Hell Hath No Limits (El Lugar sin Límites) by José Donoso, 1966
HELL HATH NO LIMITS (El lugar sin límites)
by José Donoso, 1966
Hell Hath No Limits (El lugar sin límites) was the third novel of José Donoso. Like the two before it, the work is more properly termed a novella, or novelette, and like them it represents the deterioration of the Chilean upper class. A major difference—one that relates it to the author's fourth novel, The Obscene Bird of Night (El obsceno pájaro de la noche—is the rural setting; earlier works portrayed decadent families in the capital, Santiago. The rural aristocracy in the latter two works is symbolized by the figure of the hacendado, owner of vast haciendas (ranches or other lands), typifying the system known as latifundismo, whereby the majority of the rural population work as sharecroppers or day laborers for the landlord. Although some Chilean critics originally saw Hell Hath No Limits as part of the turn-of-the-century movement known as criollismo (a variant of regional realism emphasizing rural customs, traditions and legends, type characters, and confrontations between the individual and nature), this is only Donoso's point of departure. Clearly aware of literary tradition (and tradition weighs heavily in the novel), Donoso stylizes and distorts for aesthetic effect. Parodic inversion adds another, subversive dimension of interpretation. There is no hero—the dominant character is instead an antihero—and, unlike the traditional regional novel that portrayed rural landowners as benevolent, paternalistic figures, the hacendado in Hell Hath No Limits is egotistical, shortsighted, and capricious, with no interests beyond his own material well-being.
Chronologically, the limits are tight, less than 24 hours: from around ten o'clock on a Sunday morning until about five a.m. the following day. Narration is basically linear and chronological, with the exception of a flashback, in chapters 6 and 7, to a moment 20 years before that explains the origins of certain key relationships; given the frequent focus upon characters' memories, however, all but the last two chapters contain considerable retrospective material. Setting is narrowly circumscribed; everything takes place in a sordid, miserable village near the city of Talca, in Chile's wine-producing region, largely in a brothel managed by one of the main characters, more briefly in the church and at the hacienda (the emblematic nature of these locales is self-evident). Narrative viewpoint is fairly complex, beginning with a free, indirect style used by a seemingly traditional third-person narrator who is soon replaced by the first-person narrative consciousness of "la Manuela," half owner of the brothel and principal narrator. Other narrative perspectives belong to Manuela's 18-year-old daughter, Japonesita, and the truck driver Pancho, something of a rebel who has rejected working for the local landowner and political boss don Alejo. The remaining significant players are don Alejo, Octavio (Pancho's brother-in-law), and don Céspedes (don Alejo's foreman).
One noteworthy peculiarity of the narrative perspective concerns Manuela, the dominant narrative consciousness. While the third-person narrator avoids pronouns, the adjectives describing self employed by Manuela are feminine, and Manuela remembers with delight several past performances as a Spanish flamenco dancer with high heels and a sequined dress—a prized possession—plus supposed artistic triumphs and drunken celebrations. Because details appear elucidating Manuela's present decrepit, toothless condition and residence in the run-down brothel, the reader suspects a capacity for self-delusion in references to fragile girlhood but does not realize until later that "she" is actually a male homosexual and transvestite. Manuela's perspective is used not only for unfolding "her" thoughts but also for presenting and considering the attitudes and desires of other characters, often misinterpreted or incompletely understood, which results in a deformed perception and distorted worldview. Donoso thereby portrays decadence in rural Chile and, more generally, life's existential precariousness.
Basically, three natural subdivisions can be distinguished, with the five initial chapters devoted to anticipation and dread, the interlude consisting of the flashback to two decades before, and a third section of encounters in which events anticipated or dreaded initially are played out. Manuela's original malaise results from news of Pancho's return: the stereotyped bully and macho, he has beaten and threatened Manuela on previous occasions—usually after drinking bouts in the brothel (the only place in town). Despite Manuela's self-deception, the reader realizes that her fear is ambivalent and mixed with desire, as Pancho's strength, virility, enormous stature, and brutish attractiveness are repeatedly noted. Pancho has designs on Manuela's daughter, Japonesita, still a virgin despite growing up in a brothel. (Pancho's only interest is in deflowering her; she is thin, plain, and still prepubescent.) Japonesita has talent for business and bookkeeping; too realistic to dream of escaping her background, she reflects that "If I'm going to be a whore, I might as well begin with Pancho."
Two decades before, don Alejo planned a drunken orgy in the brothel to celebrate an election victory, and Manuela was imported as a special entertainer. Don Alejo bet the madam, Japonesa Grande (so nicknamed because of Oriental features), that she could not seduce the homosexual; to make it worth her while, she insisted upon betting the brothel (which stood on his land) and won by exploiting Manuela's notion of being female, playing out a fantasy lesbian relationship. Becoming pregnant with Japonesita was not part of the plan. Manuela was paid with half-interest in the business, and Japonesita inherited the other half upon her mother's death. Ironically, Pancho's much-anticipated evening visit to the brothel does not lead to Japonesita's sexual initiation, for Manuela's flirtatious "final dance" sparks his latent homosexuality; Octavio's reprimand when Manuela attempts to kiss Pancho (placing his machismo in jeopardy) leads to brutal beating, sadomasochistic rape, and Manuela's death.
Financial focus revolves around possible electrification of the area, which might infuse life into the moribund village. Don Alejo favors this only so long as it may bring a highway, increasing the value of his land; when his plans go awry, he thinks instead of doing away with the village entirely and expanding his vineyards. Economically, there is no hope for the villagers, condemned to continue in their degraded, infernal world (both Pancho and don Alejo have satanic attributes). This is the significance of the epigram from Marlowe's Dr. Faust, in which Mephistopheles replies, to Faust's query concerning hell's location, that it has no limits but is where we are and that where it is we must stay. Donoso's vision of the human condition and what he suggests of metaphysical reality are equally horrendous.