The fourth novel by Chilean writer José Donoso (1924–96), The Obscene Bird of the Night, is widely regarded as his masterpiece. His other significant novels include Coronation (Coronación, 1957), This Sunday (Este Domingo, 1966), The Space without Limits (El lugar sin límites, 1966), and The Country House (Casa de campo, 1978). While his writing before Obscene Bird does not openly challenge the conventions of the familiar realist or psychological novel, Obscene Bird is his most experimental narrative.
Up to Obscene Bird, Donoso’s stories are set in Chile and portray the gap between the haves and the havenots, focusing on the decline of the bourgeoisie. After this novel, however, Donoso focused less on the depiction of specific social milieus and more on the exploration of the contradictions and suffering inherent in the human condition. Recurrent themes throughout his literary production are vain quests for self-fulfillment, identity transformations and crises, the impossibility of reaching fixed truths, and the emptiness and alienation experienced by humankind. These themes are highlighted by the novel’s epigraph, a quotation from Henry James, Sr., on the chaos and tragedy of human existence, which gives the work its title.
Obscene Bird is a lengthy narrative divided into 30 chapters that presents numerous ambiguities and contradictions, making it difficult to chart the twists and turns of the plot. The novel describes how a popular legend and the history of the Azcoitía family become inextricably connected, making readers negotiate several variants of both accounts and not letting them differentiate facts from rumors and fantasy. The legend deals with a powerful landowner who lived in the late 13th century and to whom was born a daughter possessed of supernatural powers. After killing a mysterious dog that always accompanied the girl, a group led by her father entered her room. The landowner immediately covered her from other people’s sight with his poncho and diverted their attention toward the nanny. She is drowned while the girl is confined to a convent built by his father’s order, which eventually becomes a rundown religious institution for orphans and elderly women.
At the time of the narration, the convent belongs to D. Jerónimo de Azcoitía, a wealthy aristocrat and politician to whom Humberto Peñaloza, the narrator and protagonist of the story, serves as servant and secretary. Humberto feels both admiration and resentment toward D. Jerónimo. Having been encouraged by his father to be “somebody” and becoming fascinated by the mighty D. Jerónimo, Humberto is painfully aware that he will never become the man he wishes to be. When D. Jerónimo and his wife, Inés, have a deformed child, D. Jerónimo puts him in Humberto’s charge and confines him to La Rinconada, an estate populated by people with physical deformities, and this is done so that the boy does not gain awareness of his own deformity.
Eventually Humberto falls ill and moves to the religious institution described earlier in the novel, where he is thought to be mentally retarded. When Inés’s marriage to D. Jerónimo collapses, she moves to the institution, but soon leaves for an asylum after the book’s protagonist tries to rape her. He then asks the women in the house to wrap him with a series of old sacks to isolate him from the world as if he were an “imbunche”—a mythical creature who has had every orifice in its body sewn up. When the women abandon the building for a new home, he is thrown like a log onto a fire, where he burns to death.
The narrator—who many critics identify as Humberto unraveling his inner thoughts—acts as “the main centre of consciousness from which all the other voices in the text stem,” according to P. Swanson in The “Boom” and Beyond. The narrator adopts various identities and projects his inner discourse onto different characters, shifting between first- and third-person narration and from character to character in a challenging manner. This unreliable narrator presents a story full of gaps and contradictions, not allowing the reader to reach a coherent interpretation of how events really develop. The story’s ambiguities highlight people’s incapacity to comprehend reality fully while exposing the principles and beliefs through which they try to make sense of their lives. These ambiguities might also result from Humberto’s role as a writer who intends to write a novel about his masters and considers different narrative approaches and plot developments simultaneously, as authors do when working on a story.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are also constant references to the process of literary creation that point out the status of the novel as fiction. Humberto, for instance, mentions several times that he plans to write a book the features of which correspond with the narrative itself. Together with the fact that the novel’s characters seem to perform contradictory actions, this suggests that Obscene Bird is a potential text that Humberto wants to write but it never actually materializes. The metafictional dimension of Obscene Bird is intensified by the fact that various settings in the novel act as metaphors for the story itself, being portrayed as labyrinthine places that mirror the endless ramifications of the plot.
Obscene Bird is structured according to binary patterns. This duality structure organizes the book’s characters, symbols, and motifs, the most important among which are order/chaos, enclosure/escape, appearance/ reality, hope/despair, and integration/withdrawal, as noted by Swanson in The “Boom” and Beyond. The story examines how each term of the dichotomy needs the other term to exist and questions the differences between the two words. For instance, most characters act as doubles for each other, a device through which Donoso seems to suggest that “identity is comprised of what is perceived in the Other or double,” according to Brent J. Carbajal in The Veracity of Disguise in Selected Writings of José Donoso. Through his use of doubles and masks, Donoso explores the nature of reality and identity, making readers question the contingent perceptions upon which they base their understanding of human existence.
Carbajal, Brent J. The Veracity of Disguise in Selected Works of José Donoso: Illusory Deception. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellon Press, 2000.
Castillo-Feliú, Guillermo I., ed. The Creative Process in the Works of José Donoso. Rock Hill, S.C., 1982.
Caviglia, John. “Tradition and Monstrosity in El Obsceno pájaro de la noche.” PMLA 93, no. 1, (1978): 33–45.
Swanson, P. José Donoso: The “Boom” and Beyond. Liverpool, U.K.: Francis Cairns, 1988.