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José Donoso: Dónde van a morir los elefantes [Where Elephants Go To Die]

This book has never been translated into English (or, as far as I can tell, into any other language) and it is not difficult to see why. Firstly, it is not like his earlier books – no magic realism, not your standard boom novel. Secondly, it is a relatively straightforward satire and much of the target of the satire is the US or, at least, the US Midwest and this may well have offended the US. It is, moreover, an academic novel and few of them really work. This one has all the usual ingredients of the US academic novel – as well as the satire, there are extramarital affairs, often conducted openly, the blatant internal politics, professors grappling for status and reputation, neurotic students and teachers and, of course, the obligatory campus shooting.

We learn about the shooting early on, as the narrator/protagonist, Gustavo Zuleta, a Chilean teacher of literature and expert on the great (but fictitious) Ecuadorian boom novelist, Marcelo Chiriboga, tells us who is killed by whom in the first chapter. The book itself is what led up to the killing and to Gustavo’s actions. At the beginning he is in Chile, teaching, living with his wife, Nina. He is not too happy, when he gets a call from Rolando Viveros, his friend and mentor but a man he does not really like. Rolando offers him a post at a Midwest university teaching Spanish literature, in the town of San José (known as Saint Jo to the locals). He accepts and then tells Nina, who tells him for the first time that she is pregnant. Unfortunately, the health insurance he is being offered does not allow for Nina to have a baby born in the US, so she agrees to stay behind and come after the baby is born.

Saint Jo’s is distinguished by having Jeremy Butler as one of its professors. Butler is one of the world’s great experts on prime numbers. He is widowed and lives with his unmarried sister whom everybody, and not just Butler, refers to as My Sister Maud. Maud had been married, for two weeks, but then had divorced with the help of Jeremy. Jeremy has been helping her ever since, even when she danced with the Rockettes, and there is a strong hint of incest between the two. Whatever the situation, they are the king and queen of Saint Jo. Butler is in demand by the Pentagon as prime numbers have a variety of military applications. As we are told more than once, Jeremy would have won the Nobel Prize if it wasn’t for the fact that Alfred Nobel had declined to endow a Nobel prize in mathematics as his wife was having an affair with a mathematician. Butler has two Chinese students working for him, Er and Duo. They are brilliant but do not speak English though the language of mathematics is all that they need. Both My Sister Maud and Butler claim to be able to distinguish the two and, indeed, have their favourite, even though, as we learn towards the end, they mix them up. (US racism or, more particularly, ignorance of other cultures, is just one of Donoso’s targets.) One of the plot elements is that they will have to take an exam, set and marked by Butler, and the winner will get a prestigious position.

Apart from the Butlers and the Chinese pair, the main interest is Gustavo’s adaptation to Saint Jo’s and, in particular, how Ruby MacNamara helps him. Ruby has had a rough life. She had an abortion when young. She had got pregnant by Toño but he had left her to make a life in Los Angeles. When her father found out that she was pregnant. He dragged her to a local abortionist and she was forced to have an abortion. She took to eating to compensate and, eventually, left her parents who despised her for becoming fat. By the time she gets to Saint Jo’s, she is very fat and is even head of the Fat is Beautiful group. (Donoso also makes fun of US eating habits and obesity.) To earn enough for her studies (she is particularly interested in virtual reality, another source of satire for Donoso), she does various odd jobs, including welcoming foreigners to the campus. Gustavo seems to take a fancy to her despite or, perhaps, because of her obesity and spends much of the novel wooing her. When the legendary Marcelo Chiriboga turns up on campus, unexpected, unannounced and unknown (Donoso makes the point that the US is ignorant of the boom writers, presumably referring to Donoso himself), he too woos Ruby. Gustavo and Ruby have many adventures and are just about to consummate their relationship when Nina turns up, with Nat, their son.

Nina’s arrival should change everything and, to a certain extent, it does, though the focus has switched to the exams the Chinese are to do. Nina takes an instant dislike to Ruby, suspecting that something is going on. Josefina, the long time friend of Jeremy Butler but now wife of Rolando Viveros and schemer-in-chief, gets involved. The shooting is just one climactic point that brings Gustavo’s stay at Saint Jo’s to an early end.

It is quite an interesting novel, even if not up to the standard of some of his earlier ones. He is clearly having a go at the US – internal politics, obesity, naivety, sexual inadequacy, ignorance of the world outside – but does not fail to have a dig at his fellow Latin Americans. Gustavo’s obsession with Ruby, Josefina’s scheming and Chiriboga’s macho approach to women are just a few examples. Does it work? To a certain degree but only to a certain degree and it is certainly not going to be one of the works on which his reputation will rest.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1995 by Alfaguara
No English translation