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José Donoso: Obsceno pájaro de la noche (The Obscene Bird of Night)

This is Donoso’s masterpiece and clearly one of the great works of Latin American literature, akin to Ernesto Sábato‘s Sobre heroes y tumbas (On Heroes and Tombs) in style. It is one of those works that has to be read to fully appreciate its complexities and its darkness. It is the story of a schizophrenic writer, Humberto Peñaloza, whose schizophrenia is reinforced by the two settings between which he vacillates – the rich estate designed to protect the rich from the proletarians, and a dilapidated home for retired – and mentally unstable – servants, nuns and assorted outcasts.

But nothing is that simple in this novel as Donoso takes us through a schizophrenic journey. Is the girl a witch or a saint or both? Does the landowner have a son or not and, if he does, is the son a monster, living in a house where monstrosity is the norm? Is the narrator deaf and dumb or merely pretending to be, and who is he? Is he Humberto Peñaloza, the secretary of the landowner or merely the janitor? The answer to these questions is generally all of the above as Donoso abandons any attempt at straightforward linear narrative and plunges us into his nightmare. Simplistically, Donoso’s vision could be said to be a metaphor for Latin America but, like Sobre heroes y tumbas (On Heroes and Tombs), it is far more complex than that.

Incidentally, the title comes from Henry James Senior’s letter to his sons Henry (the novelist) and William, where he says Every man who has reached even his intellectual teens begins to suspect that life is no farce; that it is not genteel comedy even; that it flowers and fructifies on the contrary out of the profoundest tragic depths of the essential death in which its subject’s roots are plunged. The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1970 by Seix Barral
First published in English 1973 by Knopf
Translated by Hardie St Martin & Leonard Mades