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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.

from Jose Donoso

The fact remains that Wenceslao, like my other children, is an emblematic figure: the most memorable, perhaps, of a number of boys and girls who, as in a Poussin painting, caper in the foreground, untraceable to any model because they are not portraits, their features unconstrained by any but the most formal lineaments of individuality or passion. They and their games are little more than a pretext for the painting to have a name, because what it expresses does not reside in those quaint games which merely provide a focal point: no, a higher place in the artist’s intent has been given to the interaction between these figures and the landscape of rocks and valleys and trees that stretches toward the horizon, where, in golden proportion, it gives way to the beautiful, stirring, intangible sky, creating that unabashedly unreal space which is the true protagonist of the painting, as pure narrative is the protagonist in a novel that sets out to grind up characters, time, space, psychology, and sociology in one great tide of language.

A House in the Country (tr. Pritchard/Levine)

A weird quote from a weird book by a weird genius of an author. This is one of his typically oblique attacks on “realism” in fiction, which (he says elsewhere) comes naturally to him, but is a lie. I will have more to say after I finish reading the book.

Kobo Abe

Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night also reminds me of Kobo Abe, particularly his insane works of the 70’s, The Box Man and Secret Rendezvous. As long as we’re drawing cross-continental comparisons, William Burroughs is there too, but Burroughs more surrealist, later work is pedantic and decadent in a too-familiar way. These two books of Abe’s aren’t familiar. They don’t seem like successes, and it’s not easy to say that they succeed on their own terms, because they don’t appear to have their own terms. Calling them pretentious is besides the point, since the books don’t have a pretense towards anything in particular. Psychological and and political intimations turn out to be complete blinds; what mostly flows out of the books is deep, total sickness. Apart from Inter Ice Age 4, an early work which gets mired in the tropes of science fiction, most of Abe’s translated books do have a purity about them.

I discovered Abe through The Woman in the Dunes. At the time I was a huge Camus adherent, and the summary of a man trapped in a sand pit with a woman who has lived there for years, makes it sound similar to any number of existentialist works of fiction. It’s not. Attempts to draw a metaphor do not work, since the book remains focused on the constraining of the man with a fundamentally unresponsive woman, and his very real interaction with the sadistic villagers keeping him there. The slow madness that overcomes him stems from the particular (and odd) circumstances rather than any speculative human condition. Far from existential, the story has more in common with Nabokov, especially the finely-ground fantasies Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister, though it’s far more realistic than either. Teshigahara’s film of the book also seems to misunderstand it (though it has an amazing, crackling score by Toru Takemitsu), adoping long shots of dunes that don’t fit with the relative lack of desperation on the man’s part.

By the 70’s, Abe had headed away from anything close to realism. The Box Man revolves around a series of men who walk around with boxes on their heads, with doppelgangers and fakes, disconnected memories and self-consciously pompous meanderings on the integrity of being a box man. Michaela Grey offers an excellent description of the book, but I disagree with her tying it to Derrida: Abe remained focused on personal identity and integrity and was never concerned with purely textual matters. But the book is nuttier than what comes out in the article, since Abe never builds up any credibility in the narrative. The only strand that rings true is one about the noetic nature of being a box man, an affirmation that can’t be obtained externally. This in turn implies that any individual section of the book is dubious, since in total they are the ramblings of one or more men whose ability to place themselves in the world is falling apart. Apart from the surreal surface, here is where there is the most commonality with Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, in its resolute lack of commitment to any particular reality.

Secret Rendezvous is more narratively coherent, but only furthers the idea that individual plot points, characters, and settings are losing all intrinsic meaning short of inciting a vague, sickly psychosexual aura. The narrator’s wife is abducted one morning by an ambulance, and he journeys through the labyrinthine hospital attempting to find her. There is a nice twist on Kafka, when the frustrated narrator is allowed full access to the hospital’s surveillance tapes, only to find that there are so, so many hours of tape that he’ll never be able to derive anything from them. Again, the mental state of the man is subordinate to the organic disease around him that he seems oddly distant from. When, at the end, he ends up leading an entourage including a girl whose bones are dissolving, the enviroment mirrors the girl by not remaining firm enough to grasp. The parallel to Kafka is most appropriate here, but the “characters” are as indeterminate as the landscape. Where Kafka dealt with amorphous persecution, Abe simply pulls the rug out from everything he touches.

There is, at the heart of these books, very little interest in character or psychology, despite the trappings that appear. The next book he wrote, The Ark Sakura, is far less disorienting, but the main character, a paranoid survivalist, spends the last third of the book with his leg caught in an industrial toilet and the other characters are one-dimensional. The book is essentialy a Stevenson-like adventure story, and the abrupt end pushes the unreality of what’s gone before, as he finally emerges from his cave into the light:

Beyond the transparent people lay a transparent town. Was I transparent, then, too? I held a hand up to my face–and through it saw buildings.

The situations Abe deals in do not raise epistemological or existential questions; they are deranged treatments of metaphysics. The question is whether the shifting realities and, in The Box Man, pseudo-philosophical ramblings amount to something that is prior to experience and organized thought. With Donoso, I believe it is. With Abe, they seem detached from thought altogether: some sort of objectification of humans. The perversions in his books often come off as heartless, but Abe may be pushing for metaphysical heartlessness.

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.

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