts Clemente up in the Casa, to which Humberto also flees. They trade and steal each other’s bodies and body parts.

They’re monstrifying me…I’ve lost my form, I have no definite contours, I’m in flux, changing, as if I were seen through moving water, I’m no longer me, I’m this vague twilight of consciousness that’s peopled by white figures that come and stick needles into my veins…how many red corpuscles…he has almost none left. Let me out, I don’t want to die of suffocation within these adobe walls with their peeling crust, you’re only damp spots on mud wall, all of you, let me out of here!…If I could only cross the imperceptible line that separates the half-light from the darkness. I’m on the brink. But no, they won’t let me cross into the darkness where there’s no anguish, they want to hold me on this side, in the half-light, where things have no outline and barely shift about.

The principal characters—Mudito, Humberto, Boy, Ines, and Jeronimo—all are trapped in a world. Mudito in the Casa, Humberto in Jeronimo’s employ, Boy in La Rinconada, Ines in her childless marriage, and Jeronimo in Chile itself, forced into a corrupt senatorial post by his uncle, forced to continue the line. Each is “normal” within their surroundings, but only by pretending: Mudito pretends to be an old woman as well as Iris’s lover, Boy pretends to be unaware of the outside world, Jeronimo wears Humberto’s wounds and takes a position he neither desires nor deserves. Humberto writes of him:

Wasn’t it true that his arrogance, which even those closest to him couldn’t ignore, had finally imprisoned him behind a wall in a place where he reigned alone, lord and master of some evidently absolute truth whose secret he’d never disclosed to anyone?

It could just as easily apply to Boy or Humberto.

Whenever a character is trapped, Peta Ponce (or the idea of Peta Ponce) offers a way out, always at a terrible cost, since it involves becoming what one is not, letting impurities into one’s self.

Old women like Peta Ponce have the power to fold time over and confuse it, they multiply and divide it, events are refracted in their gnarled hands as in the most brilliant prism, they cut the consecutive happening of things into fragments they arrange in parallel form, they bend those fragments and twist them into shapes that enable them to carry out their designs. Ines had to give Jeronimo a son.

Peta Ponce reunites what has been split, mixing inside and outside. Only in her realm can children be conceived, since children are impurities themselves. And so Jeronimo comes to love Peta’s bitter mate that first repulsed him, when he realizes that he himself is imprisoned and unable to bear a child. She blurs time, she blurs space. So it is not just one’s closed space that is the trap but realism and rationality itself. And so he flows into Humberto, who flows into Boy, who flows into the monsters, and so on and on in an expanding circle.

The associations and parallels do not remain stable. Donoso crafts the movements in scene and narrator delicately, so that the shifts do not fully upend what has already been set forth, but mutilate and mangle it so that the shape of the book is never wholly lost. At times it resembles a cross between a symbolist decadent novel and a mystery, as the suspense is generated not over how the plot will resolve, but how the symbols will come into alignment. This, too, is an impressive achievement.

The structural elements by which Donoso guides the reader are partly symbolic, but operate with an uncommonly tangible physical architecture. Donoso works with a physical sense of place at an astonishing level, matching that of Kafka and Beckett. (He built several houses and gardens for his family, losing some to poverty.)

There are three environments around which the book is structured: the labyrinthine Casa for nuns, old women, and orphans; La Rinconada, the house of freaks where Boy is isolated from the outside world; and the narrator’s body itself, which swells and shrinks to encompass all places and eventually suffocates the narrator.

The Obscene Bird of Night depicts the limits and constraints of our lives—any and all of them—as physical spaces. These places, most represented quite viscerally, are primarily the following: a building, one’s country, the womb, the body, one’s skin (as opposed to the body), socio-economic class, one’s family, and of course the book. If they close completely, we cease to exist. If they open completely, we cease to exist.

A House in the Country

The birth of The Obscene Bird of Night was a difficult one for Donoso. He worked on it for eight years, a time he described as an imprisonment: “This novel, which took me about eight years to write, is one and the same in my memory with the experience of pain and disease.”  Health problems (an acute duodenal ulcer) and doubts about his abilities plagued him. He and his wife were unable to conceive children and eventually adopted a daughter. (In a closing of the circle almost prescribed by Obscene Bird, in 2011 she published a pained memoir and biography of her father, at Donoso’s request.)

The exhausting gestation of The Obscene Bird of Night would seem to mitigate against any comparable work from Donoso, and indeed many of his other works are on a smaller scale, including the brilliantly crafted Hell Has No Limits (a dark story about a transvestite brothel madame, extracted from an early draft of The Obscene Bird of Night) and the wry The Garden Next Door. But Donoso produced a second masterpiece in 1978, A House in the Country, nearly the equal of The Obscene Bird of Night. Though clearly related to Pinochet’s coup as well as the history of colonialism, once more the material is too rich to be tied down to a single allegorical framework.

Here, Donoso tells a strictly linear story, narrated both as fairy tale and as historical chronicle. The aristocratic adults leave their thirty-plus children in their large summer estate while they go on a day outing, but in the absence of the rulers, the children, natives, and servants all revolt in their ways, and years pass in the day the adults are away.

Without elaborating, Donoso described A House in the Country as postmodern in its construction as opposed to Obscene Bird’s modernism. Certainly there is more explicit use of genre material here, as political plots, family drama, and adventure stories come together in a recognizably epic framework. There is also a vaguely Barthian narrator who comments enigmatically on the story and its construction. The many characters (over 70) remain well-defined and mostly fixed throughout. Yet the ultimate mechanisms are not so different. The turbulence of Donoso’s imagination and associations, and their febrile proliferation, are still the primary motor of the novel.

The temporal instability remains, albeit in a different form. The narrative instability, however, is replaced by a more allegorical anti-realism. There are 35 children and over seventy characters in the book, all of them of some significance. Donoso uses their multiplicity to assign each of them strong, singular traits: there is diabolical Casilda, officious Juvenal, bookish Arabela (my favorite), the treacherous Majordomo, and victimized, brave Wenceslao.

But rather than leaving them as one-dimensional figures in a melodrama, he lets them stand for the corresponding political and social entities in the greater world. Each character draws to them the aspects of the greater world that their personality traits most reflect.

At the start, many of the cousins participate in a cruel rococo masquerade of their own invention called La Marquise Est Sortie a Cinq Heures, playing adult roles in a melodrama. By mid-novel, they have expanded their world to have formed alliances and antagonisms with the staff and servants of the estate, the oppressed natives of the surrounding wilderness, and criminal thugs in the capital city. Leaving the characters as relatively fixed archetypes, Donoso tangles their relations and associations.

This is an ingenious approach, and were it not for Donoso’s complete control over the organization and structure, it would be an utter mess, since entities and plots multiply at such a rapid rate (vastly moreso than in any other “magic realist” work that I know of).

By expanding situations in which those salient traits come into play. With the adults away, the children exert themselves both in and out of the mansion, interacting with the underclasses in ways that their parents had previously forbid, and a new “order” (however chaotic it may be) takes shape. These transitions form the backbone of the book.

Hell Has No Limits

Despite the similarities, A House in the Country is a less pained book than The Obscene Bird of Night, even by Donoso’s own admission. This is not to say that there is any less pain in it, but that it has moved from a more visceral, personal level to a more conceptual one: it seems to be less the product of anguish and more of sympathy. Such greater distance was not necessarily a new approach: Hell Has No Limits, while nearly histrionic in its melodrama, does not incessantly threaten to capsize as The Obscene Bird of Night does. But the wellspring of pain, emotional and social, most visible in Obscene Bird remains the catalyst for Donoso’s power to shake readers, even at his most abstract.

What unites these works, however, is the uncommon sensitivity to suffering which Donoso displays. Especially among the frequently grotesque and far-reaching fictions of the Latin American boom, there are many moments, in the work of Fuentes or Cortazar but also in Osman Lins and Silvina Ocampo, in which the severity of the human cruelties depicted are overshadowed by writerly artifice, human suffering giving way to the author’s infatuation with language and spectacle. (Think of the psychiatric hospital in Hopscotch.) In Donoso the suffering remains at center, not an ornamental component but one that provides a thematic and structural linchpin. While it metamorphosizes in form in the relationship between Humberto and Jeronimo in Obscene Bird and exists as a veritable animating force of nature in A House in the Country, there always remains the same underlying secular theodicy that drives all morally informed literature: what is the nature of this suffering and what can be done about it?

In light of that focus, it may seem surprising that for all the life and love and suffering and terror in Donoso’s work, death is a shockingly small presence. Characters die and are mourned, but it is rare that it becomes a preoccupation for them. Perhaps it is that for Donoso, death is only one form, and a distant one at that, of the ever-encroaching other, the foreboding outside by which we orient ourselves in our tenuous hearth, the struggle to maintain all our positional roles and selves. Death itself is drowned out by Peta Ponce’s incessant tempest.

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer who lives in New York. He writes the Bitwise column for Slate.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 11th, 2013.