A House in the Country
A House in the Country
by José Donoso
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in an undesignated country in South America at an unspecified time; published in Spanish (as Casa de campo) in 1978, in English in 1984,
A House in the Country chronicles the games, revolutions, and bloody power struggles that take place among 33 cousins left alone on their parents’ estate for a debatable length of time—either one day or one year according to the text.
Born in Santiago, Chile, in 1924, José Donoso published his first collection of stories, Veraneo y otros cuentos (Summer Vacation and Other Stories), in 1955 and two years later his first novel, Coronación (Coronation), for which he won the William Faulkner Foundation Prize for Latin American Literature in 1962. With Coronación, Donoso established himself in Chile as the leading novelist of his generation. In 1964 Donoso and his wife, Maria del Pilar Serrano, left Chile to attend a writers’ conference in Mexico. They would not return until 1981. With the publication in 1970 of El obsceno pájaro de la noche (The Obscene Bird of Night), Donoso achieved an international reputation. A House in the Country is his most highly praised novel since Obscene Bird of Night, and the first of what some have viewed as a triptych of political texts—including The Garden Next Door (1981) and Curfew (1986)—that are mindful of how art serves to preserve historical memory when political oppression stifles other forms of expression.
A House in the Country as political allegory
Most commentators agree that A House in the Country allegorizes political events in Chile before and during the 1970s, when, under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet, the country suffered one of the most repressive and violent regimes in twentieth-century Latin America. In 1973 a bloody military coup ousted Marxist president Salvador Allende (who died in the process) and installed Pinochet. Overnight the country moved from democratic rule to military dictatorship. This abrupt transition and the events leading up to it are key to understanding A House in the Country. Though Donoso’s novel makes few direct references to the events, he himself described the novel as political and claimed that he was inspired to write it on September 18, 1973, while he sat listening to the radio and discussing Pinochet’s September 11 takeover. As the radio played, he could hear both his and Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa’s children playing games from which they were supposed to refrain during siesta hour. Through the conjunction of the two events, the novel was born. A House in the Country need not be read exclusively as an allegory based on Chile during the 1970s, however, for the novel addresses revolution, repression, and authority as universal issues as well as within a specifically Chilean context. The novel’s political basis, in fact, reaches further back into history with allusions to the Spanish conquest of the indigenous population, and the late-nineteenth-century growth of capital and the bourgeoisie. The wealth of the novel’s Ventura family, for instance, derives from gold mines worked by the native inhabitants enslaved by the family and parallels the great wealth gathered by the sixteenth-century Spanish conquerors, who enslaved and exploited Chile’s native populations. Similarly, the growth of the family’s business parallels Chile’s economic development of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while the role of the “foreigners” in the text corresponds to the foreign capital and investors upon which Latin America became increasingly dependent in the early twentieth century.
Salvador Allende—Marxism in Chile
On September 4, 1970, Salvador Allende was voted into the Chilean presidency by the narrowest of margins, backed by the newly formed Unidad Popular (Popular Unity), a left-wing political group composed of socialists, communists, and radicals, among others. Many were surprised by Al-lende’s victory. Because Allende had not won by an absolute majority, but, rather, with 36 percent of the votes (as opposed to the National Party’s Jorge Alessandri, who had earned 35 percent), he needed to be confirmed as president by Congress. There followed a tense seven weeks of speculation, after which Congress officially selected Allende as president. His party had promised a peaceful transition to socialism, which Allende, who himself had Marxist affiliations, intended to carry out. In the context of the Cold War, the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for world dominance, the Western Hemisphere’s first democratic election of a Marxist president shocked the world.
Allende and his government immediately began implementing their program, raising wages and holding down prices. Like many Latin American countries, Chile had been plagued by inflation and poor economic growth for extended periods of time, but by the middle of 1971 inflation was down 14.5 percent, wages up 40 percent, and, in keeping with Popular Unity’s goal of nationalization, most of the country’s textile, iron, automobile assembly, and copper industries now belonged to the government. Under Allende’s leadership, Chilean factories worked at full capacity for the first time in years; government spending for education, health, and housing increased; large rural properties were split up and redistributed; and national income was similarly redistributed to favor the lower classes. Though the government’s program effected rapid change and evoked hostility from much of Chile’s electorate, by all accounts Allende’s first year in office was a success, and the country’s economy seemed to be booming.
by the end of 1971, however, the government faced economic problems and political opposition that would ultimately lead to the undoing of that success, and, two years later, to the government’s collapse. First, the parties within Popular Unity became deeply divided on how quickly and widely to bring radical change to Chile. While the radicals and communists supported Allende, the socialists and other revolutionary left-wing groups wanted to hasten the transformation of Chile’s economy and society, and to effect a complete overhaul as quickly as possible. To accelerate change, one of these groups, the MIR (Movement of the Revolutionary Left), encouraged peasants and workers to take over estates and factories without waiting for official decrees, and thereby undermined the new government’s authority. On the other hand, outside Popular Unity, groups such as the Christian Democrats and the National Party strongly opposed the changes taking place and encouraged resistance and anti-government demonstrations. Allende also faced opposition from the armed forces (the bailiwick of his successor, Pinochet) and from foreign countries such as the United States, whose agenda was imperialist and anti-socialist. Indeed, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency spent approximately $8 million attempting to undercut the regime by “financing opponents, supplying payments to the opposition press, and initiating a whole variety of ‘dirty tricks’” (Caistor, p. 27). The following words by U.S. statesman Henry Kissinger, though expressed after Allende’s downfall, capture the U.S. attitude toward early 1970s Chile: “I don’t see why we need to stand idly by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people” (Kissinger in Caistor, p. 27).
In 1972-73, as Allende’s administration tried to further implement its program, a host of economic problems surfaced in Chile. The government’s short-term successes crumbled under the wary opposition of private industry’s capitalist business leaders, who distrusted the new programs and, instead of investing in a socialist future, sold off their inventory, farm machinery, or cattle and invested in foreign currencies. Soon Popular Unity’s programs led to shortages, rising prices, and black markets; inflation rose alarmingly, the economy shrank, demand outweighed supply, and foreign investment became scarce. In 1972 alone, inflation rose more than 160 percent, an increase higher than in any other country in the world that year. The government’s monetary resources dwindled. Due to rampant opposition, the government could not get new taxes approved by Congress or borrow enough money to cover its deficit. From the U.S. government to the Agency for International Development to the World Bank, outside organizations refused to make loans to Chile. Despite diminishing economic resources, Allende’s government refrained from imposing austerity measures on its supporters in the working class. It became harder and harder for the government, under all these financial pressures, to implement its programs of social spending, and it finally proved impossible to prevent the economy from spinning out of control altogether.
Right-wing groups went on the offensive, and, in Popular Unity’s last two years in power, forged an alliance with the center. Because these groups had seats in Congress, they were able to block new initiatives, harass Popular Unity officials, and denounce the administration, thus setting the stage for a military takeover. Allende attempted to steady the situation and to placate opposition by appointing military officers and other dissenters to cabinet posts. Unfortunately the military officers, Allende’s soon-to-be successors, only grew stronger and more politicized by occupying these posts. Meanwhile, Allende’s backers continued to implement their social changes, taking over property and businesses from Chile’s landowners, a traditional bastion of power whose fear of and opposition to the government’s policies intensified. Strikes and civil disorder increased in almost every economic sector of the nation until civil war seemed imminent.
During the congressional elections of March 1973 the tensions between Popular Unity and its major opponents came to a head. In these elections, the Christian Democrats and National Party won just over half the seats—not enough to do any real damage to Popular Unity—and Allende’s government won six extra seats for its members, a small victory that inspired many of Allende’s supporters to forge ahead. Not decisive enough to mollify any of these warring groups, the election results led to heightened confrontations, violent street demonstrations, and threats of insurgency; both right-wing and left-wing groups carried arms, and the former began openly soliciting military aid. Popular Unity seemed threatened from all sides, while the threat posed by its policies seems to have placed the party on a dangerous course: “By pursuing an illusion that threatened the livelihood of broad sectors of the population, President Allende’s unidad popular coalition set the stage for a counterrevolution that imposed upon Chile a regime of coercion, intolerance, and brutality unequaled since the era of conquest” (Loveman, p. 309).
The 1973 coup—from Marxism to military dictatorship
By mid-1973 the economy and government had come to a standstill; inflation had reached 500 percent, and the government was paralyzed. In August 1973 General Augusto Pinochet became minister of defense, and almost immediately—on the night of September 10-11, 1973—launched a swift, violent military coup. By the evening of September 11, the president’s Moneda Palace had been bombarded by jets and stormed by infantry, Allende was dead, and a new leader had seized power. There is still some dispute over whether Allende died at Moneda Palace or was removed alive and taken elsewhere to be killed. In any case, hundreds died in the takeover, and thousands more would die in the years to follow.
FROM ALLENDE’S FINAL RADIO BROADCAST
Pinochet’s September 11, 1973, coup was bloody and quick. A loyal radio station broadcast Allende’s final speech before his death, including these words:
I have faith in Chile and in its destiny Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment, when treason strains to conquer. May you go forward in the knowledge that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open once again along which free citizens will march to build a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers! These are my last words, but I am sure my sacrifice will not be in vain. I am sure that this sacrifice will constitute a moral lesson that will punish cowardice, perfidy, and treason.
(Allende in Caistor, p. 28)
Instead of restoring Chile to order, the military under Pinochet engaged in a so-called “holy war” against the Marxism that had “infected” the nation: they closed the legislature, curtailed political activity, outlawed organizations that had supported Allende, censored the press, and suspended civil liberties. The military hunted down, tortured, and murdered all “subversives,” making any resistance by Allende supporters almost completely futile. Hundreds of thousands of Chileans went into exile families were torn asunder along political axes, and thousands found themselves jobless. As in Guatemala’s and Argentina’s so-called dirty wars, government opponents simply and quietly “disappeared,” that is, were secreted away by agents of the government. Even Allende supporters who lived outside Chile in foreign cities, such as Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Washington, D.C., were assassinated. Like one of the adults in Donoso’s fictional Ventura family, Pinochet justified such actions as being for Chile’s own good:
The greatest possible enforcement and highest respect for Human Rights implies that these must not be exercised by those individuals who spread doctrines or commit acts which in fact seek to abolish them. This makes it necessary to apply restrictions as rigorous as the circumstances may require to those who defy the juridicial norms in force…. Our attitude must necessarily remain inflexible for the good of Chile and its people.
(Pinochet in Loveman, p. 311)
Chile’s victory over communism, Pinochet maintained, was of international importance, a victory for all against the evils of totalitarian Marxism.
Pinochet in power—an overview
Pinochet once claimed that “there is not a leaf in Chile that stirs without me knowing about it” (Pinochet in Caistor, p. 29). He kept Chile under dictatorial, repressive rule for 16 years, until 1990, when Patricio Aylwin was elected president and Pinochet stepped down to become commander-in-chief of the army, a position he would occupy until May 1998, when he became senator for life. The economic situation Pinochet inherited was dire, and one of the ruling junta’s first tasks was to attempt to repair it. Initially, Pinochet’s government adopted rigid measures that only increased unemployment and pushed wages down further, but its policies were soon dominated by the ideas of the “Chicago Boys”—a group of economists (most of whom had advanced degrees from the University of Chicago) who promoted radical and aggressive economic reform. Following their advice, the government instituted a conversion to free-market economics; the economy’s rapid growth from 1976 to 1981 became known as the “Chilean miracle.” Chile’s economy was opened to the world, while the role of the state in the country’s economy was reduced—a drastic reversal, in effect, of Allende’s Marxist program. This transformation was aided, in large degree, by U.S., European, and international banks.
The new economic policies had varying effects on the Chilean people. Because of the government’s drastic reduction of public spending, the country’s poor were the most affected by the new policies, which resulted in record unemployment and the decline of purchasing power to almost half its 1970 level. At the same time, however, the new free-for-all, capitalist economy allowed large corporations and business-sawy individuals to attain great wealth. Flashy cars, shopping malls, lavish housing developments, computers, and credit cards suddenly became common in Chile, especially in urban centers. Such an extreme and competitive economic situation, with its winners and losers, caused one junta member, Admiral José Toribio Merino, to compare Chile’s economy to “a jungle of savage beasts, where he who can kill the one next to him, kills him” (Toribio Merino in Caistor, p. 30).
On other fronts, the government sought to transform all aspects of Chilean life by institutionalizing the military-police state. In higher education, military rectors replaced academics, while humanities and social sciences departments (or any area of study “contaminated” by liberal ideas) were all but wiped out. For Pinochet’s first ten years in power—during which time Donoso’s A House in the Country was written—the military appeared invincible, and only the quietest forms of private protest were possible. As Alfred Stepan explains, “In Chile, eight years of authoritarian rule passed without significant movement out of the initial authoritarian situation: civil society remained debilitated in the face of state strength” (Stepan in Schneider, p. 3). Pinochet would become known worldwide as one of the fiercest, most violent dictators of the twentieth century. In October 1998, 20 years after the publication of A House in the Country, the former dictator was arrested in London, England, and charged by the Spanish government with torture and murder.
Social relations under Pinochet
Reactions to the dictatorship varied within every segment of society. Some Chileans prospered under Pinochet and were reassured by the order he brought to a chaotic society; others had their families torn apart and lives crushed. Given the extreme political climate of the time, friendships and family bonds dissolved over political differences. The splits between Allende and Pinochet supporters wreaked havoc in some segments of society, causing marriages to break up, friendships to end, and children to be disinherited.
Many Chileans, convinced that Allende and his policies had almost destroyed their country, “retreated behind the bulwark of modern authoritarianism and became insulated from the suffering of their fellow citizens” (Constable and Valenzuela, p. 11). In contrast, others, resisting the military dictatorship and determined to keep the intellectual and cultural domains alive, created support groups, underground networks, and small academic institutes. Still others, some of the nation’s young, embraced the military regime’s bold conversion to free-market economics, made their fortunes, and formed a dynamic new entrepreneurial class, roughly equivalent to “yuppies” in the United States (Constable and Valenzuela, p. 205). At the opposite end of the spectrum were the Chileans who became plagued by unemployment and poverty. And the specter of communism still lingered, adding another element to the equation: some Chileans were obsessed with fears of its return; others mourned its failure and hated its polar opposite—the new regime.
Rich and middle-class Chileans, the same classes to which the novel’s Ventura family belongs, were in large part unaffected by the coup:
In tree-lined communities like Providencia and Las Condes, life returned to normal within weeks, and military rule was virtually invisible. Schools reopened; staples reappeared on supermarket shelves. Newsstands bristled with fashion and skiing magazines, and society pages announced the weddings of couples with Basque and British surnames—a reassuring sign that the bonds and values of the elite were passing to a new generation.
(Constable and Valenzuela, p. 142)
Since many of the human rights abuses of the dictatorship were not officially acknowledged, it was possible for an upper-class Chilean to remain ignorant of the gory details, and lead his or her life in relative ease. The average Chilean, however, generally had at least one friend or family member associated with Marxism, and heard news of his or her arrest or disappearance or death. In contrast to the largely static lives of upper-and middle-class Chileans who tolerated or even supported the coup, life changed drastically for liberals on the left side of politics. Because the regime cloaked so many atrocities, rumors circulated, fueling exaggerated ideas that, among other things, tens of thousands of people had been massacred. As one witness observed, “the first years of dictatorship were like putting society in a straight] acket or a psychiatric ward” (Constable and Valenzuela, p. 147). The excited and public political activity of the Allende years ceased: bookstalls shut down, nightlife disappeared, public meetings were banned, and newspapers and magazines closed. The collective sense of failure and disappointment had varying social effects. Some Allende supporters shared their suffering, creating strong bonds of friendship and support. In other cases, the sense of fear and failure undermined relationships between former comrades. As campuses and factories
A FIRST-PERSON ACCOUNT OF MILITARY VIOLENCE IN PINOCHET’S CHILE
“Every day new bodies arrived, nude and headless. They floated in the river. We were stunned. It wasn’t possible. We cried, please no more. They took my husband on the twelfth. A police patrol arrived. My youngest son was only thirteen years old. The wife of my older son was six months pregnant. She was disappeared. Her son still goes to sleep under the bed In this way we learned that anything was possible.”
(“Violeta” in Schneider, p. 75)
were infiltrated by spies and informants, people sometimes did not know whom to trust and shunned all former acquaintances.
The mood of the poor was also affected by the new government. For many of Chile’s poor, the Popular Unity era had offered “an exhilarating new sense of worth—a defiant pride that demanded respect from the rich and a share in their economic power”; under Pinochet this dynamic was reversed (Constable and Valenzuela, p. 223). The high unemployment rate and the cuts in social spending had emotional consequences. Depression afflicted many idled workers, straining domestic relations and encouraging alcoholism. Many of Chile’s working men, raised in a culture of machismo in which much of a man’s identity was tied to work, could no longer support their families. These men were doubly shamed when their wives went to work: women could easily find domestic positions, and thousands did so to ensure their families’ survival. Though some men set off valiantly each morning to find whatever work they could, many sank into chronic despair.
Literature and Chilean politics
Chilean literature prospered during Allende’s presidency, when the government-owned Quimantu Press—the largest publishing conglomerate in Chile—published Chilean literary texts in editions of 100,000 copies. Once Pinochet was in power, however, the military confiscated Quimantu and appointed a general as its new director. Pinochet’s government stifled literary and cultural production in Chile. For a time, books by renowned Latin American writers such as Pablo Neruda, Gabriel García Márquez, and Julio Cortázar were banned (see, respectively, TheHeights of Macchu Picchu, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Blow-Up and Other Stories , also covered in Latin Ameñcan Literature and Its Times). Most of Chile’s artists and intellectuals went into exile, either voluntarily or by force; those who remained confronted censorship and the lack of literary outlets. Literary works from within Chile were published in two ways: either by underground presses, which dealt mostly in testimonials and denunciations, or as government-approved publications, from which emerged heavily coded literature, rife with allegory, symbol, and metaphor. As one literary historian points out, writers within Chile became isolated from the international community, while Chilean writers in exile could reach that community only by being displaced from the land and experiences they sought to describe (Epple, p. x). This sense of loss is expressed further by the writer Antonio Skarmeta:
Our literature is becoming an exile obra[work], and not primarily in the geographic sense. The land missing under our feet—missing not only from under ours but from under those of our compatriots living in Chile as well—is nothing less than life itself, and the concept of life with which we grew up, confidently and spontaneously.
(Skarmeta in Epple, p. x)
Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda was emblematic of the relationship between politics and literature after Pinochet’s coup. A member of the Communist Party and an Allende supporter, Neruda was dying of cancer when reports of the coup and its aftermath reached him. Doctors had predicted that the poet still had a couple of years to live, but, heartbroken, in the midst of preparations to flee the country, Neruda died only 12 days after the coup. Almost 2,000 people attended Neruda’s funeral, where they sang the socialist anthem in what would be the first public protest against the regime. When they returned from the funeral, Neruda’s widow, Matilde, found his home ransacked, with glass covering the floors and most of the valuables stolen. Matilde kept the home as it was. It would be a testimony, she said, to the military’s brutality. “We aren’t going to hide this. Pablo is here with us, with the broken glass on the floor” (Matilde Neruda in Spooner, p. 54). Though Neruda was not literally killed by the regime, many associated his death with the coup and its promise of repression.
A House in the Country is only one of many subversive Chilean texts responding to dictatorship. Through the use of allegory, symbol, and language-play, these texts not only convey meaning beyond that which is sanctioned by dictatorship, but also highlight the artificiality of the dictatorship’s repressive rhetoric. In Donoso’s novel, when the character Majordomo, who at least in part represents Pinochet, demands that the Venturas be told the “truth” about a certain event, another character “was about to inquire what truth he had in mind, among the many that power commands” (Donoso, A House in the Country, pp. 228-29). Told as a fable and an allegory, A House in the Country identifies itself as a subversive text. Late in the novel, the narrator, who is also presented as its author, says quite candidly, “I write as I do so that people like [one of the Venturas] won’t recognize themselves—won’t admit to it, anyway—or understand what I’m saying about them” (House in the Country, p. 283).
The novel opens on a summer day in the country, when all the adults of the large, extremely wealthy Ventura clan have decided to go on a day-long excursion, taking with them every single servant in the house and leaving the children all alone for the first time. There will be a question later about whether the subsequent events transpire over the span of a year or just a day.
The Venturas consist of 13 adults—all related by blood or marriage—and the 33 children among them; throughout the year they live in the city, but spend three months each summer in the country house, located in the fictional Maru-landa, in order to monitor the gold mines that provide the family’s wealth. On the “day” the novel’s story unfolds, the adults set out to a mythical site on their own estate, which we learn was fabricated for them by Arabela, the young girl who lives in the estate’s library, in order to get the parents out of the house. Soon after the adults leave, Wenceslao, a ten-year-old boy whose mother dresses him grotesquely in girl’s clothing and who is “in a certain sense [the novel’s] hero,” challenges the myth used by the adults to keep the household in line: the story that the natives outside the estate’s walls are dangerous, filthy cannibals (House in the Country, p. 262). With this myth and others, the adults have managed to inspire fear in the children and thus to maintain their own power. We learn that Wenceslao’s father, Adriano Gomara, was imprisoned by the family for establishing contact with the natives, whose cannibalism supposedly inspired one of his daughters to murder and cook her sister.
The Venturas also keep the household under their control by employing servants, headed by the Majordomo, who have full reign over the estate every night, and who enforce the will of the adults through violence and fear. Though the servants are the adults’ lackeys, the older Venturas distance themselves from the servants’ actions, preferring to appear the benevolent masters. Throughout A House in the Country, the adult Venturas deny reality, cloaking themselves within the elaborate fantasy and artifice that keep their power intact:
[F]or the Venturas the first commandment was that under no circumstances should anyone confront anything openly, that life was pure allusion and ritual and symbol, which precluded any questions and answers even among the cousins: you could do anything, feel anything, desire anything, embrace anything, so long as it was never spoken of. ...
(House in the Country, pp. 124-25)
When the parents return to the estate, for instance, after what seems to have been one year, they insist they have been gone for only one day. As one of the servants warns another, “Haven’t you gotten it into your thick skull that here time does not, has not, will not pass, because that is our master’s order? Time stopped when they left for the picnic. Woe to him who thinks it will start up again before their return!” (House in the Country, p. 232).
In the same vein, throughout the novel the children engage in their favorite activity, participating in the ongoing play, La Marquise Est Sortie à Cinq Heures (The Marquise Went Out at Five O’clock), in which they act out melodramatic roles such as “the Beloved Immortal” and “Mauro the Young Count.” The play so permeates their lives that they do not always know when they are in or out of it, or whether what surrounds them is or is not merely illusion—a problem clearly exacerbated by their parents’ own unwillingness to see things as they are. Real atrocities can be written off as just another episode in the drama, as when, late in the novel, the Majordomo explains that the tortured, dying Arabela is “only playing La Marquise Est Sortie à Cinq Heures” (House in the Country, p. 319).
According to A House in the Country’s narrator, the protagonists of the novel are not the children, servants, or adults. Rather, “pure narrative is the protagonist in a novel that sets out to grind up characters, time, space, psychology, and sociology in one great tide of language”:
The fact remains that Wenceslao, like my other children, is an emblematic figure: the most memorable, perhaps, of a number of boys and girls who, as in a Poussin painting, caper in the foreground, untraceable to any model because they are not portraits, their features unconstrained by any but the most formal lineaments of individuality or passion. They and their games are little more than a pretext for the painting to have a name, because what it expresses does not reside in those quaint games which merely provide a focal point: no, a higher place in the artist’s intent has been given to the interaction between these figures and the landscape of rocks and valleys and trees that stretches towards the horizon, where, in golden proportion, it gives way to the beautiful, stirring, intangible sky, creating that unabashedly unreal space which is the true protagonist of the painting
(House in the Country, p. 263)
Once the parents have left, the children release Adriano Gomara, whom the narrator describes as “the man for whom humanity has meaning and can aspire to rational order” (House in the Country, p. 210). Upon his release Adriano and his allies quickly modify the kinds of rigid power structures that have been governing the estate. Like Allende, Adriano promises equality for all and establishes friendly relations between himself, the Ventura children, and the natives who live beyond the fence of lances that until now has enclosed the estate. The house is opened to the natives, but soon food and other supplies become scarce. Though idealistic and well-intentioned, Adriano is unable to govern efficiently or practically, and his “rule” soon disintegrates into hostile struggles between warring factions. At the same time, several of the children plot to steal the parents’ gold, thus betraying the ill-conceived communist experiment for their own gain.
When the adults, still on their excursion, encounter two children fleeing the estate and, through them, realize how deeply their power is being threatened, they send back their army of servants to stop Adriano. Led by the Majordomo, the servants restore “order” in the house, an order based on fear and terror. The repressive rule of the Venturas restored, the servants terrorize, torture, kill, or “disappear” all dissenters.
When the adults finally return, they bring with them foreigners interested in buying the estate. Two of the children, Juvenal and Melania, have made it appear that Adriano’s rise and fall from power, and the children’s participation in the short-lived regime, have been just another episode of La Marquise Est Sortie à Cinq Heures. Thus, a short period goes by in which nothing seems to have changed (most of the unpleasantness again being attributed to the children’s play), though shortly thereafter one of the children, Malvina, along with the foreigners, deceives the adults and escapes into the country with most of their wealth. Many of the adults and servants follow the escapees, and, we are told, die in the thistle storm that plagues the country each year. The remaining adults, children, and servants remain in the ballroom, their barely-alive bodies lying “mingled, resting in each other’s laps, on the pillows, muffled in striped blankets,” as the elegant figures from the trompe l’oeil overhead watch over them, making sure they do not die “under the choking clouds of thistles” (House in the Country, p. 352).
The Mapuche in Allende’s Chile
The indigenous peoples of Chile mainly come from the Ara-caunian Indian group, which consists of the Picunche, Hiulluche, and the Mapuche, who were once the country’s most powerful tribe; the only indigenous people able to partially fend off the Spanish conquerors, the Mapuche were finally subdued in the late nineteenth century (Caistor, p. 14). The Mapuche are the largest Indian group in Chile, making up more than five percent of the total population. They live on the outermost fringes of the social and economic order. As in other parts of the Americas, these native people have been persecuted since the time of the Conquest, and today are still regarded by some as inferior to Chileans of Spanish ancestry. As in Donoso’s novel, many of these native people were enslaved by and forced to work in the mines of the Spanish conquerors.
Salvador Allende’s government attempted to make the Mapuche one of the bulwarks of Chile’s Marxist revolution, seeking to mobilize their potential for the good of all Chile, and to activate them politically in their position as an exploited class. However, fully integrating the Mapuche into political life proved difficult. First, Popular Unity’s land reform goals were limited because the party did not hold a majority in Congress and had to abide by existing laws. Reform within these laws would not provide enough land to benefit the Mapuche poor, who already had a deep distrust of any “white” government, and who demanded more land, enough at least to sustain themselves. Despite its sympathetic attitude, Allende’s government could only do its best within those laws already in place and so could not give the majority of the Mapuche any land at all.
Many left-wing groups sought to hasten Chile’s societal overhaul by illegally seizing land themselves—an action sanctioned by some Popular Unity members. One such group, the MCR (Movement of Revolutionary Peasants), initiated a brutal guerrilla campaign in the countryside. Farmers quickly organized their opposition to these guerrillas, which caused the MCR to focus on winning the Indians as allies. Almost half of all the Mapuche lived in Cautín province—outnumbering the whites in that province by over 100,000 people—and the MCR easily set the Indians against the white landowners there by painting the whites as the robbers of Mapuche ancestral lands. In 1972 approximately 1,200 MCR activists lived in Cautin, and gathered the Mapuche together, “[whipping] them into a fury and [launching] them on a battue[or hunt] in which the quarry was not bulls but landowners” (Labin, p. 73). In the first four months of Allende’s government, there were 57 of these hunts, and in 1971 there were 400 violent seizures of land in Cautin alone (Labin, p. 73). Even these seizures failed to provide the Mapuche with land. The state retained ownership of the deeds, preferring to direct the Indians into state-owned “socialist communities” in which the land was worked collectively, and Indians received training in “class-conscious” political education (Labin, p. 73). Unsurprisingly, the Mapuche soon became disenchanted. All in all, Popular Unity’s Indian policies were often confused, scattered, and dictated by legal limitations. Allende’s presidency was so brief that a more structured response to the Indian question did not have time to take root.
Sources and literary context
American writer John Barth has called A House in the Country a worthy example of postmodernism. Donoso himself has characterized A House in the Country in this way, giving a brief definition of postmodernism within his description: “[A House in the Country] has all the ingredients: it’s eclectic, it’s humorous, it apes the forms of classical novels, it is artificial and self-conscious, it is a novel about writing, and there is a spoof in it” (Donoso in Gutiérrez Mouat, p. 17). Many critics have discussed the self-conscious aspect of Donoso’s writing. In the Latin American context, such self-conscious writing is often used to explore oppositions—such as truth versus fiction, history versus narrative, or authorized history versus personal history or memory—as many writers responded to chaotic political events and/or repressive regimes like Pinochet’s, in which language was manipulated for “official” reasons.
Perhaps the most burning question about A House in the Country concerns the precision of its allegory—is it a treatment of events in Chile at the time of Pinochet’s coup, or is it meant to elicit memories of a wide variety of Spanish American conquests? Critics are divided. The character Adriano, the leader of the children’s revolution, for example, has been regarded in some quarters as a representation of Salvador Allende, although he also shares many characteristics of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Similarly, the presence of cruel and oppressive paramilitary servants that torture and regulate the Ventura children “is one of several elements of the political allegory of [A House in the Country] which may just as well apply to, say, pre-revolutionary Cuba, or … Peru, as to Chile” (Bacarisse, p. 323). And yet, given the dramatic and bloody events in Chile in the 1970s, it is almost inevitable that the wars and retaliations at the Ventura summer home will resonate as a Chilean struggle. The scholar Lucille Kerr provides a summary of the novel interpreted as Chilean allegory:
|A House in the Country||1970s Chile|
|Ventura adults||The oligarchy|
|Children||The middle class|
|Natives||Lower classes or proletariat or Communists|
|Adriano Gomara||Salvador Allende|
|Rise of Adriano Gomara as leader of one faction of children and natives||Allende’s election in 1970|
|Return of servants and death of Adriano Gomara at their hands||Military coup of 1973|
(Adapted from Kerr, p. 150)
As Kerr notes, “within the context of other countries’ political history or that of Spanish America as a whole, other equivalents have [also] been suggested: Marulanda could be read as an exemplary Spanish American country during its neocolonial period or as pre-revolutionary Cuba or as Peru in the 1950s; the different groups of characters could be read as generally distinct social classes, the servants as the military forces, and the natives as the lower classes, just as they do in the Chilean model” (Kerr, p. 150).
A House in the Country was well-received in Chile, even though it appeared when Pinochet was still in power. Outside Chile, critics celebrated—and complained about—the novel’s unusual mixture of violence, political allegory, and overt literariness and beauty: “The result will weary some readers with its … obliqueness… and grind others in studies of literary influence… and political reference” (Christ, p. 307). Writing for the New York Review of Books (July 18, 1985, p. 33), Michael Wood argued that Donoso’s novel should not be read as precise allegory, since it shuns realism as too comfortable, even for expressing harsh truths. In his review, Alexander Coleman called the novel “a gory and splendid romance” that is “lurking with yummy scenes of child cannibalism” and likewise praises its abandonment of the “wretched and meager real” (Coleman, p. 39).
Bacarisse, Pamela. “Donoso and Social Commitment: Casa de campo.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 60 (1983): 319-32.
Caistor, Nick. Chile: A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture. New York: Interlink Books, 1998.
Christ, Ronald. “Fictional Diets.” Partisan Review 52 (1986): 305-08.
Coleman, Alexander. “Evil Pastoral.” Review 32 (1984): 38-39.
Constable, Pamela, and Arturo Valenzuela. A Nation of Enemies: Chile under Pinochet. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1991.
Donoso, José. A House in the Country. Trans. David Pritchard with Suzanne Jill Levine. New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1984.
Epple, Juan Armando. “Introduction.” In Chilean Writers in Exile. Trans. Steven White. Ed. Fernando Alegría. Trumansburg, N. Y.: The Crossing Press, 1982.
Gutiérrez Mouat, Ricardo. “Beginnings and Returns: An Interview with José Donoso.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, no. 2 (1992): 11-17.
Kerr, Lucille. “Conventions of Authorial Design: José Donoso’s Casa de campo.” Symposium 42 (1988): 133-52.
Labin, Suzanne. Chile: The Crime of Resistance. Surrey: Foreign Affairs Publishing, 1982.
Loveman, Brian. Chile: The Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Schneider, Cathy Lisa. Shantytown Protest in Pinochet’s Chile. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.
Spooner, Mary Helen. Soldiers in a Narrow Land: The Pinochet Regime in Chile. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Wood, Michael. Review of A House in the Country. The New York Review of Books, July 18, 1985, 33.