The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso

For a long time before I read it, I referred to the book as That Obscene Bird of Night. I was conflating it with Luis Bunuel’s movie, That Obscure Object of Desire, which I’ve never seen. The only thing I know about the movie is that it stars Fernando Rey as a dirty old man stand in for Bunuel, and has two actresses randomly interchanged as the titular object. I inferred from the use of “that” a dismissive or disgusted familiarity, and it wouldn’t be inappropriate in Donoso’s book, which treats the bird as an creative (and anti-creative) force bringing oblivion.

Bird is extremely disorienting, and the lack of analyses that describe the organization of the book in any detail suggest that it may not actually make sense. Large portions of a book feature a single narrator drifting through a succession of personae: Humberto (a writer and aristocrat’s secretary), Mudito (a deaf, dumb infantile caretaker who frequently loses and regains his senses and limbs), an old nun (a sexless disguise of Mudito), and an unborn fetus. But Donoso is fairly clear about the transitions, and it’s not difficult to figure out when one is taking place or who is speaking at a given time. What complicates matters is that multiple characters seem to be responsible for single actions (like pregnancies), and plot points are continually ignored or rewritten. Here the book is reminiscent of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, where memories brought characters back from the dead to offer a cubist view on the history of a town. But since Donoso is writing about the annihilation of memory through imagination, the combination of intermixed characters and resolutely inconsistent plotlines leads to total chaos that dwarfs Rulfo.

As best as I can figure, there are two main story arcs in the book. In the first and most prominent, Humberto/Mudito lives out a bizarre existence in a huge Casa with six nuns and sometimes some orphans, one of which, Iris, is used by Humberto/Mudito in a plot to create an heir for the Casa’s owner, the senator Don Jeronimo Azcoitia, that he will then control. Iris is conflated with Ines, Jeronimo’s barren wife, and Humberto/Mudito meshes with the possibly impotent Azcoitia to impregnate Iris/Ines. Iris is pregnant for most of the book while Humberto/Mudito carries transforms into Iris’s doll, a seventh old nun, and eventually her fetus, who the nuns believe will be a virgin birth. The baby is born and is perfect, and is about to perform a miracle, when the other story intercedes.

It’s not made clear for much of the book, but the other story, about the birth of Jeronimo and Ines’s son, takes place seventeen years prior to the main arc. The son, named Boy, is a horrendous mutant, and Jeronimo charges Humberto, who is his secretary and is the only other person who knows about Boy, with maintaining a house filled with deformed freaks that will take care of Boy, so that he will have no idea of his deviation from reality. Seventeen years later, Boy finally meets his father, who then dies amongst the freaks, and asks his one-eyed doctor to have all memory of his father and his brief exposure to outside reality surgically removed from his brain, and this triggers the collapse of the other plot. The nuns leave the Casa, and only Mudito remains, sewn up inside a sack, from which he cannot escape no matter how much he chews through it, until the sack is taken by a witchlike woman and burned with paper and rags on a fire under a bridge.

There’s more, way more, but this seems to be the basic structure of the book. The Boy story is, with some exceptions, far clearer than the Mudito story, and my takes is that the Mudito story is an insane fantasy of Humberto’s constructed as a rewriting of the past. Its creation is spurred by the death of Jeronimo, which severs Boy’s lineage from reality, as well as Humberto’s. Donoso plays up Humberto’s “authorship” of Boy’s reality to a great extent; Boy becomes fictive and Humberto becomes his father. Consequently, the rewriting in the Mudito parts of the book makes Humberto a double for Jeronimo: they switch genitals and wives even as Mudito loses his senses and body, which is equated with Humberto losing all conception of reality, as he becomes the keeper of knowledge of the Casa who can never leave. Humberto’s authority waxes and wanes as he drifts into his Mudito persona, who signifies the senseless, sexless writer totally detached from reality. His is simultaneously master of his hermetic Casa and subjugated slave to those around him. As he erases causality, linearity, and individuality of phenomena, he is able to kill Jeronimo through pure negation of all but momentary imagination.

There’s also a class element: Jeronimo is the prestigious aristocratic stateman, Humberto the insecure, plebeian writer who becomes his servant. There is some allusion to the idea that Humberto is acting as a rebellious servant of Jeronimo, mediating reality in a Hegelian fashion for Jeronimo, who, as the aristocrat, is insulated from it. This aspect is overrun by the general chaos of the novel, but it does indicate that Donoso does know what he’s doing and is not simply spitting words on to paper.

On page 211, Humberto has a moment of clarity:

All my work will explode inside my body, each fragment of my anatomy will acquire a life of its own, outside mine, Humberto won’t exist, only these monsters, the despot who imprisoned me at La Rinconada to force me to invent him, Ines’s honey complexion, Brigida’s death, Iris Mateluna’s hysterical pregnancy, the saintly girl who was never beatified, Humberto Penaloza’s father pointing out Don Jeronimo dressed up to go to the Jockey Club, and your benign, kind hand, Mother Benita, that does not and will not let go of mine, and your attention fixed on these words of a mute, and your rosaries, the Casa’s La Rinconada as it once was, as it is now, as it was afterwards, the escape, the crime, all of it alive in my brain, Peta Ponce’s prism refracting and confusing everything and creating simultaneous and contradictory planes, everything without ever reaching paper, because I always hear voices and laughter enveloping and tying me up.

The events referenced in the first half all fall into the second, realistic story, and the rest of it is a very accurate description of the Mudito storyline, as he is tormented by the witch figure here taking the form of Ines’s nursemaid Peta Ponce. This passage presents a more reductionistic framework: Humberto as author enveloping his created reality, even as its inspiration drives him to lose his identity and bodily and mental integrity.

There’s a power to the book that holds steady for much of it, something stronger than Cortazar and Cabrera Infante, who were both willing to work with the grotesque but maintain a steely hold over their characters and environment. As far as a dissection of the part of the creative process before pen gets put to paper, its assault is far more resonant than Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew, where the dominant emotion is amusement mixed with pathos. Donoso doesn’t have much of either; mostly, there is inchoate, solipsistic horror.