Archive for the ‘Jose Donoso’ Category


February 12, 2023

Curfew was Jose Donoso’s eighth novel, originally published in 1986 and translated by Alfred MacAdam two years later with an altered title – the original was called La desesperanza or Despair. At the time, Chile was still under the dictatorship of Pinochet (the novel is set the year before it was written, 1985) and it concerns the return of the protest singer, Manungo Vera, at the time of the funeral of Pablo Neruda’s widow, Matilde, after exile in France. So long has Vera been away that the young son he brings with him (alternatively Jean-Paul and Juan Pablo) speaks little Spanish. He returns to a Chile where every act is political, and begins a relationship with an old comrade, Judit, who is simultaneously embarking on her own personal mission of revenge.

Vera arrives in Chile at what he feels is a turning point in his life – “The moment had come for Manungo Vera to turn into something else” – as his career is waning and his relationship with Jean-Paul’s mother has broken down. In Chile he is still famous, but also holds an ambiguous position as a protest singer who has never joined the Communist Party:

“Manungo became a cliché…He sold revolution even though he had no experience of what it was.”

Some in the Party, like Lisboa, regard him as a disappointment, “a personal betrayal of his hope that Manungo, like all great artists, would be an instrument for saving the world.” Neruda, too, was seen in this light by some, and now Matilde’s funeral is viewed as an opportunity for “the first political demonstration by the left in Chile under a state of siege.” (As a writer who also spent time in exile, you suspect Donoso was writing with some insight into the tensions of creating art under the dictatorship). How political the funeral will be is debated by many of the characters; when it is discovered that Matilde had requested a mass, whether this will happen or not is discussed largely in terms of how it might benefit the Party or otherwise.

If Manungo represents the path of escape, Judit has lived with her past. But her past is not the past others think it is – arrested and raped like other women on the left. Purely by chance, Judit avoided being assaulted but has let others assume that she was, and lives in fear that they discover the truth:

“Did the woman know of her deception? Was she, out of compassion, merely pretending that Judit, blindfolded, naked, had suffered the same torture as the others had, that she was one of the victims and for that reason her vengeance would be the vengeance of them all?”

Judit has been given a time and place where she can find the man responsible that night and has a pistol in her bag with which to kill him. Manungo becomes involved in this when they leave the wake together and she takes him out into the post-curfew night. It is in this section of the novel (‘Night’) that we learn Judit’s story, and, in particular, how she was only ever charged by the police as a criminal and was not a political prisoner:

“Those who went through this process usually died or went insane. Often they simply disappeared. In any case, they were rarely the same afterwards.”

Judit finds the man she is looking for and must decide whether to kill him or not, now knowing that Manungo may offer her another kind of life.

Though Manungo and Judit are the focus of the novel, it has a larger cast of characters which gather round the wake and then the funeral. These characters demonstrate a range of political opinion and fates. Perhaps the next most interesting is Lopito, a ‘friend’ of both Manungo and Judit, but one they often suffer in having. In his own words he is “a disgrace to society and the Party,” often drunk and always irresponsible. Thrown out of the room where he is staying, he moves in with Judit at the least convenient time and is found there by the couple when they arrive there the next ‘Morning’ (the novel’s final section). When he drunkenly insults the police towards the end, he is arrested and frantic attempts are made to get him released as he is being treated as a political prisoner. Perhaps more than any other character, he emphasizes the dangers of the time.

Though the novel is not entirely one of despair, one does sense Donoso struggling to see a brighter future for Chile. Political struggle seems to have been reduced to showmanship, and survival to negotiation and favours. The attempts to use Matilde’s funeral to make a political statement are distasteful but understandable. Manungo and Judit’s visit to a mausoleum seems an appropriate way to face the decisions they must make about their future – whether to stay or to go – as we realise it will cost them either way.

Taratuta / Still Life with Pipe

July 25, 2021

The Latin American Boom is most closely associated with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortazar, but if there were a fifth member of that illustrious, though not necessarily united, grouping, it would be Chilean Jose Donoso, who also wrote a personal history of the movement. And yet Donoso’s work is now entirely out of print in English, and any reader who decided to take an interest in him would find they had acquired an expensive hobby. The two novellas Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe are among his later work, originally published (in one volume) in 1990, and translated by Gregory Rabassa in 1993. Both are, in different ways, about artistic creation.

Taratuta explores a theme of central concern to the writers of the Boom period, the relationship between history and fiction, though Donoso takes what might be termed a post-modern approach, as is common in his later work. Not only does he feature as the narrator of the story, but, in it, he grapples noy only with an attempt to turn a minor historical character, Taratuta, into fiction, but to verify that character in fact. He first encounters Taratuta in a biography of Lenin – he is the lover of a wealthy young woman who must marry another (as she is still a minor) so that the fortune she has inherited can be pledged to the Bolshevik cause. Even his name, however, is uncertain:

“By what authority does Walter state that Lodzinski was the person’s surname and not Taratuta or Moskovsky as others assert, or Kammerer, which was the name he adopted when he finally retired to San Remo?”

“What is the truth?” he asks himself, while at the same time sensing “the basis for a tremendous serial novel.” Ironically it is not the difficulty in getting to the truth that initially stops the narrator going any further, but the fact that Taratuta seems too perfect for fiction:

“…he belonged more to literature than to life, adorned as he was with novelistic attributes so that neither his deceptive revolutionary fervour nor his debateable loyalty to the Party succeeded in bringing him back into the world of real people for me: he stubbornly remained a character, not a person.”

When he writes an article about Taratuta, however, he receives a letter from a young man in Spain with the same name – “Did he dare think that somewhere in the world he had relatives with that name?” – but a reply is returned unanswered. Of course, that is not the end of the story, as coincidence will ensure that they meet later when the narrator is in Spain, with the ensuing relationship influencing the young man more than Donoso’s story.

If Taratuta feels, at times, by its very nature, a story still in the process of being written, poking fun at the life of a writer, Still Life with Pipe is a more focused satire of the visual arts. Its narrator, Marcos Ruiz Gallardo, sees himself as “a person of greater culture”, head of the Association for the Defense of the National Artistic Heritage – which, in the story’s opening sentence, we learn has just been dissolved in some acrimony. The real story begins when he plans a clandestine night in a hotel with his fiancée, Hildita. The hotel room itself is not a success – Hildita, he discovers, is aroused only by their previously secretive and hurried love-making (“she liked in it in the dark, with clothes on… and trousers only halfway open in case somebody came in…”) but in the town they come across the ‘Larco Museum’, filled with paintings by the (previously unknown to them) artist, Larco. Gallardo is not impressed:

“Everything seemed atrociously ugly to me, with dirty grays and browns and decomposed shapes that I had to put back together again, all far removed from the precepts of beauty that our association prized.”

The caretaker, who says he travelled with Larco everywhere, tells them stories of the painter in Paris and offers to sell them Still Life with Pipe but Gallardo regards the paintings as “devoid of merit.” Only later does he begin to worry:

“…what if that painting turned out to be a work of art, a painting worthy of a museum, the work of a genius that I wasn’t capable of appreciating because of my ignorance…”

Gallardo returns, going on to be offered the painting again, but when the caretaker says he seems to like it he cannot help but comment that “It’s poor in colour.” On a further visit the caretaker offers to give him the painting but he refuses claiming, now that he has involved the Association in ‘saving’ Larco’s work, that “it belongs to the national artistic heritage.” (Gallardo’s desire to own the painting but inability to take ownership suggests the ambiguous relationship with art the story is highlighting).

The target of Still Life with Pipe may seem an obvious one, but Donoso executes it with flair (the inclusion of Gallardo’s relationship with Hildita is a particularly amusing touch) and still manages to surprise us as the story heads towards its conclusion. Although these two novellas are not regarded as among Donoso’s major work, they demonstrate a writer of great skill and humour who deserves to be rediscovered.