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.