Two Daughters: On Pilar Donoso

Normal posting should resume soon after I finally clear through  an especially bad new year crunch, but I do have a piece up at n+1 about Jose Donoso’s daughter Pilar, author of the recent memoir of her family, Drawing the Veil.

Two Daughters

Two daughters bookended my year. One is Pilar Donoso, daughter of the great Chilean writer Jose Donoso (1924–1996). Fellow Chilean Roberto Bolaño called Donoso easily the greatest Chilean novelist of the century. I have long thought Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night (1970) to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, besting the better-known novels of the Latin American Boom. It is a phantasmagoric, surreal, and narratively unstable book that combines folklore, horror, and political and familial corruption to create an allegory of artistic creation, which is embodied by the central figure of the imbunche, a troll-like monster in Chilote mythology whose body is folded in on itself, with all its orifices sewn shut.

While researching an article on Donoso, I discovered that his daughter Pilar had written a book called Correr el tupido velo (Drawing the Veil), which was published in 2009. A sort of posthumous collaboration with her father, it tells the story of his life by drawing on her own memories as well as her father’s diaries, released only after his death in 1996. A chronicle of her father’s torment, paranoia, self-hatred, and mistreatment of his family, as well as his deeply closeted homosexuality,Drawing the Veil is all the more uncanny for its echoes of the blatantly anti-realisticThe Obscene Bird of Night, in which boys try to take revenge on their fathers by writing their biographies: a central theme of the book is the conceptual and emotional prisons made for us by our parents. Donoso later wrote, “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.”

The book was not Pilar Donoso’s idea; her father asked her to be his biographer. It took her seven years to write, and after publication, her marriage fell apart and her children went with their father rather than her. Pilar Donoso said the book destroyed her family, but that writing it was a necessary catharsis. She also said that she did not consider herself a victim. In November, after I finished the article, Pilar Donoso was found dead by her own hand. The obituaries mentioned a passage late in her father’s diaries in which he sketched out a story about the daughter of a deceased writer who reads and publishes her father’s diaries and then commits suicide.

The second daughter is my own, born at the beginning of the year. The next decades of my life have now been partly written: I have and will always be this child’s father. As I’ve grown attuned to this new being who changes, inexorably, far faster than anything else around me, I’ve crossed from the Brooklyn world of professionals, artists, and hipsters into the separate but consubstantial world of parents and children. I now feel the constant presence of her and other inchoate creatures who unconsciously absorb every hidden meaning and motive of those around them.

I am writing my daughter’s life, knowing I must make room for her to do so herself when she is able—knowing I must be careful. Pilar Donoso wrote, “One should not know the intimate thoughts of anyone. Least of all those of one’s own parents.” I wonder what thoughts I may need to hide from her so that she will be able to expand out into the world and not fold up into a void. I hope I will be able to do so.

One thought on “Two Daughters: On Pilar Donoso

  1. It seems to underscore that there is no history only biography and if what is begun on the weaver’s loom of the father is flawed it follows that it should not consume the lives of the children. This is so especially if we take Donoso’s view that some private thoughts and secrets of the parent should not be shared with the child who is prone to imitate and to mitigate as opposed to eradicate the imperfect functioning of the weaver. To live is to function that’s all there is. Function or malfunction and recognize the difference would have been better advice and a theme for the ill starred daughter in her tragic preoccupation with understanding the complete and secret father in her attempt at his biography. Take everythihng on evidence there is no better rule. It would be well to first ask the biographer the simple questions: ” What do you know of good or evil? What do you understand of the sum of a man’s life?” before the author’s pen hits the paper. It seems to me that the better lesson learned would be to refuse in your own right to erase a man’s lifetime but to always remember the total man. in the act of contemplation of and in the perception of imperfection lies proof of the absolute in the contrary form, that of perfection. It is in contemplation of the ideal that dreams most likely come true.It is in contemplation of truth that man is most like the Creator. There always seems to be a choice as to where truth will take us. “Fabricated thread” from which lies are told on the loom of one’s life prevents the production of a worthwhile garment to wear into the eternity of the memory of those who will remember us.

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