Donoso, José

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José Donoso

BORN: 1924, Santiago, Chile

DIED: 1996, Santiago, Chile


GENRE: Fiction

Summertime and Other Stories (1955)
Coronation (1957)
Hell Has No Limits (1966)
The Obscene Bird of Night (1970)
A House in the Country (1978)


José Donoso is the most prominent Chilean novelist of the twentieth century and one of a select group of Latin American writers who achieved international notoriety in the 1960s. This was the decade of the Latin American novel's modernization by cosmopolitan writers well versed in the most significant experiments of modernist fiction in Europe and the United States.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Rich Cultural Background José Donoso Yáñez was born in Santiago on October 5, 1924, into a family belonging to the professional middle class but with strong ties to Chilean aristocratic culture. His father, José Donoso, and both of his grandfathers were physicians, and his two brothers became lawyers. His mother was the former Alicia Yáñez. His genealogy includes politicians, historians, writers, and literary critics, and he himself holds a university degree, thus continuing a family tradition lasting four generations.

Though Donoso's parents were not themselves wealthy, his father in particular had a literary culture he shared with his son, who spent the first ten years of his schooling

in the Grange—a prestigious private school in Santiago—and who at seven years of age had a private English teacher at home. Donoso's school years were significant in ways not having to do with actually going to classes. In a 1973 article for Review, Donoso links his remembrance of that period of his life (1932–1942) to several themes that later were to play major roles in his fiction. Donoso emphasizes the many times he feigned stomach illness to play hooky and the way in which this deception, which fooled even his father, in time became a real ulcer, intimately linked to the creative process, either slowing or nourishing it. He remembers collapsing from a hemorrhage upon completing the manuscript of his first novel, Coronation (1957), and he recounts the emergency surgery performed during the long process of writing one of his later works, The Obscene Bird of Night (1973), which actually includes a heightened version of the incident.

Donoso's autobiographical recollections also recount how in 1929 his family moved downtown, into a large house owned by three great-aunts “who were rich, bedridden, widowed, and ‘alone in the world’ although each was surrounded by her own court of relatives and servants.” The year 1929 was the year of Black Tuesday and the stock market crash in the United States and elsewhere around the world. The ensuing Great Depression, which contributed to hyperinflation in Germany and, ultimately, to the Second World War, also led to the rise of fascist regimes throughout much of Latin America. When in 1938 the family moved back to their earlier home, its garden was to become a major symbol for Donoso—not only of renewal and growth, but strongly linked to family sentiments and fears, especially in The Garden Next Door (1981).

Limited Early Recognition Donoso's first book, a collection of short stories titled Summertime and Other Stories (1955) was a vanity publication, published at his expense and with the collaboration of friends, family, and subscribers. The book nonetheless made an impression on the Chilean literary scene and won the 1956 Municipal Prize for Short Stories. The following year Donoso moved away from the bustle of the city and the workaday world and lived with a fisherman friend's family in Isla Negra, the fishing village in southern Chile popularized by Pablo Neruda, who had begun to use it as a retreat in the early 1950s. When Coronation was published in 1957, once again Donoso had to display creative energy and muster the support of family and friends to ensure distribution.

Mexico, the United States, and Spain In 1963 Coronation was selected by the Faulkner Foundation as the best Chilean novel published in the postwar period. Shortly afterward, in 1964, Donoso and his wife—María del Pilar Serrano, whom he had met in Buenos Aires and married in 1961—accepted an invitation by the Inter-American Foundation to participate in a writers' congress in Mexico. They planned to be gone for only a few weeks, but they did not return to Chile until 1980. In Mexico, Donoso made a living writing literary criticism for Always and, more importantly, wrote his next two novels, Hell Has No Limits (1966)—written between December of 1964 and February of the following year—and This Sunday (1966). Hell Has No Limits was the first novel published by Donoso outside of Chile—though the book is still set in Donoso's native country—and This Sunday was his last novel to be originally published in his native country.

After leaving Mexico, Donoso divided his time for a while between the United States (where he taught writing at the University of Iowa and at Colorado State University) and Spain, where he eventually settled in Calaceite, in the Teruel region, until 1980. He spent the years between 1965 and 1969 trying to finish a project he had started in 1963, which was to become his greatest novel to date and one of the most recognized novels of the Latin American literary boom: The Obscene Bird of Night (1973). One of the key elements of the book is the myth of the Imbunche, a creature taken from the folktales of the people of Chiloé Island. This island lies just off the coast of southern Chile, not far from where Donoso stayed in the 1950s.

After 1970 Donoso shifted gears in the direction of the postmodern novel, with Sacred Families: Three Novellas (1973). The trilogy may be considered a minor work, but Donoso's next novel, A House in the Country (1978), proved a major effort comparable in scope to The Obscene Bird of Night. In 1980 Donoso was to make his definitive return to Chile, writing in the meantime two vastly different novels—a brief, mock-erotic novel, The Mysterious Disappearance of the Marchioness of Loria (1981), and The Garden Next Door (1981), a somber and bitter semi-autobiographical narrative.

Father of the Modern Chilean Novel In 1986 Donoso published Curfew, a sober and disenchanted novel dealing with the contemporary Chilean politics Donoso witnessed firsthand. The dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet had left its mark on Donoso personally, and his response to the evils perpetrated by Pinochet's military junta earned him public recognition when Pinochet fell from power in 1990. That year, Donoso was awarded the Chilean Premio Nacional de Literatura. His break with nativism—the movement concerned with social conditions—and with the social novel of an earlier generation, shortly before he died six years later, powerfully ushered in the modern Chilean novel.

Works in Literary Context

Influences on Content and Style Donoso's earliest influences were childhood games that later played major roles in his fiction. For example, he remembers a fascination with dressing up and the games he and his brothers used to stage—until parental authority intervened and

brought them to a halt. This early display of costume and playacting is evoked in the later fiction and is a model for the narration process of Donoso's most important novels.

Donoso also looked back and saw that his experiences in school, and especially of organized sports, brought out in him an incapacity to belong to any group whatsoever: political, social, or literary. As he grew older, this outsider began to make the acquaintance of the hobos and prostitutes who made their living on the outskirts of the city. These characters populate some of Donoso's novels.

Other works by Donoso show influences of the social movements of the time. Donoso's portrayal of Andrés Abalos in Coronation, for instance, betrays the influence of the philosophy focused on existence: existentialism. Still other earlier works show the impact of the author's interest in the well-being of the cultures—the movement called nativism during the period in literature known as the modern era, or modernism. Here Donoso's style often functions as a sort of verbal mask for the workings of historical reality. Often the narrative offers a kind of coded rendering of contemporary Chilean history, complete with veiled references and actual speeches.

The Well-Being of Society Donoso's themes align with the literary movements in which he played a part: Some of his work, such as Curfew (1988), for example, expresses the effort to retrieve one's origins yet to create a new identity with the materials of one's history (memories and past experiences). This theme involves the human in particular and the nation as a whole, which the author calls on to take steps in favor of society's well-being and to not become mired in fantasy and cut off from present-day reality. Curfew and earlier works also highlight the despair of humans—whether on individual levels or on the collective level. There is an effort to believe in the promise of freedom from social codes, yet a feeling of the inescapability of some radical nothingness—of looming anarchy or lawlessness.

The Body as Symbol Figuratively, Donoso often used some form of the body to represent his themes. In The Obscene Bird of Night (1973), the body of the author becomes a metaphoric equivalent for the body of the text. This body is one of voluntary action or ability and is involved in degrees of power—social, political, or economic. It reappears as the body of a house, a physical body, or part of a body of work (such as a painting), and runs through much of Donoso's fiction—whether emphasizing the body politic, the human body, or a body of people.

Works in Critical Context

From the publication of his first novel, Coronation, Donoso was embraced by intellectuals and critics throughout Chile and other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Although his reputation was sometimes uneven—he was criticized by some for his sympathetic portrayal of prostitutes and homosexuals in Hell Has No Limits, for example—and he spent many years in self-imposed exile, he was always considered one of the most important writers to ever emerge from Chile. Donoso dreaded simplicity and aimed to convey the complexities of society in his own often complex way, gaining criticism that revered his efforts: Walter Clemons of Newsweek exclaims, “He is an extraordinarily sophisticated writer in perfect control of time dissolves, contradictory voices, gritty realism and hallucinatory fugues.”

The Obscene Bird of Night When The Obscene Bird of Night was published in 1970, reviewers were both impressed and confounded. Wolfgang Luchtig, in Books Abroad, asks rhetorically, “How do you review a dream?” and John J. Hassett, writing for Review, argues that this is not “a novel simply to read, but one to experience in which we are continuously called upon to give the text some order by discovering its unities and its repetitions.” Robert Coover, writing for the New York Times Book Review, praised the work as “a dense and energetic book, full of terrible risk-taking.” In the years since its publication, The Obscene Bird of Night has come to be viewed as one of Donoso's most important and masterful works.


Donoso's famous contemporaries include:

Carlos Fuentes (1928–): Mexican author whose bestselling works include Old Gringo and Christopher Unborn.

Augusto Pinochet (1915–2006): Chilean military leader who led a coup of the Chilean government and who served as the dictatorial president of Chile from 1973 until 1990.

Gabriel García Márquez (1927–): Colombian author who achieved popularity during the Latin American boom and whose works One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera are among the best-known examples of magic realism.

John Updike (1932–): Award-winning novelist, essayist, and literary critic who is often appreciated for his in-depth chronicling of American psychological, social, and political cultures.

Richard Nixon (1913–1994): The thirty-seventh president of the United States, Nixon remains infamous for his criminality while in office, and is widely suspected of having supported dictator Augusto Pinochet's coup and deposing of Marxist Chilean president Salvador Allende.

Responses to Literature

  1. In general terms, Donoso's nativism involved a concern for society's well-being. More specifically, dictionary definitions describe nativism as a kind of “policy of favoring native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants.” Discuss how Donoso's many moves and experiences abroad contribute to his focus on natives versus immigrants. What is his attitude or thesis concerning this general topic, precisely? Support your argument with detailed analysis of one or more of Donoso's texts.
  2. Like many writers throughout history, Donoso wrote about his impressions of family. Consider Donoso's comments in Sacred Families. To what extent do you agree with his view of the family? What is the strongest argument in favor of the perspective he offers? Against that perspective?
  3. In Donoso's early works, such as Coronation, he was credited with offering a realistic portrayal of upper-class Chilean society. Find some examples in Coronation that describe upper-class life or characters. Based on these, how do you think Donoso viewed the upper class? Why?
  4. On encountering The Obscene Bird of Night, many readers are perplexed, even confounded. What two to three aspects of the book do you find most difficult, challenging, or simply annoying? Why are these aspects challenging? In what ways do such difficulties rub up against you and ask you to revise your own perspectives? What does the fact that you find these things disturbing or irritating suggest about the expectations you bring to the text? Is there a way for you and Donoso to come to an agreement of sorts? If so, how? If not, why not?


Donoso's ongoing focus on the social good and on principles of communal well-being was both striking and admirable. Here are a few works by writers who have also concerned themselves with the social welfare of people in communities:

The Birthday of the World (2003), a short-story collection by Ursula K. LeGuin. This collection explores themes such as gender segregation, marriage between four people, and the disruption of a society whose rulers are “God.”

The Human Condition (1958), a nonfiction book by Hannah Arendt. This work, which is central to the writer's philosophy, concerns activities in realms most important to her—labor, work, and action—in the context of society, politics, and the public and private sectors.

Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998), a nonfiction book by Giorgio Agamben. This work is an exhaustive social study by the Italian philosopher of the how the “near-sacrificial” human functions politically.

The Polish Revolution (2002), a nonfiction book by Timothy Ash. In this factual narrative, the author tells of the 1980 Polish shipyard workers who defied the oppression of their communist rulers.

Sovereign Bones (2007), a book of short stories edited by Eric Gansworth. In this short-story collection, contributing Native American authors write on the imperative of keeping a homogenous identity.



Contemporary Authors Online. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.

Meyer, Doris, ed. Lives on the Line: The Testimony of Contemporary Latin American Authors. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Schwartz, Ronald. Nomads, Exiles, and Emigres: The Rebirth of the Latin American Narrative, 1960–80. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1980.


Barth, John. “Postmodernism Revisited.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 8 (Fall 1988): 16–24.

Clemons, Walter. Review. Newsweek, June 4, 1973.

Mouat, Ricardo Gutiérrez. “Aesthetics, Ethics, and Politics in Donoso's El jardín de al lado.” PMLA 106 (January 1991): 60–70.

Web sites

Latina/o Literature and Literature of the Americas at the University of Northern Colorado. José Donoso. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Memoria Chilena. José Donoso (in Spanish). Retrieved April 25, 2008, from

Princeton University Libraries. José Donoso Papers. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from libraries/firestone/rbsc/aids/donoso/.

José Donoso

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José Donoso

José Donoso (1924-1996) was one of Chile's most distinguished and widely read authors. His novels especially brought him international fame.

José Donoso was born on October 5, 1924, in Santiago, Chile, into a well-to-do family of lawyers and doctors. As a child he attended the "The Grange," an English day school where he remained for a decade and learned English well. He was a rebellious student, hating school work and compulsory sports, and, according to his own account, "this collective experience may have determined my lifelong incapacity to belong to groups of any kind—political, social or recreational."

Restless Youth Found His Passion

As a youth, he dropped out of school, traveled about to various places in Chile and abroad, and finally went back to finish his education at the University of Chile. There he won a two year scholarship to Princeton University, where he took a B.A. in 1951 and where he published his first two stories—in English—in the campus literary magazine.

After returning to Chile in 1952 Donoso held a series of teaching jobs while continuing to write stories. His first book of short stories, Summer Vacation (Veraneo), appeared in 1955 and received considerable critical notice. In 1962 he was awarded the William Faulkner Foundation Prize for Chile for his first novel, Coronation (Coronación, 1957; English translation, 1965).

Success Came Early

Donoso's fame was assured after Coronation appeared. This novel describes a family of Santiago's aristocratic society fallen into decay. A 90-ish grandmother rules in her imposing Victorian mansion over the remnants of her family—mainly her weakling grandson—and a bevy of servants. The book is filled with grotesque figures and situations, a constant in Donoso's work. Though the satire of upper class life seems cruel at times, Donoso also wrote of his characters with compassion and humor.

In 1960 Donoso brought out another collection of fine stories, The Charleston (El Charleston), dedicated to the young lady from Bolivia to whom he had been engaged for some time. The following year they finally married. The reader of the tales in El Charleston will probably be fascinated by all the frustrations and the dark world of passions portrayed in them, especially among members of the Chilean upper middle class, and also by the contrast with under-statement found in the British style of Jane Austen or Henry James.

Mastered Dark Surrealism and Social Satire

During 1965-1967 Donoso taught creative writing at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, and in 1967 he moved to Spain where his only child, a daughter, was born. His second and third novels, This Sunday (Este domingo, 1966) and Place without Limits (Ellugar sin límites, 1967), were published in quick succession. This Sunday contains some lively, vivid characters, and the dramatic conflicts within them and between them sharpen the reader's interest. Especially noteworthy is the young narrator's grandmother Chepa, a wealthy society lady who devotes herself to charities and the poor, and Maya, a bum who is the chief recipient of her benevolence. The relationships between these two and other members of the narrator's family are complicated and filled with repressed violence which finally bursts out, bringing them to a tragic ending. As in Coronation and in his stories, houses and other inanimate things take on life under Donoso's powerfully descriptive pen. Symbols abound and sensations are stressed—for example, the long opening scene describes the delicious smells wafted through the house by Violeta's Sunday dinner meat pies, and these empanadas recur as a motif throughout the book.

"Madness" Became Reality

For a number of years Donoso and his family lived in Spain (Madrid, Mallorca, near Barcelona), and in this latter city his most ambitious novel, The Obscene Bird of Night (El obsceno pájaro de la noche), was published in 1970. While he was writing this lengthy book, which took several years to accomplish, Donoso confessed that he passed through spells of "madness"—paranoia, hallucinations, split personality, and suicide attempts. He had been prone to imaginary illness since childhood when he had pretended to have stomach aches when he didn't want to go to school and he fooled his doctor father who diagnosed appendicitis. In adult life he was plagued by psychosomatic illness, and his imagined ulcers became real.

The Obscene Bird of Night, with its catchy title—a phrase Donoso found in a letter written by Henry James, Sr. to his sons—is undoubtedly a masterpiece. This sprawling, obscure, fascinating, imaginative, 540-page novel is concerned with large problems of identity, the losing of oneself in a plurality of masks. The leading character, Humberto Peñaloza, goes through all kinds of character changes, real or imaginary. The first of these changes is motivated by the insignificance of his lowly social origins in Chilean society and his intense wish to be somebody. Later he is moved by his own feelings of inadequacy or frustration and strong desires for self-destruction. There is one long fantastic section of the novel devoted entirely to depicting a world of real physical monsters, where normal intruders become the monsters. The plot and structure, though carefully ordered, seem chaotic. The Bird reminds us of the distorted world of Goya's dark period and the nightmarish quality of Bosch's paintings, such as "The Seven Deadly Sins." It evokes a world filled with terror and dreams, myth and legend, at the same time that it dissects various levels of society with a sharp eye.

After The Bird, Donoso continued to turn out novels, including Country House (Casa de campo, 1978) and The Garden Next Door (El jardín de al lado, 1981) and shorter pieces of fiction, such as Three Bourgeois Novelettes (Tres novelitas burguesas, 1973) and the erotic novel The Mysterious Disappearance of the Marquise of Loria (La misteriosa desaparición de la Marquesita de Loria, 1980).

Returned From Exile

About 1980 Donoso returned to his homeland of Chile. Interviewed years later by Fernando Ainsa for the UNESCO Courier (1994), Donoso spoke of exile, his own as well as the literary theme of exile, "Wherever people go, whatever they do, they take their homeland, their home town, with them, and there is no way of going into voluntary exile from one's own self, whatever some people may think or claim to the contrary. The primary reason why I returned to Chile was homesickness, which gets worse as one gets older…." Donoso reflected this philosophy in The Garden Next Door (1981), which conveyed a strong theme of exile, and in Despair (Desesperanza, 1986), which revolved around the theme of homecoming.

He also felt that he could make a larger contribution to society and the literary world writing from his homeland. The 1980s and 1990s, he felt, were a time when writers abandoned their desire to prescribe remedies for the world's ills, and instead focused on interpreting individual life stories. Author of numerous critically acclaimed works during this period, Donoso was awarded Chile's Premio Nacional in 1990.

Among his later novels were:Curfew, Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe: Two Novellas (Taratuta. Naturaleza muerta con cachimba (1990), Hell Has No Limits, and Cuatro para Delfina (1982). Throughout his writing the reader is aware of layer upon layer of "wrappings" around his characters' identities, so much so that some critics believe that the imposed masks or disguises become the character's identity. Donoso died of cancer in 1996 at the age of 72.

Further Reading

Donoso is listed in various guides, such as The Oxford Companion to Spanish Literature (1978) and D. W. Foster and V. R. Foster, editors, Modern Latin American Literature (1975). The journal Review devoted to Latin American literature and printed entirely in English focused a large part of its fall 1973 issue on Donoso and his novel The Bird, including a chronology of his life and works by the author himself. Briefer sketches in English appear in standard anthologies of Latin American literature, as well as articles in periodicals such as: New York Times (December 9, 1996), Hispanic Review (Summer 1994), and UNESCO Courier (July 1994), and World Literature Today (Summer 1993). □