José Donoso Saw the Future of Latin American Literature

The Latin American Boom of the 1960s and ‘70s is associated with some of contemporary Spanish-language literature’s most towering figures, among them Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gabriel García Márquez. But of all the giants translated, American readers have largely forgotten the single greatest writer to come from the Boom: Chilean novelist José Donoso.

The Latin American Boom, of course, was somewhat artificially constructed—a marketing term by U.S. publishers to name and corral the Spanish-language arts, for which the ‘60s and ‘70s were especially fecund years. How else could writers as stylistically and geographically diverse as García Márquez, Silvina Ocampo, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante fit under the same tent, if not for the efforts of editors and publicists at highly regarded American publishing houses? But soon the Boom became a two-sided effort: The reason you now know and appreciate so much Latin American literature isn’t just thanks to editors like Toni Morrison, Alice Quinn, and Victoria Wilson—or such inexhaustible translators as Suzanne Jill Levine, Hardie St. Martin and Leonard Mades, and Edith Grossman—and but also the champion of his generation that was José Donoso. In fact, Donoso isn’t just the greatest writer of the Boom—he wrote its biography!

coverThe Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal Historycover is Donoso’s chronicle of this multi-generational, multi-cultural revolution of language from one of its earliest advocates and oldest mentors. Throughout this slim, warm memoir, Donoso performs two great tasks: to convince you that the Boom never existed for writers, but that only writers could have produced it. Donoso lays out this paradox in the book’s final pages:

[T]he question of the constitution of the Boom, of who does and who does not belong…. is naïve and false, as false as the notion of stagnation in human and political relations, as false as the idea of perpetual unanimity of opinions… [T]he [Boom] seen from the outside, and the reasons for inclusion or exclusion… are more than anything mirages seen by those who are excluded and who want to belong.

For Donoso, trying to belong to a community that doesn’t claim you is to miss the point entirely. As a professor at Iowa and Princeton for several years each, Donoso knew which South and Central American authors had “made it” into our libraries, but what of all the many who didn’t? Throughout his biography and in interviews with others, Donoso would name authors like Clarice Lispector who deserved inclusion in the Boom, and even wrote novels about the exclusion of countries like Ecuador, fashioning a Bolaño-esque alternate literary history for the South American nation. His efforts did not go unnoticed, and his legacy has shaped generations of writers. Of Donoso’s influence, the great Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor had this to say (translations courtesy of Chris Wait, Spanish editor at New Directions):

There’s another writer whose style is markedly oral: José Donoso, who’s my favorite of the Latin American Boom authors (better than Gabriel García Márquez). In Hell Has No Limits, The Obscene Bird of Night and This Sunday we can see how his characters speak two languages: the aristocrats speak a very correct Spanish, while the bandits stick to popular forms…

In yet another interview, Melchor once again identified Donoso’s impact on her work:

My notions of beauty are thoroughly steeped in the visual and the musical[….] Sometimes certain characteristics of truth found in the sordid or grotesque contrast with the classic idea of beauty. Following in the footsteps of José Donoso, I find that in the grotesque and labyrinthian there are great truths of the human condition.

And the brilliant Argentina novelist and journalist Mariana Enríquez has also spoken about how Donoso shaped her writing (translation courtesy of Wait):

I could point to various novels in which the dominant classes of Latin America are shown in the full height of their ferocious power as the owners of bodies, lands, and impunity, but perhaps this novel [The Obscene Bird of Night] and also On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sábato, in which monstrosity and decadence are prominent, were the most influential to me.

This contradictory assertion and deep understanding of inclusion came from personal experience. Donoso developed as an artist during a time when, as he writes in his memoir, “the novelist in the Spanish American countries wrote for his parish: about the problems of his parish, addressing himself to the number and level of his readers… without much hope of anything else.” The literary culture that Donoso grew up in emphasized an academically-minded, morally rigid literature. Novels lacked ambiguity, pronouncing themselves as entirely above or below the mores of their time, squeamishly submissive to the attitudes and preferences of previous generations.

Quoting Angel Rama, Donoso says it plainly: “The great figures project their master over very long periods, giving the sensation from a distance, that they have cut the grass at the roots so that nothing new can grow.” It’s hard to imagine any young artist learning developing at any point in our commercially-essentialized age, but Donoso’s generation faced its own venomous predecessors who rejected anything but the cleanliness and security of trite parlor fiction. But Donoso felt that in a world undergoing rapid changes—politically, socially, environmentally, and so on—this fiction had all the impact of a decrepit museum.

And in Donoso’s opinion, what could be more essential to writing than living within the ever-changing world around you? Rather than pretend a perfect tradition, Donoso understood that his work grew from “a mestizaje, a crossbreeding, a disregarding of Hispanic-American tradition… [which drew] itself almost totally from other literary sources… our orphaned sensibility let itself be infected.” Just as each Latin American country was questioning its own identity, so too did the Boom authors write in order to reflect a world beyond their parish. Of those giants, Donoso explored class and gender; Carlos Fuentes history and culture; and Mario Vargas Llosa sex, politics, and the corruption of ideals. (This was the Vargas Llosa of a different lifetime, whom Donoso supported from the very week his first novel was published; Vargas Llosa described Donoso as “the most literary of all the writers I have ever known, not only because he had read a lot, and knew everything there is to know about the lives, deaths, and literary fair gossip, but because he had modeled his life as shape fictions.”)

In so sterile and servile a landscape, one might wonder how such inventive and visionary  writers achieved community in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In fact, many of these writers have named Donoso as an organizing, unifying force central to the Boom. It was Donoso who planned conferences of Spanish-language writers, reading widely enough and hustling hard enough to raise the funds to bring writers together. And when the world grew darker and Donoso fled Pinochet’s regime in Chile, he and Fuentes funded the escape of fellow Latin American authors elsewhere. No other author of Donoso’s  time spoke with such uncompromising discipline and encouragement for his fellow  literary orphans.

coverAnd amid all this, Donoso wrote his masterpiece—in my opinion, a perfect novel. The Obscene Bird of Night, out in a new translation by Megan McDowell from New Directions in April, is the crowning achievement of the gothic horror genre. The style of The Obscene Bird of Night is all its own, a story assembled from the gossip of society’s highs and lows, which revolves and blurs into a series of interlinked nightmares in which people lose their memory, their sex, or even their literal organs. As you read, you wake from one dream only to enter another, sentences moving between genders, ages, and histories with such precision as to feel ambiguous. The effect is surreal: Words writhe on the page, leaching into your own consciousness. If you’ve ever awoken from invasive surgery, when the anesthetic numbness fades as your raw body slowly shudders into place, you have felt Donoso’s style.

I sometimes ask myself: How did Donoso write a perfect novel, and how might someone today pull off the same feat? Well, say you read and wrote in a time of boring consecution, inundated by hype for literary cultures that are neither your own nor any good at all. What would Donoso do? First off—ignore the hype! You’ll never grow as an author if you only read and discuss the market-generated communities that you’ll never belong to. Instead, focus on who you are, and accept the fact that spending your life writing is about as uncool as it gets. But remember that to be cool has nothing to do with writing, and that like all great art, writing can become the altar of a community just as unsightly and weird as you. Rather than emulate the “perfection” of previous generations—emulate a culture whose language could not imagine our own—let us write in a language our own, and only hope that such language appears fanged and inhuman to anyone who can’t understand. With effort, and patience, and genuine love for your kind, Donoso didn’t just write a perfect novel—he created a space for many more perfect novels to exist.

Zachary Issenberg
is a writer from Miami, now based in New York. He attended Columbia University’s MFA Program, where he wrote a few novels about Miami. He lives with his wife and his cat and is writing a few more novels about Miami. You can find his writing in LARB, Bookforum, Words Without Borders, The Shoutflower, and 3AM.

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