A Small Biography of The Obscene Bird of Night.
I know that the name of Henry James will at once be brandished at me. But when I say "poorest" I use that word advisedly, stressing its connotation of "limited" rather than that of "bad." I only want to express my opinion that when a novelist speaks of his own art, he tends to show us no more than a shaving or two of his conscious intention while creating his work, at most to exhibit a couple of the wheels he was aware of setting in motion to operate his machinery, always far more complex than what he can surmise. This does not happen, of course, when the author is off guard, in his diaries, say, or his letters, like Flaubert and Virginia Woolf, who describe the pain and the drudgery and the glory of it all. But, diary and letter-writing being things of the past, one has a sinking feeling that future generations will have no firsthand material to reconstruct the life, the intention, and the work of the artist. I, an addict of diary, biography, and letters, fear that newspaper articles and interviews will never fill that void. A whole dimension of what writing is will then be lost; the picture of the artist at work, what he put in or left out, will become dim, and no one will care or even know what it is and how it feels, and how the writer goes about the task of creating a work aspiring to at least a modicum of eternity.
Yet I have to acknowledge that a novelist is hardly ever able to illuminate his novel from without it, as a student would, or a critic. When an author analyzes his own work, the result is, more often than not, that we are left with a disarray of fragments rather than with the structured universe of the metaphor. We believe a writer when he is on his own turf. But is self-criticism, is criticism, his own turf?. Isn't it true that he is poaching in somebody else's? The feeling I am generally left with is fiat, without projection, mostly plain preening.
The feeling of frustration which I have when reading a writer on his own writing is because, in the first place, all serious writing is an exercise in lucidity, even if we are talking of the work of Burroughs or of Raymond Roussel. Personally I prefer those novels which impress upon me the reality of the author's effort to reach the outer limits of lucidity, where he sets free the wild beast of metaphor on an uncharted path. I find in pages thus written the "whole" of the writer's sell conscious and unconscious, intelligence and imagination and sensibility and cultural references, memories and taste, past, present, and future, cast into one mold, and projected. The canvas for this "wholeness" may be tiny, as in the case of Jane Austen: but in her pages, there she is, complete with what she herself called her "elegance of mind": a mean eye for the absurd, calculating, funny, playful, and, at the end of her life, rather sad. Or it can be huge, a whole universe unto itself, such as Tolstoy's, whose projection of his "wholeness" is as boundless as Russian history and the horizon of the steppes. The thing is that both developed very distinct literary "voices": tone, diction, subject matter, vocabulary, intelligence, passion or the lack of it, style, and all the rest, cast into what Kafka himself once called "a universe which becomes an object of art," placed outside the author, unassailable by the author himself once that universe is complete.
When I say that it is desirable--not to say exciting--that the "wholeness" of the writer should be evoked in his work, I don't mean to set myself up as a champion of "literary sincerity," a quality which I feel unnecessary to good writing. I believe that quite often a literary voice is a mask or a disguise, adopted in order to make it act as go-between, a messenger from the writer to the public. A writer cannot approach his public with "naturalness." This is a latter-day affectation, popular among second-rate American writers, and stemming, perhaps, from the realist, tough-guy tradition in U.S. writing. But even their voices are essentially adopted, chosen, masks, disguises, affectations: I don't think that anyone today would be so bold as to claim that Hemingway's voice was not full of mannerisms, tough-guy pose and all. His case is extreme in one way; as Virginia Woolf's antennalike sensibility of voice would be exactly the same at the opposite extreme. In every case, the voice chosen, adopted, found, forged, contrived, manufactured, is the very essence of literature, the very flesh of it, since the quest for a distinct literary voice or the laborious manufacturing of one, lies at the center of a writer's endeavor: it is his most important creation, the most radiant at the same time as the most misty of all his metaphors. Artifice, to be sure: but Kafka, again, in his Letters to Felice, says: "If one is not able to lead a beautiful and perfect life, one has to create artifices." The voice adopted is the most powerful of the writer's artifices.
To get at a writer's innards, the critic should analyze his voice more than anything else in his pages. Why does Virginia Woolf use semicolons with such maddening frequency? Why are Hemingway's sentences so clipped, yet, taken together, in spite of their demand to be received as something simple, spell out a rhythm and rhyme which is sometimes so sumptuous? Why is Carlos Fuentes's prose overspiced with cultural references which often seem irrelevant, but which belong to the tessitura of his voice? It is his distinct literary voice that limits and gives shape and significance, at the deepest level, to a writer's work, and it sets loose the eagle of his fantasy--or the sparrow; or the hummingbird--and it is what, in short, stands in place of the author and contains him. This ring of wholeness in a literary voice, no matter what its limitations or size, is what I personally want of good writing.
There are, of course, what one could call generic voices, the voice of a period, of a culture or subculture, of a social milieu. This is true, I think, of the second-rank French novelists of the beginning of this century, Barr, s and Anatole France, say. It is also true of American novelists not of the first rank, who harbor a strong prejudice against anything so "phony" as "adopting" a voice which may not seem colloquial, sincere, "natural," a rejection of language as mask or disguise, of nontraditional form or subject matter as something difficult to grasp and identify with for the reading public. This is the reason why a writer like Faulkner has receded into the classroom, a subject for studies by Ph.D. candidates rather than forming part, as in the near past, of the excitement of live culture. Harriet de Onis, light-years away from the present, rejected Coronation, my first novel, for the house of Knopf, on the grounds that "the reader doesn't know what side the author is on," and went on to say that "the same thing is true of Faulkner; but Faulkner is great in spite of this, not for this reason." What happened is that she distrusted or was not able to pick out my voice--such as it was--and understand it as a metaphor containing energy-charged particles, which under scrutiny could reveal a structure and thus a system of values.
But even the most sophisticated writers, Carlos Fuentes for instance, when he writes about his own literary voice at the level of adopted metaphor or as metaphor that the unconscious has forced upon the writer, seldom see it as an "artifice." They tend to confuse themselves with that voice, as something almost biological, sociological, never a device, a disguise, a willful limitation. This confusion of personal self with literary voice gives the impression that the frightened author wants to jump right back into his created persona, into the literary work which he had separated from himself, giving it a life of its own. When taking that voice apart for the benefit of his public, he is compelled to justify it, doesn't want it out there, as a metaphor with a life of its own and possessing its own uncontrollable energy and luminosity. Because like all metaphors, and chief among them, the literary voice is uncontrollable. When effective, it is a powerful piece of machinery which recycles nature and the experience and the imagination of an author, transforming it into something which only that voice and no other can structure and project, and which bears its stamp. This voice, when of superb quality, is larger and more radiant than the author's consciousness, bearing more meanings and projections than anything that author can express in a language other than that of his metaphor: when this voice reaches the outer limits of lucidity, in other words when it is successful as literature.
Once a novel is written and encased in the limits of its lucidity the author becomes totally foreign to it, at least, let me tell you this quite clearly before I proceed further, that this is my experience: the wild beast is out on the prowl to devour other creatures by moonlight; the Bengal light which illuminates the object created and at least a part of the surrounding darkness blinds him, or at least me.
Thus, an author's attempt to approach his own creation from without and take it apart with the tools of a critic is generally no more than a sample of his narcissism: "Remarks are not literature," Gertrude Stein is reported to have said, and criticism is remarks, opinion, evaluation, discernment. One must never forget to distrust an author talking about his own work. His approach to his own work from without is no more valuable--and certainly less authoritative--than what the critics and the reading public will offer. I feel very strongly that by writing a novel one loses it and a great part of oneself, and all access both to that work and to the part of the writer that went into it becomes closed, all attempts at further pertinent insight seem banal and repetitious. Thus for the author the finished novel is an object of lambent shadows, a thing foreign, suspect, redoubtable, strange, and finally, inert. An odd sensation to be sure which sometimes borders on repugnance, but this has been my experience, for what it's worth.
I don't want to say an author should never write about his own work, taking a stance different to that of the creator. On the contrary, one of the many pleasures of authorship is the license to say what one pleases about oneself. The result is more often than not redundant and quite beside the point. But why should I deny myself the modest pleasures of redundancy and irrelevance? A novel is, besides many other things, a story. What could conceivably be useful, or at least amusing, would be to append to that story a kind of biography of it: not what it is or what it is meant to be but how it all happened. Thus, a clutter of rattling trailers could become attached to the rear end of the sleek racing car that is a good novel and make it, perhaps, less forbidding. In any case, I don't doubt that the critics will take these trailers apart, place them in a different order, eliminate a few with their monkey wrenches and other suspect but I fancy necessary tools.
After this introduction, which I fear has been far too long but will at least justify what I want to say now, I'd like to tell you a bit about how The Obscene Bird of Night happened to me. This novel, which took me about eight years to write, is one and the same in my memory with the experience of pain and disease. This is not always the case with my novels, several of which are in my memory one with pleasure, no matter how somber their tone and subject matter. I'm not excessively clear as to what I mean by this, just as I'd be hard put to define exactly what I mean by a literary "voice," though I could give examples if we came down to the perusal of texts. Nevertheless, there they are, aren't they, these words? I've picked them up in the air while I write, all of them suggestions, approaches, rather hazy and I hope radiant metaphors which stand in place of, and mean more than, what it is my intention to convey.
As a little boy I was skinny and a bit bookish and shy, and quite frail. When I was about two years old I had some kind of sickness which made me mope a lot, the name of which, though I believe quite common, goes unrecorded in the annals of my family. I took a long time to recover: what did it was an enlightened doctor who told my parents that they should repaper my nursery with brighter wallpaper, and that my mother, while taking care of me, should try to look as pretty as possible and wear the nicest clothes.
My brothers claim that I've made all this up to start my autobiography on a dignified footing. What they don't realize is that if untrue, it is no lie, only a fantasy born in my unconscious to explain an early vocation for harmony and poetical if not literal truth. But in the clearinghouse of my memory, at the period when memory and fantasy are confused, pain and beauty seemed to go hand in hand. I also have a fantasy that it was a sickness called croup, which kept me from speaking for a while and gave me coughing fits, so you see, I may now be talking of voice, coupled with sickness and beauty and pain, because at a very early age I may have feared not to be able to find my own voice.
As I say, I was quite frail as an adolescent, nearsighted and bad at sports. In order to stay away from compulsory sports in the school I went to, I invented a pain in my stomach which, when examined, was diagnosed as the beginning of an ulcer. This disease put me outside the common run of my schoolmates since I was excused from sports and had to lie down after lunch while the others were kicking the football about. I learned the delights of being a person "different," hors de serie as the French say, and fantasizing that because I was sick--because there was a flaw in me, which to begin with I'd made up--I was superior. That, I guess, was my first successful piece of fiction; I had cheated the grown-ups, especially my father who was a doctor, and this made me superior to him: the theme of the reverse of power. I could never imagine at that point (I was thirteen) what huge meaning this fictional ulcer would assume later in my biography. It was also my first successful disguise and consequently the first successful "voice" which I could really call mine.
Adolescence was conflictive and difficult; so was early manhood when I began to want to write seriously. But every time I tried it, involuntary pains appeared exactly where the feigned ones had earlier been. Pain no longer seemed an ally: it was an enemy which de facto spoiled my health and separated me in some kind of real way from boys like me. Some years later a duodenal ulcer was diagnosed by X rays: fiction and disguise, which I had early chosen for myself, had become my reality and replaced what others deemed my "true" self. I had to assume the burden of pain so early invented as a subterfuge for reality: this was real. It was burrowing at my innards with a cruel beak of pain, this disguised, diseased self was my true self, a young man whose self-inflicted illness had turned him into an outcast, a derelict. It was a metaphor. It was a voice. And as I got off a bus with my first book of short stories under my arm to take to the leading Chilean literary critic, I fell in a dead faint and was taken to the hospital with my first bleeding ulcer.
About eight years after that I got married. We took a house in the country, small and cozy but quite primitive, and I decided that I was finally going to write a great novel. I had just read Cortazar, Fuentes, Carpentier, Rosario Castellanos, and I was all up in flames about them. I had just finished translating Isak Dinesen into Spanish and her wonder filled me. I told my wife with affected scorn: "I'm not one of these complicated new writers. I want to write a simple, short, straightforward fable." There was a yellow bitch roaming around the house, whining at night and scratching at doors to be let in during the hours of our intimacy, but her presence then passed unnoticed, though it was picked up a year later. But since the yellow bitch is a sort of thread running through the whole of The Obscene Bird of Night, I'm not too sure that it was not that skinny, scruffy, hateful beast that determined, right from the start, what my voice would be while spending all those eight years writing it. She started it all. Though I did not know it then, she was my voice.
What did surprise me was that as I sat down to write without a subject in my head, something completely unimportant which I thought forgotten forever, a tiny scrap of an anecdote of my not too distant past, sprang back into my imagination with a bound, offering itself as subject. I suddenly remembered the following: I stood with a friend at a street corner in downtown Santiago chattering away. We became so absorbed in our conversation that we neglected to cross the street with the green light. There was a car waiting for his green light right beside us while we talked and as we continued our chatter I looked into that luxurious limousine: a handsome, blond, liveried chauffeur sat at the wheel, while in the back seat I saw a wreck of a young man, beautifully turned out in an expensive-looking three-piece suit, his face a map of scars, dwarfiike, harelipped, hunchbacked, deformed. The car after a minute went on its way with the green light and my friend and I went on to lunch, talking all the time. I did not draw my friend's attention to that strange, luxurious car. I never talked about it. And because I did not, I guess the memory sank to the bottom of my mind where I forgot it, only to float back up again for no apparent reason--or had that yellow bitch something to do with it?--when I started off my simple, short parable about a father who has a deformed son, and is so proud that he shuts him up in a house surrounded by monsters more deformed than himself. Those who have read The Obscene Bird of Night know just how short and how simple this fable is.
The fable grew apace. The yellow bitch scratched at the door of our bridal bedchamber and yelped by the window at night. I did not let her into my story because I did not yet know she not only belonged there, but that her cowering misery and scruffiness, her hunger and that servile look in her hateful eye, would eventually be the voice on which to string all the other motifs that were to come.
The ulcer pains began again. I was building a beautiful, roomy white house, its space full of light and the reflections of the lazy flutter of greenery. Pain struck at my bowels as soon as I sat down at my writing table: the pain was, indeed, an enemy, and to dream up the relation between my new house and my new novel, both of which were spaces created by me which were growing, I had to work against the powerful current of that pain which carried me down with it. The pain became so great that I had to quit my job as a journalist. I wrote in longhand in bed. But by quitting my job I became quite poor, unable to keep my beautiful house.
Yet, I remember that initial period of writing without a well-defined direction, of spreading myself out in the quiet of my new house without more work to do than write, as a happy period, notwithstanding the pain and the poverty. I thought back on my life. I wrote on in my fable, then called El altimo Azcoitia (The Last Azcoitia). I gave Don Jeronimo and his wife the face, the stance, the pride of a couple I was friendly with. Not only that: this couple, in my imagination, were not only perfect but superior to me; and I fancied that at the bottom of their hearts they despised me. It was this feeling of being despised by them that crept into the novel now-there was no Humberto Penaloza yet--giving the fable a new character. It was as if the initial monster seen in the car in downtown Santiago had been an inert cancer tumor and suddenly it had these metastases, the feeling of being inferior to my derelict friends. I wrote their faces into the pages I was then doing. They are by no means "portraits" in any sense of the word. Nobody is ever a "portrait" in any of my novels. Neither is a depicted physical space--a house, say, or a brothel--a replica of reality. But the way my imagination works is to pick out an emotionally charged person or space from reality, plant it in the place I need it in my imagination, and then train my imagination over as if it were a creeper, and the "real" person or space only a tutor: the tutor eventually becomes smothered by the creeper and doesn't show at all, but there, beneath the leaves, it holds the whole thing together. I'd say, pretty sure not to be wrong, that this tutor-creeper method is what I've used in most of my books. In most cases I've forgotten what or who the original tutor was. In the case of Iris Mateluna, for instance, the "tutor" was a girl I saw one evening in a back street in Santiago during no more than a minute as she passed by. My Iris Mateluna is surely very different from what that girl was, though to write about her, even to contradict her, I had to plant her image, that tutor, in my mind.
The recaptured image of Boy in his limousine produced multiple metastases: arrogance of parents who kept him so well tended, privilege, and everything that the Chilean oligarchy has. It was easy to fill out everything pertaining to Jeronimo and Ines--to my friend and his wife--with the attributes of the Chilean patriciate. I felt that things were really happening when I finally wrote the yellow bitch--a year later, perhaps? once we left our first little country house?--into the story, especially in her relation to Ines. And when we moved into our new house I found that I had to move my characters into a house of their own. I surrounded them with a house called in reality La Rinconada, the estate of an ancient spinster who kept a literary salon. I used to hear the dogs barking at night in her park outside my window. But it was not those dogs that barked and whined: it was really, all of them, the yellow bitch.
In this case the tutor--the real Rinconada--though widely different from the fictional one, defined a lot in the growth of my characters and atmosphere. The total lack of social justice, these serfs, these peons, were governed by this frail lady who practically owned them: in those days before the advent of the transistor radio, she refused to have electricity installed in her estate because then the peons would buy radios and they would hear about what the "outside" was like. The universe, then, defined by the "real" Rinconada was divided into two: the "outside" and the "inside," which is, again, a motif that runs through not only The Obscene Bird of Night, but through all of my books.
All the while I was writing and writing and writing without direction an accumulation of motifs which, notwithstanding the yellow bitch and the radiance that she cast, were left unstrung. I was horrified at how complicated it had all grown in a year or two and how encased I was by it, how impossible it became to write anything else. Just layers and layers and layers of Jeronimo, Ines, La Rinconada, and Boy. They were static. I could not go on or get out.
One night a friend and I were coming back from the beach in his car, and we ran over a drunken hobo and killed him. We took his body to the police station but they found no identification on him. No one in the surrounding countryside had ever seen him before. He was like an apparition dissolved at the very moment it flares up, nameless, penniless, almost naked such were the rags he was wearing, ageless, eternal.
I went instinctively home to my parents. There I told Nana about this death and she, so strong,, began to cry. I must explain that Nana was the servant who brought us all up. She was born in my grandfather's farm, traveled as a maid to Europe with relations, and my grandmother sent her to keep an eye on my mother's probably unreliable housekeeping. She embodied the earth, the far reaches of our country and continent, the class of people whom we, from the protected middle class, would never be able to fathom or do justice to, the mystery of a race apart. Yet not quite apart. She bore a surname related to my family. Had she been born, then, or had her father been born--she made it quite clear that though she was dark her father had had blue eyes--a bastard to a gentleman of my blood? Quite possibly. It happened very frequently in Chile in those days. Nana did not know how to read or write. To this very day I cannot understand why this extremely intelligent and sensitive woman, in our home which was full of books, was never taught how to read, neither by my parents nor by ourselves who loved her. It's a feeling of guilt I have had to live with. She was the pillar of our home. Nana took close care of us, three brothers, was tender, funny, wise. Later, on many occasions, it was her counsel and her thrift and tact which kept the family going. My mother died four years ago in the same house where I was born. My father died one year ago in the same place. When he died our old house was torn down. But Nana lived on in my brother's house, funny and wise and useful until she was ninety and almost blind, occupying a corner of that kitchen with her presence and her stories while peeling a potato so as not to feel useless. For a while we had lived in another house in the old section of town, and there as a very young boy I had seen countless old women like Nana doing their little, undetermined jobs, telling their stories, engaged in their work and their strifes, or crouched over a brazier in winter, sipping mate tea, a cat or a pet hen nestling in their laps to keep them warm. Nana was all those old women, those old women were forcing themselves onto my pages with my feeling of mystery, of vulnerability, of fear, that the consciousness of social guilt provides.
She had had an offshoot: when I told her of the hobo we had run over and she began to cry, she said that she was crying because that man was surely her brother who had run away from her parents' home when he was a boy and had never been heard from again. It was an allusion to her past, to a private history and private pains we had not heard of before, connecting her with this derelict, with the nameless many whom she came from bringing with her that particular history. This motivated in me a passion--which I had also felt as a young boy when I played hooky--for roaming about the outskirts of the poorer districts of Santiago, the rubble piles and the shanties, and the abandoned projects of parks, with stunted trees no one took care of, where hoboes lived. I talked to them. I became one of them. The hobo had always been one of the images which appeared and reappeared in my psychoanalysis. It was the unarmed man, the defeated man, the man who has nothing so he cannot be afraid of anything since he can't come lower. I read a lot of Dostoyevsky when I was younger and some Gorky. But it was this feeling of a vast "outside" to which I had no access and which was embodied by Nana and the old cronies of the Casa de Ejercicios, and Nana's brothers, and the hoboes I saw and followed but never talked to, just drank them in with my eyes and my imagination, which now became the center of a vast series of visions and fantasies which I began writing about. Thousands of pages were covered with script, discarded or torn up. The man we had run over and Nana's tears pointed to a new direction. I thought I had abandoned El ultimo Azcoitia and was now writing rather desperately a completely different novel.
But people from one novel began visiting the other. The central crony in the novel of miserabilismo la noun made out of the adjective "miserable"--Ed.] became the nanny in the novel of pride. From this novel, one day in a museum Don Jeronimo meets Humberto Penaloza and makes him his secretary. The bitch began to whine in both novels. The monsters invade the novel of the convent, and so forth. It was like watercolors running into each other until I could no longer make out which was which, what stood where, what belonged in which. The years went by and with the years, an ulcer pain that I could not get rid of: it was the bitch gnawing and I used to call that pain "the yellow bitch" in my conversations with my wife.
We moved out of Chile. I left most of the papers referring to my novel behind, that is to say, to my two novels. But in Mexico the urge to write was huge, the desire to complete something, the eagerness to publish mounted. What I did was just sort of cut a limb off of the very heavy tree of The Obscene Bird and plant it. It was no more than a paragraph, but one of those radiant paragraphs which one sometimes achieves, containing a whole world unto itself, ten, fifteen lines which I tore off the big novel then called El ultimo Azcoitia, and which I fashioned into Hell Has No Limits in two months of uncontrolled, mad, effervescent enthusiasm.
I owe a great deal to this little novel. In the first place, it showed me that I could begin, write, and finish a book, which was something I had begun to doubt after turning around in circles with E1 ultimo Azcoitia. In the second, I found that I could use the elastic forms of pronouns with varying points of view and accent to what seemed to me great advantage. Third, I felt that every piece of my "big" novel was bursting with life and it was fertile. Fourth, and perhaps more importantly than anything else, I found out that disguise is voice.
I wrote at once another shortish novel and went on to teach at Iowa for two years. But they were barren years, delightful, easy, and although I felt terribly frustrated because I could not write one single word during those two years, I believe at the end I came out a winner. At the end of two years I realized that for me teaching and writing fiction did not work together--as it did for Kurt Vonnegut, who taught at the same college at the same time I did, and wrote one of his best novels there--and no matter how cozy the fastness of an American university, I had to get out. Which we did, and went to Spain.
There our daughter was born a few months after our arrival. And we proceeded to Mallorca, where we wanted her to spend the first years of her life in the sunny Mediterranean. Mallorca was chosen because Spain in those days was cheap to live in, and the little money which I had saved would last me about a year. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, Pedro Paramo, The Time of the Hero, Conversation in The Cathedral, and very specially The Green House, which was a book that then filled me with wonder. It must have been while reading some of this stuff that somehow, again from way, way back, from the patios filled with old servants and braziers of my childhood, with aunts doing charity and remembering the good old days, from that distance welled up, as I opened my Obscene Bird papers recently arrived from Chile to start on that novel again, the image of the "imbunche," the legend of the "chonchon" which I remembered having heard but had forgotten when spending summer on my family's farms down by the Rio Maule. I remembered witchcraft. I remembered poverty, the usual derelicts. And the whole legend of the old witch-nanny and the landowner and his children and his daughter rose up within me in a matter of days onto paper, the yellow bitch following them and screaming. This legend I made up. There is no such legend in Chile that I know of. And later, I have tried to inquire, but it doesn't exist. I made it up from elements of myth which lay at my fingertips, and by creating it I welded all those disparate universes into one: the novel had acquired a voice. Still, the ulcer pain was too great to write. I spent months in bed. An operation was not advised because, it being a disease of nervous origin, it would come back soon. I wrote and wrote, layers upon layers, I had the shape and voice of the novel in my head but could not get it on paper. I told my wife I would burn everything and start another novel from scratch. She said, wise girl that she is: "Don't burn it. If you do, it will all stay inside you and you'll never get rid of it." So I didn't burn it. But we were by then out of money. So I accepted a quarter's teaching job at Fort Collins, Colorado.
A week after my arrival in Colorado, having left my wife and child back in Mallorca, I had an ulcer hemorrhage and had to have an instant operation. This episode was, perhaps, the turning point in the writing of The Obscene Bird of Night. Sickness and pain. A feeling of impotence, of inferiority, of incapability, above all when confronted with writing, as things had shown. Now the element of madness was added. For during and after the operation I was given painkillers, morphine, to which I am apparently allergic, and went into an incredible bout of madness--a trip, I think young people call it--hallucinating wildly, pain and terror larger than life-size, everything, every pain, every humiliation blown up into something of monstrously large proportions, paranoia, schizophrenia, politics, sex, everything became confused and took on a gigantic proportion. I came out of it all shook up, as you say.
After about a month I was sent back home to Mallorca. Fear was still in me. I could not sleep at night because I was terrified of being trapped forever within my nightmares. I had lost thirty pounds. My hair and beard became white. My wife could not believe what she saw come down from the plane. Fear stayed with me. Fear of being followed, of being spied upon, of being vulnerable, frail, mad. We moved to Barcelona, for the island, however beautiful, became stifling.
Barcelona was then, for us Latin Americans, in its heyday. I had old ties of friendship with Mario Vargas Llosa and with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who were then living there, enjoying the delights of one of the great literary friendships of our time. It was the day of the "Boom," if there ever was such a thing, those years preceding 1970. Cortazar came often to Barcelona, so did Carlos Fuentes. I remember a New Year's party at Garcia Marquez's where everyone was present. And our literary agent, Carmen Balcells, feted us continually, as did the Catalan writers, especially the Goytisolo brothers. After madness, it was party, party, party, opening nights, operas, concerts, after loneliness, friendships, being in the full swing of things. We went to Aix, to an opening night of one of Carlos Fuentes's plays with Maria Casares in it, and stayed at Cortazar's home in Saignon. The air was rife with political passion until, in 1970, Salvador Allende became president of Chile.
During all this time, until 1969, I wrote and wrote in my flat in Vallvidrera, up in the green hills behind Barcelona. Something very strange had happened. I had acquired a voice. My madness had given me a voice, this madness which was pain and disease, the final result of all those years of fighting it. It was all coming out, everything that during eight years had been piling up inside me: the hateful yellow bitch which had my voice and ran its crazy race through the whole novel, the deformed boy who had started everything going, the feeling of being enclosed, and the feeling of being outside things, left out; the handsome patrician couple that had hurt me so; the convent, the monsters, the derelicts, the old women, pride, poverty, injustice, everything, somehow, after this bout with madness, became sort of crystal-clear, well-cut, defined, lucid, in place, everything had an order and a voice and a meaning. In a final effort of recovery that took about eight months--a recovery of my mind, that is, for after the operation and the madness there were terrible sequels of fear and instability--writing The Obscene Bird was an operation of recuperating my own mind and my strength and confidence which had been under stress for so many years now. I wrote it from beginning to end, welding the pieces together and making up others as I went along. I used all the elements which had accumulated during the years, unable to find a pattern. Now, I felt as if I had been mute all these years, just like Humberto Penaloza and shut up in that convent which is like Kafka's castle: now every experience and every feeling I had in me was shouted abroad as with a megaphone, for everyone to hear.
I could go on forever picking up from my memory the correlative in reality of every single bit in The Obscene Bird of Night. Everything has been recycled, it is true, but if I took the time, I could find every single tutor which held in place every single metaphor. But I feel it would be a sterile occupation, reality, after all, being no more than a tributary of fiction. For the reality which you and I share is not the name of certain streets, not the shape of certain eyes that belong to somebody with a real name, and in whose face I saw for the first time a certain smile, a certain way of looking at things, which led me to write a paragraph in my novel. What you and I share is the recycling of all this matter into something quite different from it, but which transcends and contains all of that.
I want to end by saying that it is quite possible that many steps led up to my writing The Obscene Bird of Night: in my biography, marrying, building a house, leaving Chile, were perhaps the most important. It was only after leaving Chile that I could "see" it, only then that I could fashion my extremely limited personal experience of my own country into what is, finally, the simple parable that I was after when I started off writing. I wish to add that, had I stayed behind, I would not have written this book, which is a possibility which, contemplated now, seems utterly incongruent. But I shared with all those Latin Americans in Barcelona, those two or three wonderful years there, an experience which is not common. There was a feeling of brotherhood. We were all, for better or for worse, doing the same thing. We all had moved away from our own countries because we found that our voices became stifled by the closeness, inaudible because of the nearness. We all thought that we could "understand" our countries, our continent, and through understanding it, understand the world, far from our countries, which would always be the emotion-charged metaphor, the splendid prism which held in our hand reflected and refracted the light our countries shed, decomposing it into what our personal limitations could transform it. We were all doing the same. There was not a single one amongst us who could or would write about anything but the country he had left behind, in the specific Spanish language of each of those countries. We were not cosmopolites. We were trying to understand, taking the long view now, from afar, after having been swamped in the mire of each of our societies. Very seldom does a country or a community, less a continent, find its own contemporary voice. And when it does it is a wonderful choir that does not last for a very long time. One such occasion was Mexican mural painting in the 1920s and 1930s: murals were the country's voice for a while, and then it was all over. Or Spanish lyrical poetry in the 1920s, when Lorca and Alberti and Cernuda and Hernandez were all writing, and Pablo Neruda was the Spanish American poet in residence: lyrical poetry cast a shade onto almost all of the rest of artistic undertaking of that period.
So it is with the Latin American novel of the 1960s and 1970s. Our poetry, by comparison, is puny, and a whole continent, in its many forms and nationalities, seemed to have expressed itself, at the same time, in the same form, and made it, par excellence, the metaphor for that continent. I have said time and again that I do not subscribe to a social interpretation of literature, much less of what I have written. But, with time, I have grown not to dislike its possibility. Now, it seems to me, with age, I have acquired a degree of humility which makes me accept the possibility that, on one level, my voice is more meaningful than alone when heard in a choir.
This essay (in slightly different form) was first delivered in English as the John Gordon Stipe Lecture in Spanish at Emory University, 11 May 1981.
First published in issue 12.2 (Summer 1992)
JOSE DONOSO (1924-1996), born in Santiago, Chile, is the author of Coronation, The Obscene Bird of Night, This Sunday, Sacred Families, Charleston and Other Stories, A House in the Country, Curfew, and Taratuta.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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