Review of “El obsceno pájaro de la noche,” by José Donoso

This book was over my head. I think it is too difficult for someone who reads Spanish well. I found it on a web page that recommended books for intermediate Spanish students, which I admit I am not. But I wanted to be introduced to more writing styles. I sure got that. It took six months to finish this novel, but I can say that I have as good an understanding of it as anyone, except maybe someone with a large Spanish vocabulary who could have read it in a couple of days or weeks.

Okay, now for the book itself. First, the grammar and punctuation. There was none. Sentences sometimes lasted for pages, especially when the “Narrator” was sharing a stream of consciousness, paragraphs for many pages. There was no attempt to use proper punctuation. Commas were tossed around like paper boats in a hurricane. This was what made it so difficult to read for a beginner or even intermediate reader. Prepositional phrases were not identified with commas and Spanish is a little weak on conjunctions.

As with other Spanish authors and even translated books, pronouns were avoided at all costs. To make it worse, the author used the present subjunctive conjugation more than the present tense; the PS in Spanish is the same for first person and third person singular. Also for third person and second person plural. When the narrator is speaking in first person, describing what someone else is doing…you can see the potential difficulties.

I don’t think the story has a plot. Some chapters describe historical events in Chile’s history completely in the third person, and aren’t too difficult to follow. These scenes are less than a third of the book. Most of it is the first-person narrator jumping between perspectives, occupying every character’s mind at some point. It was an interesting style, which was taken too far because this head hopping occurred in mid-sentence as often as not. I read a lot of paragraphs (single sentences) several times to verify this. Bizarre is an understatement.

Several of the threads made sense. For example, the actions of two of the characters and their families’ histories is straightforward, as is some of the action at a run-down church that serves as a homeless shelter/orphanage. There is another thread (maybe multiple — it’s hard to say) based on the assistant of a central character (Jeronimo de Azcoitía), who appears to be stark, raving mad. Paranoid delusions abound and this guy talks to imaginary characters and is pursued by newspaper photos. There’s an entire chapter of such outrageous behavior that the story wanders into Monty Python territory. This floating narrator even becomes an infant, but they are predominantly a man who apparently had a nervous breakdown and fled from his employer (Azcoitía), seeking refuge in the church.

I don’t want to forget about the deformed child of Azcoitía and his wife, who was walled into a country estate and surrounded by naked deformed people. This was a major thread that ended without settling or explaining anything. It’s like the author lost interest. Strange. The relationship between this thread and another (involving a 15 year old girl who’s pregnant) was never explored and also dropped without notice.

Finally, the book just ended. The narrator spent the last five pages imagining being sewn into a sack (in the mind of the infant) and trying to escape, and failing. Nothing happened. The story just ends with an old woman who isn’t one of the central characters from the Church/homeless shelter.

The preface is written by another Chilean writer, who warns the reader that this book was written over a period of years (1962-1969) when the author had mental health issues. That would explain the coherent chapters and those that are in never-never land. To me, despite the lack of a plot, any explanations, or an ending, I kind of enjoyed reading this novel because it gives a lot of insight into what goes through the mind of someone who’s suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, or something like that. I couldn’t help getting the impression that the bizarre, stream of consciousness thread was a reflection of the author’s own suffering.

I was disturbed by the evocative images of depredation, created for no purpose but which the narrator couldn’t get out of their mind, whichever mind they were occupying at the time. Some of these will take years for me to forget.

This novel is available in an English translation. I don’t know how that would work because of all the untranslatable sentences and words. The English version can’t be more than an educated guess at what the author had in mind. (He didn’t translate it himself although he probably could have, having lived decades in the U.S.)

I suggest it for anyone who wants to see what it’s like to lose your mind.

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