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.