Potter's Book Blog

Reviews of world literature from 1900 to the present.

Category: Forgettable

The Obscene Bird of Night

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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The House of the Spirits

Allende’s inventive synthesis of substance (politics, magic, family, and history) is left to languish in its presentation; the result is a novel that induces the reader to plow ahead quickly more out of frustration than enjoyment.

Isabel Allende / Chilean / 1982 / 488 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Magda Bogin

I was rooting for Isabel Allende. I had grown tired of every conversation about Latin American literature degenerating into the participants’ respective stances on the merits of Garcia Márquez. I was eager to find a female voice that I could add to the pantheon of great Latin American authors. I was interested in the political history of Chile, whose citizens elevated to government the first democratically elected Marxist president on the Latin American continent only to have him deposed by a military coup a few years later. (This famous president’s name was Salvador Allende, Isabel’s distant cousin, so you know that the author comes from good political stock.) I wanted to explore another major work in the hallowed tradition of “magical realism” to see if my earlier misgivings about the technique were well founded. If nothing else, I wanted to prove that some of my Latin American friends were wrong about her, that it was okay to read Cortázar in December and Allende in January and still find good things to say about each despite the damning juxtaposition.

Alas, they were right and I was wrong. She writes as if she were Garcia Márquez’ kid sister.

More than any author I’ve read since Hemingway, however, Allende’s critical reception has been bipolar. Reviled in Chile and described throughout Latin America as a talentless hack, she has nevertheless garnered immense accolades internationally and I first came across the novel in the course of rifling through the Everyman’s Library’s online collection (they tend not to pick up bad novels). Harold Bloom has somewhat famously disparaged her as being immensely overrated while just recently she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I told my friends that I had picked up her novel and they were repulsed. The House of the Spirits was labeled by one to be “beach reading for old women.”

For the sake of commencing with a review that is not hopelessly monotonic (and in the interest of being charitable to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Everyman’s Library, the New York Times book review, and the good people at Cosmopolitan magazine, which, in their substantial literary estimate, also gave Allende high marks) I thought I’d try to explain why the book begins well, boasts some really interesting ideas, but ultimately fails to bring much of anything to fruition. I begin with a summary.

The House of the Spirits focuses on the travails of one family throughout most of the novel, but by the end it has become somewhat evident that we’ve moved into a discussion of Chile as a nation. The narrative tracks the Trueba family through three (or maybe four or ten) generations of offspring and it is in this expansive domestic setting that Allende metes out scathing commentary on the subject of patriarchy in traditional Latin American society. The novel is “magically realistic” in the sense that there are soothsayers and clairvoyants popping out of the woodwork, but little else transpires that justifies applying the label. In fact, as the book progresses, it takes on a more historical perspective and certain major figures in Chilean history (like Salvador Allende and the famous poet, Pablo Neruda) make appearances under generic monickers like “The President” or “The Poet.” Both of these men were instrumental in ushering in socialist governance to Chile and both met unfortunate ends when this government was unseated by Pinochet at the helm of the Chilean armed forces. The ensuing years would be among the darkest in Chilean history as the country sank into a quasi-fascistic quagmire where its citizens were heavily censored, tortured, and frequently murdered. In sharp contrast to the book’s more elemental aspects, Allende eventually sinks us into this disarray with cold empiricism.

But her empiricism doesn’t ring with truth, especially after having recently read Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat with its stoic insight into the nascent hours of democratic governance in the Dominican Republic. I’m not extolling the savagery of his account; indeed, it was at times too much for me. The point I’m venturing, though, is that the palpable dread Vargas Llosa conjures is absent from Allende’s account. The humanness of his characters is nonexistent in Allende’s world where describing a character’s familial relationship to all the other characters in the book is more important than making the reader care about the character in the first place. To this end, the phenomena Allende intends to be surprising are not. When Character X turns out to be the child of the long lost mother of the aunt of Character Y, this is not nearly the watershed moment it’s supposed to be. When something draconian befalls Character Y at some later point in the novel, it’s not immediately clear how I should react. If the worst of her problems is that she’ll never get to see X again, then I don’t think I care either way.

The writing is at times painfully facile and Allende employs an annoying habit of foreshadowing cataclysmic events with disastrous one-liners akin to: “She told him that she loved him so much that she would die for him. Little did she know that one day, she would.” This sort of technique works against her better ideas in two important capacities. First, it is simply bad writing because it pushes the issue one sentence too far. This isn’t so much foreshadowing as it a wholesale plot spoiler. Secondly, it directly undercuts the emotional impact of the event itself (which won’t occur for another 200 pages, mind you, and, by the time it finally rolls around, the garnered reaction is “Phew, finally.”)

The novel is (refreshingly) feminist in nature and (pleasantly) Marxist in tone. Additionally, the basic strategy of projecting the conflicts of the family writ large into the conflicts of the nation as a whole is a good one. But I’m not sure that the underlying ideological and philosophical tensions are ever given their fair share of consideration. It’s almost as if we’ve been subjected to a familial melodrama with some big ideas flying around just above our heads. I kept waiting for the gravity of the situation to come to the fore, but the author never took the bait. Instead, the novel peters out into a pedantic denouement that can be summarized thusly: “All the capitalists realized that maybe communism wasn’t so bad after all and that we are all connected in a large family.” I cannot recommend to anyone the 488 pages of work it takes to draw this conclusion.

Rating: 2 / 10

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