José Donoso (1924-1996) was one of Chile's most distinguished and widely read authors. His novels especially brought him international fame.
José Donoso was born on October 5, 1924, in Santiago, Chile, into a well-to-do family of lawyers and doctors. As a child he attended the "The Grange," an English day school where he remained for a decade and learned English well. He was a rebellious student, hating school work and compulsory sports, and, according to his own account, "this collective experience may have determined my lifelong incapacity to belong to groups of any kind—political, social or recreational."
As a youth, he dropped out of school, traveled about to various places in Chile and abroad, and finally went back to finish his education at the University of Chile. There he won a two year scholarship to Princeton University, where he took a B.A. in 1951 and where he published his first two stories—in English—in the campus literary magazine.
After returning to Chile in 1952 Donoso held a series of teaching jobs while continuing to write stories. His first book of short stories, Summer Vacation (Veraneo), appeared in 1955 and received considerable critical notice. In 1962 he was awarded the William Faulkner Foundation Prize for Chile for his first novel, Coronation (Coronación, 1957; English translation, 1965).
Donoso's fame was assured after Coronation appeared. This novel describes a family of Santiago's aristocratic society fallen into decay. A 90-ish grandmother rules in her imposing Victorian mansion over the remnants of her family—mainly her weakling grandson—and a bevy of servants. The book is filled with grotesque figures and situations, a constant in Donoso's work. Though the satire of upper class life seems cruel at times, Donoso also wrote of his characters with compassion and humor.
In 1960 Donoso brought out another collection of fine stories, The Charleston (El Charleston), dedicated to the young lady from Bolivia to whom he had been engaged for some time. The following year they finally married. The reader of the tales in El Charleston will probably be fascinated by all the frustrations and the dark world of passions portrayed in them, especially among members of the Chilean upper middle class, and also by the contrast with under-statement found in the British style of Jane Austen or Henry James.
During 1965-1967 Donoso taught creative writing at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, and in 1967 he moved to Spain where his only child, a daughter, was born. His second and third novels, This Sunday (Este domingo, 1966) and Place without Limits (Ellugar sin límites, 1967), were published in quick succession. This Sunday contains some lively, vivid characters, and the dramatic conflicts within them and between them sharpen the reader's interest. Especially noteworthy is the young narrator's grandmother Chepa, a wealthy society lady who devotes herself to charities and the poor, and Maya, a bum who is the chief recipient of her benevolence. The relationships between these two and other members of the narrator's family are complicated and filled with repressed violence which finally bursts out, bringing them to a tragic ending. As in Coronation and in his stories, houses and other inanimate things take on life under Donoso's powerfully descriptive pen. Symbols abound and sensations are stressed—for example, the long opening scene describes the delicious smells wafted through the house by Violeta's Sunday dinner meat pies, and these empanadas recur as a motif throughout the book.
For a number of years Donoso and his family lived in Spain (Madrid, Mallorca, near Barcelona), and in this latter city his most ambitious novel, The Obscene Bird of Night (El obsceno pájaro de la noche), was published in 1970. While he was writing this lengthy book, which took several years to accomplish, Donoso confessed that he passed through spells of "madness"—paranoia, hallucinations, split personality, and suicide attempts. He had been prone to imaginary illness since childhood when he had pretended to have stomach aches when he didn't want to go to school and he fooled his doctor father who diagnosed appendicitis. In adult life he was plagued by psychosomatic illness, and his imagined ulcers became real.
The Obscene Bird of Night, with its catchy title—a phrase Donoso found in a letter written by Henry James, Sr. to his sons—is undoubtedly a masterpiece. This sprawling, obscure, fascinating, imaginative, 540-page novel is concerned with large problems of identity, the losing of oneself in a plurality of masks. The leading character, Humberto Peñaloza, goes through all kinds of character changes, real or imaginary. The first of these changes is motivated by the insignificance of his lowly social origins in Chilean society and his intense wish to be somebody. Later he is moved by his own feelings of inadequacy or frustration and strong desires for self-destruction. There is one long fantastic section of the novel devoted entirely to depicting a world of real physical monsters, where normal intruders become the monsters. The plot and structure, though carefully ordered, seem chaotic. The Bird reminds us of the distorted world of Goya's dark period and the nightmarish quality of Bosch's paintings, such as "The Seven Deadly Sins." It evokes a world filled with terror and dreams, myth and legend, at the same time that it dissects various levels of society with a sharp eye.
After The Bird, Donoso continued to turn out novels, including Country House (Casa de campo, 1978) and The Garden Next Door (El jardín de al lado, 1981) and shorter pieces of fiction, such as Three Bourgeois Novelettes (Tres novelitas burguesas, 1973) and the erotic novel The Mysterious Disappearance of the Marquise of Loria (La misteriosa desaparición de la Marquesita de Loria, 1980).
About 1980 Donoso returned to his homeland of Chile. Interviewed years later by Fernando Ainsa for the UNESCO Courier (1994), Donoso spoke of exile, his own as well as the literary theme of exile, "Wherever people go, whatever they do, they take their homeland, their home town, with them, and there is no way of going into voluntary exile from one's own self, whatever some people may think or claim to the contrary. The primary reason why I returned to Chile was homesickness, which gets worse as one gets older…." Donoso reflected this philosophy in The Garden Next Door (1981), which conveyed a strong theme of exile, and in Despair (Desesperanza, 1986), which revolved around the theme of homecoming.
He also felt that he could make a larger contribution to society and the literary world writing from his homeland. The 1980s and 1990s, he felt, were a time when writers abandoned their desire to prescribe remedies for the world's ills, and instead focused on interpreting individual life stories. Author of numerous critically acclaimed works during this period, Donoso was awarded Chile's Premio Nacional in 1990.
Among his later novels were:Curfew, Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe: Two Novellas (Taratuta. Naturaleza muerta con cachimba (1990), Hell Has No Limits, and Cuatro para Delfina (1982). Throughout his writing the reader is aware of layer upon layer of "wrappings" around his characters' identities, so much so that some critics believe that the imposed masks or disguises become the character's identity. Donoso died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 72.
Donoso is listed in various guides, such as The Oxford Companion to Spanish Literature (1978) and D. W. Foster and V. R. Foster, editors, Modern Latin American Literature (1975). The journal Review devoted to Latin American literature and printed entirely in English focused a large part of its fall 1973 issue on Donoso and his novel The Bird, including a chronology of his life and works by the author himself. Briefer sketches in English appear in standard anthologies of Latin American literature, as well as articles in periodicals such as: New York Times (December 9, 1996), Hispanic Review (Summer 1994), and UNESCO Courier (July 1994), and World Literature Today (Summer 1993).