Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Chapter 3

The Azcoitias

The Casa is owned, legally at least, by the Azcoitia family. In practice, the family allows the Church to do with it as it will.

The story of the previous chapter - that of the landowner and the witch - is the story of the Azcoitia family. The convent that the girl was sent off to is the Casa itself.

The Casa has been in the family since, passed down generation after generation. In recent generations, it seems, the family line has been in danger of dying out. Each generation has yielded only one male, creating a fragile thread of inheritance. The current owner is Don Jeronimo Azcoitia. He is married to a woman named Ines and they do not yet have any children.

Ines has already received several mentions. We know she is in Rome, having gone there to try to attain beatification for the same girl-witch from the story. Mudito tells us that he assisted her in gathering the documentation to present to the Cardinals. We also know, from fragments of gossip, that Ines has been unsuccessful but has not returned yet from Rome.

There is one exception to the one-male lineage. A man named Don Clemente who is Don Jeronimo's father's brother - a second son.

This chapter is as much about decay as it is about the Azcoitias. The Casa was once a busy convent, a spiritual retreat where notable members of the Church would come to contemplate and purge themselves of their sins. Now it is dark, damp and abandoned, the domain of rats. Mudito has been severing off entire chambers and wings since the abandonment has led to broken floors and railings. Only three nuns remain, a pack of old women and a handful of orphans who were left here by an orphanage but never retrieved.

The Azcoitia family too has decayed. Jeronimo is the last of his line but he "still kept alive the insane hope that his wife's useless womb would procreate." He also finally signs over the Casa to the Church.

Don Clemente, we learn, spent his final days in the Casa. He arrives as an infirm old man and quickly descends into madness. Mudito becomes his caretaker but even he cannot control Don Clemente who screams and moans and takes to wandering the Casa half-naked. Mudito's solution is to wall him off:

" night, as Don Clemente slept, I walled up his window with bricks and cement, the first window I walled up in the Casa. Then, and this was my idea, I painted it over on the outside, the same color as the wall. And now you can't tell where the window used to be."

The theme of containment, of isolation, of walled-up worlds has already recurred several times in just the first few chapters. As we progress through the novel, this idea will continue to appear in forms that are increasingly potent and demented.

In any case, Don Clemente escapes and wanders into the Chapel:

"...he appeared in the presbytery as naked as God cast him into the world and, with his stick began smashing everything he could find, as the old women wailed and screamed and fled, scandalized by the naked Don Clemente, who desecrated the chapel...I rushed over to cover him...and I took him to his cell...he passed away two days later."

Apparently, the ghost of Don Clemente still wanders through the Casa and the women continue to fervently recite rosaries so that his spirit may finally be banished.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Chapter 2

The Seventh Witch

I recall from a previous read of this novel that there is a constant shifting of Time and characters. Identities do not always remain fixed and causality takes second place to the pre-eminence of narrative.

Brigida is alive and so this episode precedes the previous one or is almost concurrent with it. She is one of six women who gather at night in a corner of the Casa to gossip and tell stories. They have a pet too - the same Iris Mateluna - whom they hold in their arms like a baby and fuss with her clothes and hair as if she were a doll.

Mudito is near and hears one of the women tell a story. This story-within-the-story occupies the majority of this chapter.

The story, a once-upon-a-time tale, is about a great landowner who ruled over people and farms and towns. He had nine boys and one girl. The ten children, we are told, were models of virtue - industrious and beautiful and well-loved.

And then a rumor began circulating among the peasants. Frightening apparitions had been seen - a floating screaming head which resembled the landowners daughter. The conclusion is made among the people that the landowners daughter must be a witch.

One of the landowner's sons hears of this rumor and shares it with his brothers. At first they dismiss it as sheer idiocy and false gossip. But they begin to spy on their younger sister and the nursemaid who shares her room. Despite their eavesdropping, however, nothing suspicious is uncovered.

Then the apparition is actually sighted and the brothers are summoned. They rush back to their sister's room to find the nursemaid in a suspended state. The sister offers to explain it all if they do not kill the nursemaid. But she is ignored and sent off to live in a convent.

Fearful that the witch's body will contaminate the land, her body is tied to a floating log and shepherded for days by a band of horsemen until it reaches the sea:

"...this time the witches hadn't been able to steal the landowner's lovely daughter, which is what the witches were after, to steal her and sew up the nine orifices of her body and turn her into an imbunche, because that's the reason witches steal poor innocent children, to turn them into imbunches and keep them in their underground grottoes, with their eyes sewed up, their sex organs sewed up, their anuses sewed up, their mouths, nostrils, ears, everything sewed up, letting their hair and their fingernails and their toenails grow long, turning them into idiots, making the poor things worse off than animals, filthy, ridden with lice, able only to hop around when the goat and the drunken witches command them to dance..."

The story ends. Mudito also overhears that Iris Mateluna is pregnant. With grunts and gestures he threatens to tell this news to the nuns but the old women first laugh at him and then threaten to cast him out from the Casa to be chased and eaten by wolves.

The old women have a plan for Iris Mateluna and allow him to join because the Casa is his domain, he is the one who has keys and knows all the dark corridors:

"'Let him find us a room, a hidden loft, someplace no one knows about where we can bring up the miraculous baby that will be born of Iris's womb... Mudito find us a place, understand, where... no one is to know... no one is to hear... and no one is to see...'

Only when I told them I'd found just the right place, a cellar, was I accepted and allowed to be the seventh witch."

The story of the imbunche which first appears in this chapter is not an invention of Donoso's. The imbunche is a figure from Chilean folktales (particularly in the south of Chile) and is as described in the novel. Allegorically, it is a creature who is of this world and yet is completely shut off from it. The imbunche theme is echoed again at the end of the chapter as the women seek a place within the depths of the Casa also to hide from the outside world.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Chapter 1

La Casa de Ejercicios Espirituales de la Encarnacion

The novel opens up with a Death, quickly followed by a funeral. The setting is the Casa de Ejercicios Espirituales de la Encarnacion, with its "forty women inmates, three nuns and five young orphans." Our narrator, we quickly learn, is apparently a man named Mudito (The Mute) who attends to the women of the Casa.

One of the women, a certain Brigida, died in her sleep and Mistress Raquel Ruiz who is Brigida's patron (or employer) is summoned. Misia Raquel organizes a Mass and a funeral. The old women of the Casa look on approvingly, noting that just last week a certain Mercedes Barroso had died and been abandoned by her patrons and was carted off in a public welfare truck.

The first chapter soon splits into two narratives. The first is the aftermath of Brigida's death. With her body gone, all that is left is her chamber and her possessions: "This place is still here. It keeps another Brigida alive while the body of the dead one is beginning to feed the worms." But Mudito and Mother Benita, one of the nuns, assess nothing they deem to be of value:

"Mother Benita, you and I have come here to carve up this Brigida who's still alive, to divide her up, to burn her, to throw her out, to eradicate the Brigida who hoped to live on in the orderliness of her possessions. To wipe out all traces of her so that tomorrow or the next day they can send us another old woman..."

Meanwhile Iris Mateluna, and the other girl orphans are exploring various abandoned upper chambers of the enormous Casa, easily removing boards, because, we are told by an omniscient narrator who is also Mudito, he has loosened nails and doors and eased their way. The other smaller orphans prod Iris Mateluna along: "...hey, fatso's so heavy everythings creaking under her..." pushing her up into the sunlit chambers. Iris then asks Eliana, one of the other orphans, to read her some comic books but Eliana refuses unless she is paid. Iris assures her that payment will come after Iris "plays yumyum" with a man alluded to as "the Giant."

The sun dissappears. Evening arrives. The man referred to as the Giant appears out in the street. Iris goes to the window and dances for him:

"...give it all you've got, good-lookin, shake those tits, shake your ass off, burn down the Casa, burn us all...And the Giant, with his enormous paper-mache head, steps into the middle of the street and dances as if he were dancing with Iris. Iris sways, grinds her hips, gyrates, shakes and screams from her candelit cage that seems to hang from the side of the Casa as she dances like a Virgin Mary gone berserk in her niche."

The Giant pleads with her to come down and offers her lipstick and magazines.

In Donoso's book, the chapters are numbered but untitled. Here, for my own reference, I am providing a title for the entry on each chapter. The true protagonist of this first chapter is not Mudito, not the busybody women nor the gyrating Iris Mateluna. It is the Casa itself. It is enormous and labyrinthine with the women and children huddled in one of its corners:

"One then a second empty room, rows of vacant rooms, more doors, some open, some closed, because its all the same if they're open or closed, more rooms to cross..."

"...endless courts and cloisters connected by corridors that never end, rooms we'll never try to clean again even if up until a short time ago you used to say, yes, Mudito, one of these days the first chance we have, we're going to clean everything..."

"You've tried so many times to convince them to sleep in the rooms. There are hundreds and hundreds of them, good, spacious all, Mother,we're afraid they're much too big and the celings are too high...they're enormous and long as we're all together in spite of the envy and greed or the terror that shrivels our toothless mouths and makes our gummy eyes squint...we're together and can drive off any shadows that drop from the beams and stretch out towards us when it begins to get dark."

Curiously, despite the funerals and the dancing, nobody leaves or enters the Casa in this chapter. It appears to exist as a distinct world. The women only see off the funeral cars at the entrance but do not join the funeral. Iris dances with her Giant but she dances inside while he dances outside in the street. Mistress Raquel retrieves two things from the Casa: a wedding dress (that Brigida was sewing for Mistress Raquel's granddaughter), and a bicycle. Both things are brought out to her by Mudito.

By the end of the chapter, all the old women have converged on all the previous possessions of Brigida. They abscond with small trinkets which in turn will be absconded after their own deaths. Greedy and pleading, they overwhelm Mudito and amidst noise and prattle and grabs, they complete the eradication of Brigida.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Monsters and Labyrinths

This is one way of summarizing Donoso's novel El Obsceno Pajaro de la Noche (The Obscene Bird of Night) The title is lifted from a letter that Henry James Sr. wrote to his two sons. It is a frightening, beautiful passage:

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 death 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.

Over the course of 30 entries, one for each chapter I intend to attempt to make sense of this rich and layered novel which has often been hailed as Donoso's masterpiece and one of the great works of Spanish literature. Hopefully, contributing a tiny part to help lift this novel from obscurity.

My first encounter with this book was in a graduate Spanish literature seminar I attended during my undergraduate years at Harvard. Regrettably, I have forgotten the name of the professor who led my seminar. The goal of the seminar was to study and discuss a few outstanding works of Spanish literature. Other books included Rulfo's Pedro Paramo, Garcia Marquez's El Otono del Patriarca, Carpentier's Los Pasos Perdidos, and Angel Asturias' El Senor Presidente. I was in this seminar as an academic tourist, as a potential precursor to a degree in Spanish Literature - I was also enrolled in another class by the late Juan Marichal.

In any case, the seminar included not one but two books by Donoso - El Obsceno Pajaro de la Noche and Casa de Campo (House in the Country) The latter book is a deep and entertaining allegory - A group of children at a rural vacation home are left alone by their parents who disappear on an expedition. The parents do not return and so the children organize themselves into a small society around a natural leader - a young and exceedingly articulate boy who also insists on dressing in girl's clothing. The children are left to deal with the local natives - it is hinted they are cannibals - who arrive and invade the country estate. The book, like those of Garcia Marquez, has been discussed as a narrative of Latin American politics. For Donoso, it is as much a story of dictators as it is a collision between the artifice and aesthetics of the European world and the Nativism of the South American landscape.

As regards El Obsceno Pajaro de la Noche, I am basing my readings on two editions. The first is the original Spanish publication by Seix Barral from 1970. The second is the English edition from 1973 which includes this quote from Donoso:

Since this novel first appeared in Spanish, I have made certain cuts and changes which are incorporated into the English-language edition, and which will be used in any future editions of the book.

The English Edition includes as its cover graphic what appears to be an anatomical misfit, a not inaccurate representation of this book of misfits but I prefer the cover graphic of the Spanish edition - a photograph of a burlap sack. I won't unravel the details now except to say that the burlap sack appears only briefly and late in the novel but is one of those details that either clarifies or obscures (depending on your interpretation) the events which precede its appearance. The sack also alludes to "The Man of the Sack" (El Hombre del Saco) who..

"...seems to be one of the earliest versions of the "bogeyman" legend. He manifests in tales as an old man with a large sack slung over his shoulder, stretched taut from the bundles of kidnapped children struggling within. He prowls the backalleys and other dark corners of his haunts, always alert for more unwary youngsters." (EM)

So the two book covers are perhaps similar after all. They both hint that this novel is a novel of misfits and monsters, of dark backalleys, of the inhabitants of the shadow world.