Obituary:Jose Donoso

"Without literature, I could not go on living." Jose Donoso, the great Chilean novelist, best known in the English-speaking world for his nightmarish evocations of gruesome yet appealing human monsters, El osceno pjaro de la noche (The Obscene Bird of Night, 1971), was a writer in a land better known for its poets - Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, both Nobel prizewinners. Yet Donoso's sulphurous prose has strong poetic elements that make his more extreme visions and excoriations of modern civilisation attractive and, for sensitive souls, more bearable.

Donoso was known as the "Fifth Man" in the group of writers forever associated now with the "Latin American Boom" of the Sixties and Seventies - Garca Marquez, Julio Cortzar, Carlos Fuentes and Vargas Llosa. In 1972, he wrote an essay on the movement, Historia personal del "Boom".

He performed the remarkable balancing trick of remaining on friendly terms with his fellow boomers, of widely differing and often changeable political and literary affiliations, but his favourite among them was always Cortzar, the Argentinian novelist whose fantasy was, like his own, blessed with the redeeming grace of poetry. His wife, Maria del Pilar Serrano, has written the best account of this boom in "magic realism", Los de entonces ("As They Were Then"), in which her husband appears as a dedicated cortazariano. As a human being, Donoso was by far the most attractive and generous of the group, and it was this inborn spirit of generosity, so rare among writers, that contributes to the greatness of his style, and makes of him the greatest contemporary South American author.

He was born in Santiago de Chile, in a land which has strong links with Britain and British culture. His family was middle-class, with artistic and literary tastes. His father, whose other passions were horses and cards, loved literature, and introduced him at an early age to Russian and French writers, but also to the English classics, and young Jose's favourite writer was George Eliot, in particular Middlemarch, one of the wittiest novels in the English language.

He was educated at an English-orientated institution, the Grange School in Santiago, where he composed his first stories in English. Then he was an unwilling student at the Instituto Pedaggico at the University of Chile, before moving on to more fruitful studies at Princeton, where he took a BA degree in English Literature.

Donoso's life was one of wanderings. Before going to the university, he had worked as a shepherd in Patagonia. Then he lived for a while in Buenos Aires. He obtained a Doherty Foundation scholarship to attend Princeton, then worked as a teacher and journalist in Chile, and won the Chile-Italia Prize for Journalism for his work on the Revista Eroilla in Santiago in 1960. Meanwhile, he had in 1955 brought out at his own expense a volume of short stories, Veraneo ("Summer Holiday"). But, in 1957, his novel Coronacin was bought by a publisher and became a great success, one of the most important of transandean works, which won the Premio Municipal. It was followed by another collection of short stories, El charleston, in 1960. Coronacin, which attacked the Chilean ruling classes, was translated into several languages, and was awarded the William Faulkner Foundation Prize in 1962. Faulkner had inevitably become another of his most admired authors, as indeed he had for many modern Latin American writers.

A similar revolutionary attitude towards established authority in the government and the Roman Catholic Church was evident in the 1967 novel Este domingo ("This Sunday"). In the same year, El lugar sin limites ("The Place Without Limits") further intensified his feelings for the horrors of contemporary life, charted with cool, acid precision and a bitter humour, though always made palatable by the extraordinarily beautiful style of poetic magical realism that made grotesque transvestite absurdities believable.

Donoso used to say that his books were not just night-mares, they were his real daily life. The title sends us back to Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faust:

Hell hath no limits nor is

circumscribed

In one self-place; for where we are

is hell,

And where hell is, we must ever

be . . .

This is a theme Donoso was also to find in T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party:

Hell is oneself;

Hell is alone, the other figures in it

Merely projections. There is nothing

to escape from

And nothing to escape to. One is

always alone . . .

Thus Donoso shows the popular existentialist view of hell as "other people" as something very superficial and insipid. It was made into a magnificent film by the great Mexican director Arturo Ripstein (1977) which enjoyed international acclaim. Of all Donoso's work, this is my favourite, even greater than his generally accepted greatest masterpiece, The Obscene Bird of Night.

Its portraits of social decadence are conceived in a way that reminds one of Francis Bacon's monstrous canvases of deliquescent corpse-like figures no longer human, and animated only by their distorted clothing or tortured limbs. This astringent vision of our lives has a putrescent glow, and performs what is perhaps the most important task of literature - to unsettle and disturb, to shatter complacencies. Casa de campo ("Country House", 1978) is an allegory of the decline and fall of a certain ruling class in Chile, set in the 19th century, a virtuoso distancing from the Pinochet regime.

With the publication of writings like these, it was a foregone conclusion that Jose Donoso would one day have to go into "voluntary exile". The other kind, "interior exile" or self- silencing, was not for him. So he became one of the many fortunate writers invited to teach at the University of Iowa's Creative Writing Workshops in the mid-Sixties, after staying for a while at his friend Carlos Fuentes' house in Mexico, waiting for a visa to enter the United States.

He said he had left Chile for only a few months, but those few months became 18 years of not altogether comfortable expatriate life in Spain, tellingly sketched in El jardn de la lada ("The Next Door Garden") in 1981, which begins with a call from a Spanish friend asking where he and his wife are planning to spend the summer - a question fraught with bitter irony for those who cannot afford to abandon "the hell of Sitges" for cooler climes.

Donoso's return to Chile is described in the same disabused comic tones in La Desesperanza ("Desperation", 1985) - a return to Chile still under dictatorial rule. There he wrote his last big work, Donde van a morir los elefantes ("Where the Elephants Go to Die") in 1994, a huge novel of 600 pages on which he had worked non-stop for 15 hours a day. He had long known he was mortally ill, and in his typically deadpan comic manner would declare: "I have cast-iron ill-health." His Conjecturas sobre la memoria de m tribu ("Conjectures about the Memory of my Tribe") was published in Spain in October.

Jose Donoso worked to the very last. He had completed a new novel, El Mocho, and had started on the script of a Mexican soap opera for television which entertained him in his last days. We might now almost reverse his own saying, and with his death declare: "Literature can not go on living without him."

James Kirkup

Jose Donoso, writer: born Santiago de Chile 5 October 1924; married Maria del Pilar Serrano (one daughter); died Santiago 7 December 1996.

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