A Conversation with Jose Donoso By Ricardo Gutierrez Mouat

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Summer 1992, Vol. 12.2

The following conversation with Jose Donoso was held at the writer’s house in Santiago in November of 1990, when the Chilean spring was blossoming in the gardens of the barrio alto and in the political arena of the whole country. It was conducted in English and it has been slightly edited for inclusion in this issue. My explanatory notes are indicated by brackets. I wish to record my gratitude to Pepe and to his wife Maria Pilar for their generosity and help.

RGM: You left Chile in the early sixties a Chilean writer and returned in 1980 a Latin American author. How has your relationship with the public changed?

JD: In the first place, my relation with the public was nil, there was nothing to it, it was just a question of a few people from Chile and a few people from Latin America to whom I sent my books because they knew somebody I knew and so on and so forth. So I sent the first batch of books out to Benedetti [Mario Benedetti, the Uruguayan essayist and short story writer], I remember, some people in Argentina, all over Latin America, about fifty books I think. That was with Coronation, which is where I really think my career started. What happened then? My name began to be talked about, they read this book and they were of the same mind that people in Chile were, that it was a good novel. And then, what did I do? I went away from Chile, I left Chile, got entangled with Maria Pilar, and then I wrote the second volume of stories, and I found that my name was very much talked about and my presence acknowledged. Forever I was the author of Coronation and I have continued to be that for a lot of people, here in Chile especially. I suppose that is because Coronation in a way is a naturalistic novel, and the public here, the middle class here, is very fond of seeing themselves portrayed in a book: this is just like my Uncle Juan, this is just like my cousin Teresa, you see? That’s what they like about books, that’s one thing they do like. Everybody had a grandmother more or less like misia Elisita Grey. Then I went away, I started on This Sunday and finished it, and had it published in Mexico, which was a great step forward. I broke the ice of Latin America. Then I wrote Hell Has No Limits and I found by then I was already a well-known writer in the circles of Latin America. Then I left Mexico for Barcelona and changed over to Seix Barral, and they published Coronation at once, and talked about my new novel and they were very enthusiastic and interested in what I was doing, so I started writing for that hungry public. But it was after publication of The Obscene Bird of Night that I found my reputation had grown immensely.

RGM: How has your relationship with your fellow writers of the Boom changed over the years?

JD: No, it’s more or less the same, we haven’t seen much of each other for a long time. I continue to see Mario Vargas Llosa whenever I go, whenever I leave Chile; I see Garcia Marquez with no problem; Carlos Fuentes, whenever he is in Argentina, calls up. It’s very theoretical but it’s still there, and Maria Pilar keeps track of everybody.

RGM: And how has your view of Chile changed?

JD: Well, necessarily because Chile itself has changed so much. This is not the Chile I left back in, what, ’64 or ’65.

RGM: What’s the biggest difference?

JD: Consumerism. A lack of respect for whatever is literary. People are not interested in literature in Chile at all.

RGM: Is that because of the growth of the communication or TV or culture industry?

JD: No, funny enough I think it’s because the importance of politics is so big.

RGM: Your exile was not political, yet Chile underwent a political crisis in the seventies and you responded to it. How can you describe your response?

JD: As the response of what seems to me a responsible intellectual. I wasn’t active in politics but I threw my lot in with the people who were against Pinochet. So if I was not active my name was, and that gave me a lot of security.

RGM: How did your novels respond to the political crisis in Chile?

JD: Well, you can see in my novels a response either to the crisis itself or to the conditions that led up to the crisis.

RGM: Are you speaking of A House in the Country?

JD: There is more to A House in the Country than that. I mean, there are actually certain speeches by Allende and Pinochet which have been lifted out of the newspaper.

RGM: Did you feel that your literature could ever become pamphleteering?

JD: No, I’ve never been a staunch upholder of anything at all. I’ve been against the Pinochet thing but I have no ideology to which I can turn. So I am a democrat without ideology.

RGM: Or perhaps a liberal, a classic liberal?

JD: A classic liberal . . . I hate the idea, but yes, I would accept that.

RGM: Several interesting things have happened to you upon your return to Chile: you got involved in theatre, in film (and just two nights ago the film you wrote the script for won the “Chilean Oscar”), and you’ve been shaping a new generation of writers in your workshops. What can you tell me about these activities?

JD: Certainly the most impassioned involvement comes with the workshops. I feel it is through them that I speak, that I reach a wider public. They help me in many ways. I’ve been growing older and I get more and more separated from youth, from what’s in the air, you see. I don’t know what people read nowadays, or what they talk about, or what their idiosyncracies are. But through these workshops, this involvement with younger people, I get the feeling of what’s really to be young, to be in the center of things.

RGM: Have any of these budding writers who have studied with you become important voices in Chile?

JD: Yes. Marco Antonio de la Parra, Agata Gligo, Arturo Fontaine, Alberto Fouquet . . .

RGM: You’ve been an intensely private writer . . .

JD: Yes.

RGM: . . . yet in the eighties it seems that you have blended that approach to writing with a more collective approach to creativity. I mean theater and film and workshops. Have you sensed this?

JD: I don’t feel it, really. I feel that having a workshop is another kind of privacy.

RGM: What about theater?

JD: Well, theater, I just work with another guy.

RGM: But you must have been involved in the production itself.

JD: I was involved in the first production, which was Suenos de mala muerte.

RGM: Let us review your work from the perspective of Curfew, your most recent novel and one of your most successful ones. What was the genesis of this novel?

JD: We were planning to go down to Chiloe for the holidays, my wife and I; we took flowers to Matilde Neruda, who was then quite sick in bed. She didn’t let us see her but she sent messages of thank you, so on and so forth. Then she wrote us a letter saying that the flowers we had taken her perfumed all her house. Then we moved on to Chiloe, and then I began writing starting from this woman who is an ex-society girl who works with people, with women. She triggered that book. And then I got a feel for other characters, Lopito, for instance, and my desire to work with somebody who belonged to the more popular classes and yet had the sensibility of an intellectual.

RGM: And that was Lopito.

JD: That was Lopito. But he was also Manungo.

RGM: Are they in any way doubles in the novel?

JD: No, they don’t work as doubles, I think . . . As foils, perhaps.

RGM: What about the references to chilota [i.e., from the island of Chiloe in southern Chile] folklore and legends?

JD: I got involved with them down in Chiloe that summer and enjoyed that tremendously. I befriended a family who put me in touch with all these people who had the keys, so to speak, to chilota folklore. And I did want to use some kind of myth in this novel, as I have used the imbunche in another novel [the legendary entity with all its orifices sewn up that figures in The Obscene Bird of Night], and here I use the caleuche [a local variation on the ship-of-fools motif blended with Charon’s ferry and Rimbaud’s drunken boat].

RGM: What is your understanding of the caleuche?

JD: Well, in the first place it is very much of a story, something that moves: if you do this, this will happen to you; if this happens to you, you’ll go to this place, you see? It gave me a stepping stone, a structure.

RGM: How do you think the myth functions in the novel itself?

JD: It works as a reference constantly because Manungo is a chilote and consequently immersed in these childhood stories. Things of childhood you take into adulthood. Probably he doesn’t get lost because he has this anchorlike thing in his past. And people interpret life according a little bit to myth. You see, when you get together with somebody or live with somebody, that other person brings in a whole lot of myths that are different from yours. These people will have heard some myths or some legends or some stories, some riddles, which belong to the old country. And this is what gives the person a kind of floe to stand on.

RGM: It’s funny because when I asked you how the novel came to be, most people would’ve expected you to talk about the politics of it.

JD: I’m not interested in politics, it’s something nobody can accept. Politics has not formed a deep vision in me. I feel things like these are more in depth. If you notice, the political questions all have political answers; if you can also notice, legendary aspects have no answer whatever . . .

RGM: Manungo and Judit are divided characters, and there is a theme that runs through your work from Coronation on: role-playing, simulation, alienation, the disjunction/conjunction of Self and Other. . . . Do you see this continuity and what do you make of it?

JD: Sure, I see it in Judit trying to be a woman of the people being herself very middle-class; Manungo trying to be middle-class malgre lui, no?, and not being able to be that nor a folk singer, a folklore hero.

RGM: In a novel like HeIl Has No Limits, role-playing is intimately tied up with sexual politics, with the power game between the sexes. What is your interpretation of the transvestite?

JD: Difficult, I really don’t know myself why at that point in my life I did that. Funny, the things that are real and the things that aren’t; things that are verbatim in that novel are the whorehouse, the little village, the little railroad, the countryside, the vineyards. But in that village that I know la Manuela didn’t exist; I brought her over from another set of experiences.

RGM: How do you see the relationship between the roles that she plays—which are of both genders—and the violence in the novel?

JD: Well, I feel that transformation is always punished with violence. God didn’t put us here to be transformed, He put us here to be what we were told to be.

RGM: What you’re saying is that authority cannot accept metamorphosis, it’s a transgression, no? And speaking of authors and authority, I’d be very interested in hearing your interpretation of the power game in The Garden Next Door between the male author (who cannot write the novel we’re reading) and the female one who does write it.

JD: Well, I think that all men carry inside them a lot of other men, a lot of possibilities. I think that in The Garden Next Door transformation takes on not what happens in Hell Has No Limits but something very near it.

RGM: In what sense?

JD: I’ve been asked this question several times: why is it that you, who are a successful writer, can draw a picture of a writer manque? My reply is that I hope I’m still a writer manque. I carry inside me the shape of a fracasado. If I lose that, my irony and my humor and my sarcasm, maybe, or my cruelty, everything that is more or less impassioned in me would fail. I am a failed writer; I’m also a successful one.

RGM: That doesn’t explain the fact that a woman ends up writing the novel.

JD: I may have wanted to be a woman at one point . . .

RGM: You said before that you give your stories to read to two people in particular, both of whom are women: Delfina Guzman and your wife. Does that mean anything?

JD: Yes, I have a better relationship with women than with men, far and away. I’m much more interested in women than I am in men.

RGM: Do women make it easier for you to be creative?

JD: They are more intelligent, somehow; they have a greater panoply of . . . I don’t know, desire, or possibilities.

RGM: How do you think women were portrayed by the novelists of the Boom?

JD: There isn’t a true woman in the pages of the writers of the Boom. The women in Vargas Llosa are not women, they are sketches!

RGM: And the women in One Hundred Years of Solitude?

JD: Not plausible, not felt. They have no freedom, they transgress nothing. And La Maga [from Cortazar’s Hopscotch], look at the name . . .

RGM: Do you think that any woman writers were excluded by the Boom?

JD: No, no. I don’t see any women writing at the same time. Clarice Lispector, perhaps . . .

RGM: Can you name some interesting women writers today in Latin America?

JD: Yes, Rosario Ferre, for instance.

RGM: What interests you in her?

JD: People speak of two poles in Latin America: civilization and barbarism. I think she’s both.

RGM: In The Obscene Bird of Night you were trying to write a miserabilista novel. Why did you feel you wanted to do that at that point?

JD: Because I’ve always been very attracted by poverty and by what I call the underside of power. I’m interested in clochards, hobos, the servant class, in people with no means, who have nothing because they are afraid to be stripped of everything.

RGM: Like the imbunche fantasy in The Bird, right? A House in the Country is the luminous face of The Obscene Bird. Here role-playing is not just an existential/psychological theme as in Coronation and Curfew but the aesthetic of the novel as a whole, in the sense that language itself is mask, disguise, carnival. Can you tell me something about the genesis of A House in the Country?

JD: It’s a story I’ve told many times. The truth is that we had gone to Italy with my wife. And Poland. And in the Warsaw station we had a telegram saying that the “once” [the military coup on 11 September 1973] had happened, that things had turned topsy-turvy in my country. In Italy I met Antonioni who had read The Obscene Bird and had found it a very powerful novel. He wasn’t interested in any of the themes I wrote about; he liked the way I wrote, the power of the novel. I was very thrilled. I went back to Calaceite and shut myself in with the purpose of writing a scenario for Antonioni. And I spent a lot of time in my reclining chair out in the garden, listening to the rumors from the village. Then Vargas Llosa’s children came to stay in the house. Mario and Patricia were going to Mexico and they asked us to babysit for them. We tried to rest in the afternoon but they had such a rumpus, the kids, that we couldn’t sleep at all. There were some very strange things going on. . . . Alvarito and Pilarcita both had a leg in the same pair of underwear; they were completely naked. Then they went out to the street and I fantasized with the rumors in this large house, in the many rooms of this house. And also there was pampas grass. . . .

RGM: So A House in the Country is the conjunction of the world of childhood-with its little perversions-and Chile’s political nightmare?

JD: That and the feeling of being completely away from everything that mattered. I was trying to complete a thought. There is also a twist, there is also a transgression, an underside, In A House in the Country I use a discourse which is in itself quite refined and is sometimes super-elegant, exquisite. And I decided that this whole novel was going to be exquisite, to write exactly the other side of what I had written in The Obscene Bird of Night. I wrote it with this rococo thing in mind, it’s more a rococo novel than anything else: vain, artificial, pretentious—Fragonard.

RGM: Is that something postmodern in your estimation?

JD: No, I don’t think we need to worry about that at this juncture. As I began writing A House in the Country I started to feel that I needed a language which is completely opposite to that of the Bird, to give this effect I wanted. Because the superfluity of the rococo seemed to parallel the miserabilismo, so there are two things pitched against each other. And, again, the language was the language used by the florid writers of the nineteenth century, the Spanish, for example. And then you get the language of the marchioness. Somebody said, and I don’t know who it was, that you can’t write novels that begin: “La Marquise est sortie A cinq heures . . .”

RGM: Valery .

JD: Valery, right, he said that. And then I set out to prove that novels can be written in that way.

RGM: In The Boom in Spanish-American Literature: A Personal History you wrote: “The new generation finds the novel of the 60’s excessively literary, and they devote themselves, like those in all avant-garde movements, to writing an ‘anti-literature,’ an ‘anti-novel’ ” (115). This kind of epitaph of the Boom was written in 1971. Are you alluding here to what later was called postmodernism?

JD: I think so.

RGM: What is your understanding of postmodernism? Do you think you have written postmodern novels?

JD: Probably A House in the Country. It has all the ingredients: it’s eclectic, it’s humorous, it apes the forms of classic novels, it is artificial and self-conscious, it is a novel about writing, and there is a spoof in it.

RGM: In fact, John Barth makes you a postmodernist on the basis of that novel. When I quoted the passage from The Boom I was alluding to the fact that right after you wrote The Bird, you wrote Sacred Families which can be said to mark a departure in some other direction.

JD: I was trying to write about a milieu that was falsely refined, falsely intellectual, so I took up this other kind of artificiality.

RGM: The beginning of one of these novellas parodies the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, so here we have a contemporary milieu and a literary representation with nineteenth-century roots. Is this postmodernism?

JD: Could be. The whole caricature thing, perhaps.

RGM: Do you find the term, the label “postmodern” valid?

JD: I think so, I mean we have to try all sorts of terms to try to get at these things.

RGM: The final question: yesterday the National Prize for Literature was delivered to your door. What’s the meaning of this prize for you?

JD: It’s as if somebody had driven a nail into the wall to hang my posthumous portrait.

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