Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Obscene Bird of Night

4. The Obscene Bird of Night, by Jose Donoso

The epigraph of the novel, The Obscene Bird of Night, is taken from a letter by Henry James Sr. to his two sons.
Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce; that it is not genteel comedy even; that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths of the essential dearth in which its subject's roots are plunged. The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.
The novel opens with a stately funeral procession for Mother Benita, the Mother Superior of La Casa del Ejercicios Espirituales de la Encarnacion.

The Casa is a huge, gothic convent with labyrinthine hallways, "endless courts and cloisters connected by corridors that never end," many of them being boarded up now that the building is no longer used as a convent. Instead, it has become a refuge for a horde of old women who inhabit the dark, sequestered rooms.

Much of the story takes place inside this ghastly building. The narrator's description of the convent is so meticulous and repetitive, almost like a refrain, that the setting is impressed upon the reader's mind.

The narrator of The Obscene Bird of Night is practically an enigma, moving between the voice that opens the novel--holding an endless, open conversation with Mother Benita--and various other narrative voices in the first person.

Reading the novel for the first time can be an exhilarating but also somewhat confusing experience. Only after my fifth reading do I feel confident in saying I understand the logic behind the panoply of narrative voices.

You may think there are several narrators of this novel. For example, there is Mudito, a mute who lives in the Casa and is ordered around by the old women; a nun who is indistinguishable from the other nuns; and Humberto Peñaloza, secretary to the wealthy landowner and politician at the center of the novel.

But in fact all of the narrators are the same person, the various guises of Humberto Peñaloza, who, later in the story, we also learn, is a writer assigned by Don Jeronimo de Azcoitia (the wealthy landowner) to write "the history of Boy's world" . . .

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

As a writer myself, The Obscene Bird of Night endlessly fascinates me for its subtle and intricate construction. The tense shifts, point of view shifts, and various story arcs, all contribute to the grand illusion of Jose Donoso's unique magical realism.

This quantum fiction is geometrically precise, laid out like concentric circles around a common theme. Three or four narratives overlap each other, each with characters that act as doubles, or doppelgangers, to the characters in the other stories.

Beyond this literary pattern-making, Donoso's fictional world acquires its strangeness from absorbing an abundance of genres, including legend, fable, fairy tale, detective story, memoir, Modernist novel, and Realist novel. It also serves as a veiled critique of the ruling class in Chile, and a handful of other South American countries which operate similarly. But the critique never becomes too literal because the novel adeptly weaves in and out of a myth-like story with fabulous creatures and unlikely characters.

It is also a novel about a colony of monsters.

Don Jeronimo de Azcoitia must produce an heir for the continuation of his family line. Here is his uncle urging him, as a young man, to marry:
You can't go, Jeronimo. Listen to me, son, be reasonable. You're the only one left . . . and I had to take it into my head to become a priest, may God forgive me for saying it. You're the last one who can hand down the family name. You don't know how I've dreamed about an Azcoitia playing an important part once more in the country's public life! I waited for you so anxiously, assuming your obligations while you were enjoying an immoral life in Paris. But you're here now, and I'm not going to let you go.
Jeronimo falls in love with the "prettiest, most innocent girl who frequented the social salons at the time, a distant cousin with many female Azcoitia ancestors behind her".

After he proposes to her, he has a vision of perfection about the two of them. He sees their union as a "stone medallion", part of an "eternal frieze" of more medallions that carry the family name. We read, "He merely took pains to see that the magnificent legend of the perfect couple was fulfilled in both himself and his bride-to-be."
Jeronimo kissed her into silence. The womb heaving against his body would open to procure immortality for him: through their sons and grandsons, the frieze of medallions would extend forever.
There's only one problem. Ines has a nursemaid she's had since childhood who Jeronimo rejects. When Ines was young, she had a stomach illness that almost killed her. Peta Ponce, the nursemaid, preformed a miracle which removed the stomach illness from Ines by transferring it to Peta, the healer. Ever since Peta made this sacrifice, Ines has shown a fierce loyalty towards her.

Jeronimo believes that Peta Ponce is a witch, and he may be right. Trying to get her husband to overcome his fears, Ines takes him to the place where Peta lives. The grotesque setting, full of strange odors, large crates, and old clothes, repulses the aristocratic Jeronimo.
The heap of rags gathered itself together in order to give human reply to Ines's call. The old woman and the girl embarked on a conversation Jeronimo wasn't prepared to tolerate. The scene didn't fit into any medallion of eternal stone. And, if it did fit into any, it was into the other series, into the hostile legend that contradicted his own: the legend of the stained and the damned, who writhe on the left hand of God the Father Almighty. He had to pull Ines out of there immediately. To prevent her from taking part in this other series of medallions, the ones linked to servitude, to oblivion, to death. Ines was only a child who could be contaminated by the least little thing.
Ines's relationship to her nursemaid separates her from Jeronimo even in marriage. We are also told that "the heir began to take longer to arrive."

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

A prolonged waiting period ensues, with Ines spending more time with Peta Ponce, and Humberto becoming closer to Jeronimo in his duties to protect him. Each character is a double of the other--Jeronimo and Humberto, Ines and Peta. On the one hand, Jeronimo could be said to represent the light, and Humberto, the darkness. The same goes for Ines and Peta.

But Jose Donoso, in his Jungian intellectual and artistic vision, wishes to invert the simple, fixed equation of light and dark. And so, he blurs the characters and their interactions to create an alchemical reaction, an inversion of light and dark, good and evil, beauty and ugliness.

In the middle of the novel, after Jeronimo has been married to Ines for some time but has not produced an heir, a sexual act takes place. You have to read the novel to understand how ambiguous this part of the story is. We never really learn what happens. There are only possibilities, speculations, hypotheses. Either Jeronimo is finally able to impregnate his wife; or his secretary, Humberto Penaloza, impregnates her; or--and I believe this is the most likely of the three possible story-lines--the narrator impregnates Peta Ponce.

Whoever the child's parents are, the outcome is an heir for Don Jeronimo de Azcoitia. Jeronimo's vision of perfection, symbolized by the stone medallion, "one section of the eternal frieze," is at last a reality.

And here's when the story really starts to get interesting:
When Jeronimo finally parted the crib's curtains to look at his long-awaited offspring, he wanted to kill him then and there; the loathsome, gnarled body writhing on its hump, its mouth a gaping bestial hole in which palate and nose bared obscene bones and tissues in an incoherent cluster of reddish traits, was chaos, disorder, a different but worse form of death.

This post is part of a series of posts on "25 Profound Works of Literary Genius".



jlh said...

Thanks for this recommendation. I will make it my holiday reading.

Kim Williams said...

wow. wonderfully laid out. i'm still stuck on the fact that you've read it 5 times?!

i'll add it to my list.

Lethe said...

KIm: I've read it so many times because it's a very strange book, one that continues to elude you . . . as a writer there have been few books which have taught me so much . . .

Phillip S Phogg said...

...Only after my fifth reading do I feel confident in saying I understand the logic behind the panoply of narrative voices....

This raises certain issues. One, is that any novel worth reading should be read many times, with the first time merely an introduction to it.

Another issue is, how difficult should the novelist make it for his reader - a topic discussed on the Hannibal Blog, in respect of the recent Booker prize winner, "Wolf Hall".

My feeling is that obscurities in a novel (and "The Obscene Bird of Night" would seem to be obscurity-ridden, as is "Wolf Hall", which I'm presently discovering) are like speed bumps on a road, which the road-makers make in order that people drive slowly. A novel worth reading should be read slowly, should be dwelled upon two or three hours at a time, so that each paragraph can be savoured like good food.

But all this runs counter to what's happening in contemporary society, where attention spans are shorter, and spare time is fewer. Is it any wonder that the the novel is in danger of being supplanted by the essay? as discussed in this piece by Zadie Smith.

Lethe said...


Every reading of a book is merely an introduction to the next reading. Our comprehension of plot, character, and detail grows with each reading.

Which is why Harold Bloom calls reading literature a "difficult pleasure".

I agree, however, that there is a difference between obscurity and literary complexity. I feel The Obscene Bird deals more with the later, in that the author deftly laid out a number of narratives and superimposed them on each other in a revelatory way.

The novel is not a code which cannot be cracked. With sufficient attention and careful re-reading the novel can be enjoyed, appreciated, and understood on many levels.

It can be enjoyed on the first reading as much as on the fifth, but on the fifth, it can be fully understood.


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