Jose Donoso: The Garden Next Door

This is a late novel by Donoso, and it bears very little resemblance to anything else I’ve read by him. The Obscene Bird of Night and A House in the Country are two of the greatest Latin American novels I have read; hell, two of the greatest novels I have read, period. (Just for comparison, I would easily rate both above Hopscotch, Avalovara, Terra Nostra, Three Trapped Tigers, Paradiso, and anything by Garcia Marquez.) Garden does not even seem to try for such heights: it is realistic and contemporary, two characteristics utterly lacking from the other works. And it is more or less a joke, which is not to say that it’s not brilliant. It’s just that the book is perplexing until the “punchline” of the last chapter, which is one hell of a punchline.

It’s also fascinating for how much it prefigures Roberto Bolano. There is very little similarity between Bolano’s work and Donoso’s earlier novels, but the overlap here is ridiculous. The novel uses a first-person reportage style to describe a sad Chilean expatriate writer living in Spain, a Boom also-ran associating with his obnoxious betters, and so has lots of sniping and sour grapes about the politics of the Boom and the poor standards used to decide who gets anointed as genius. Our narrator Julio is bitter, and so he creates his own, even more exclusive world in the strange, aristocratic house next to his apartment, shutting out even the famous writers:

Ah, the splendor…the old heart-rending nostalgia for impossible times and bodies! The Gatsby-F. Scott Fitzgerald part of a world out of my reach, the party I wasn’t invited to and can only dream about…. Ah, the childish fantasy, the terror at being left out! Left out? Impossible? What about my novel, that fierce weapon, to start forcing the breach? Nuria Monclus, Vargas Llosa, Roa Bastos, Fuentes, Chiriboga, Cortazar…do they have access? No. This is a closed circuit, with its own language and values, an underworld with its different stars. I long to pass through to the other side of the looking glass they live in, where perhaps the air is so thick it stops you from breathing.

It is the fictional Chiriboga to whom Julio has the most animosity, and his rants against him are hilarious. (Does Chiriboga have a real-life analogue? It seems unlikely.) He is also vexed by kingmaker editor Nuria Monclus, who does not seem to have much interest in making him into the next Cortazar. Julio is in agony because he also realizes he does not have it in him to write the great novel that he can conceive of in his mind, the one that would beat out all these other pretenders and give him the fame he thinks he deserves. But as Julio listlessly drags himself to art parties and associates with the local lowlife, his wife descends into alcoholic stupor assisted by the street kid Bijou and her friend Katy, while Julio remains utterly ineffective and sidelined. These are the Pinochet years: the expatriates either seem to delude themselves into their own private world of importance, or they are simply resigned and lost.

And then, after the novel enters the impoverished streets of Spain, the narrative turns into something out of The Sheltering Sky with a detour to Tangiers, and then…well, I can’t give away the punchline. The novel is short enough that I won’t ruin it other than saying that it is a damn near perfect double-punchline, ironic, incisive, and ambivalent all at once, and I had no idea Donoso had it in him to pull something like this off. It gives greater resonance and cruel humor to all that has happened up to that point, and makes it clear that the novel is about more than writing, but the use and abuse of human imagination in losing and finding one’s self. Bravo.