Posts Tagged ‘still life with pipe’

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.