The Obscene Bird of Night

by JDP

This whirling dervish of a novel is oft touted as one of the earliest incarnations of magical realism; unfortunately, it reads more like a randomly-generated nightmare in bad need of editing.

José Donoso / Chilean / 1970 / 438 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin and Leonard Mades

My guess is that if you’ve previously read Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes and have now somehow managed to pick up The Obscene Bird of Night, you’re going to end up about as perturbed as I am right now. There is something tortured and flawed — yet ambitious and wonderful — behind Fuentes’ juggernaut of a masterwork. It is not an excellent novel and, in parts, I found it quite weak. But there is still a carefully crafted logic to it, an expansive reinterpretation of time, history, and myth. He balances the grotesque with the beautiful, the macabre with the transcendental, and the patient reader who can withstand the onslaught is treated to a satisfying conclusion. When he’s not recycling the same dark, psychosexual imagery, Fuentes’ prose often soars and he buries many utterly mind-blowing passages within the folds of a more measured, moderate narrative. Terra Nostra exhausted me, but I’m better for the battle.

One of the luminaries quoted on the back cover of Donoso’s novel is Fuentes himself. The Obscene Bird of Night was published less than a decade before Terra Nostra and the resemblance is striking. Here is a similarly fantastical tale peopled with supernatural entities. Here is a work that also perverts time and narrative perspective. Here is a book where small people inhabit huge, cosmic spaces and everyday palaver is laced with dread, superstition, and violent potential. Here again is a novel with obsessive characters who will not (will not!) just shut up about how interested they are in penises, vaginas, money, and God. If I had a dollar for every time reference was made to the erogenous zone in these two novels …

Still, it seems like Fuentes took what he needed from Donoso and ran away with the game: The Obscene Bird of Night reads like a degenerate version of Terra Nostra.

The reader is flung into the middle of an hallucinogenic introduction like a raw cut of meat chucked into the middle of a pack of rabid dogs. The narrator is a supposedly deaf and mute invalid named Mudito who sometimes narrates in the first-person singular, sometimes in the first-person plural, and sometimes in the third-person limited omniscient. Quotation marks in the book are almost literally meaningless as Donoso tends to blend observation with internal monologue fused with interpersonal dialogue regressed into a series of free word associations punctuated by endless strings of ellipses. The reader quickly finds out that Mudito’s real name is Humberto, but that sometimes he thinks of himself as a baby and sometimes an old woman. There are two time periods during which plot elements transpire, but they overlap in such bizarre ways that it’s not entirely clear which characters are real and which might be figments of Mudito/Humbert’s imagination. Then again, there is such a dearth of information about any of the characters that it’s difficult to care. And even if they are real, their body parts are occasionally surgically removed and grafted onto other characters (I’m not kidding). An “arty” interpretation of all this might be that The Obscene Bird of Night charts new territory in the literary exploration of perception and memory. A more levelheaded interpretation might be that Donoso wasn’t particularly adept at rendering in manageable detail the disjointed thinking of an unmedicated schizophrenic.

On some level (namely, the first few hundred pages where the trope is still new enough) I am interested in Donoso’s prose styling. He is not a great setter of scenes and his seldom trenchant psychological analysis falls a bit short of evoking an emotional response, but I’ve never laid eyes on paragraphs like his. The present is blurred with the past, my thoughts get wrapped up in our dialogue, I am two people at once, you are not who you say your are, this house we’re in is cosmically large, but then again, we may not be in a house at all, who is that old hag in the corner, and did I mention a penis or a vagina? Donoso takes the reader on a wild ride, but he occasionally needs to just let up on the gas. I first realized I was in trouble when I read five consecutive paragraphs where each one had seemingly nothing to do with the paragraph that preceded it. As you can tell from my other reviews, I love the narrative bait-and-switch, but this was a total mess.

The book seems to have scored points with other reviewers for its political insights, but even these were terribly watered down. I can think of two explicit and a handful of implicit passages that seemed to touch on political issues, but it’s difficult to be receptive to high-level satire when you’re struggling just to keep your head above water. Plus, the existence of other (more adept) Latin American political skewerings makes for a damning juxtaposition. Just go read The Feast of the Goat if you want some serious commentary on the evils of military dictatorship and class-based politics. Or pick up Distant Star if you prefer laughter with your political tirades. At any rate, don’t peruse Donoso.

Rating: 3 / 10

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