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.