José Donoso Yáñez (October 5, 1924 – December 7, 1996) was a prominent Chilean novelist, short story writer, and poet. Writing came naturally to Donoso since he believed that "Walking into a novel is like walking into my house. I feel at ease there." Between 1967 and 1981, he lived in Spain where he wrote some of the novels that consolidated the importance of his role as a central figure of Latin America's literary boom. Among Donoso's best known works are Coronación, El Lugar Sin Límites, El Obsceno Pájaro de la Noche, and his final work El Mocho which he didn't live to see published. His work addresses the problem of human existential frailty in the modern age.
José Donoso was born in Santiago, Chile on October 4, 1924, to a family belonging to the high end of the country's bourgeoisie. His father, also José Donoso, was a doctor with a profound passion for literature and in the biographies of history's great musicians. Socially, more so than professionally, doctor Donoso was known as a brilliant man, characterized by his ample knowledge of culture, his sympathetic nature, and his passion for horse races. The author's mother belonged to a large and distinguished family who owned one of Chile's most important newspapers of the time La Nación. Among her family members, Eleodoro Yáñez achieved notoriety as an important figure in Chile's political and cultural life.
In 1931, the year in which his brother Pablo was born, Donoso initiated his formal training in English and in the following year was enrolled in the Grange School. At that time, the Grange School was the most elitist private college in Chile. Due to his unfathomable interest in literature, Donoso decided to enroll in Chile's Instituto Pedagógico de la Universidad de Chile to pursue further studies in the English language and literature. With the help of grants provided by the Doherty Foundation, Donoso was able to continue his studies at Princeton University to consolidate his knowledge of the English language. At Princeton University, Donoso studied under the instruction of Lawrence Thompson, R.P. Blackmur, Arthur Szathmary, Robert Fitzgerald, and Allen Tate. It was during his university years that Donoso discovered that his greatest passion in life was writing and that literature was to become an integral part of his life.
José Donoso's use of language and space in his works can be viewed as a process of creating masks. Donoso explained his approach as the result of living in Spain for over a decade. In an interview he had with Marie-Lise Gazarian in the Winthrop Symposium on Major Modern Writers in 1981, Donoso explained, "What Spain did was to superimpose a Spanish mask on my Chilean mask, a mask of Spanish language onto my mask of Chilean Spanish...I had to make a choice between the Spanish mask and the Chilean mask continually. And that became more and more difficult as time went by". In Tres Novelitas Burguesas for example, neither the space or setting are Chilean. The space of this novel is Spanish but the language of the novel is Chilean Spanish. In this work Donoso assumes a space as a mask but the language reflects his Chilean background.
One of the most notable uses of symbolism in Donoso's works is the disintegration of order due to some perturbing element, which can be described as an irrational force that assaults the destiny of man and consequently produces a rupture in the stratification of order in which the character has created a refuge. In his short story Paseo (1959), the prevalent symbol is a dog whose purpose is to reflect the alter ego of the main character. The presence of a dog is a characteristic shared by a great number of Donoso's works. The symbol of the dog as an alter ego also appears in El Lugar sin Límites, El Obsceno Pájaro de la Noche, El Jardín de al Lado, La Misteriosa Desaparición de la Marquesita de Loria and in El Hombrecito.
Another symbol that appears consistently in the works of Donoso is the presence of demons or monsters that men carry within them, altering the spheres of their passions, violently interrupting their everyday lives while simultaneously provoking chaos, death and destruction. The manipulation of this form of symbolism can be observed in Donoso's Santelices (1962) where the protagonist is a single character trapped within the confines of a sterile life who progressively reveals the passions that drive his occult life.
Another recurring theme in José Donoso's novels and short stories is the existential nature of mankind. Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman, in Studies on the Works of José Donoso: An Anthology of Critical Essays, describes the existential dilemma that confronts Donoso's characters:
Having lost his faith in a God who has failed him, and tormented by the anguish arising from his encounters with insignificance and inauthenticity, this solitary and irrational being searches for and/or fruitlessly attempts to create a mode of life that will shelter him from the dangers which originate and develop in his empirical world. Donoso's existential man is one who naively advances closer to his own death as he desperately endeavors to survive. He is a victim of a repressive society which annihilates all manifestations of singularity which do not coincide with the established norm.
In El Obsceno Pajaro de la Noche(1970), a man fails to legitimize his existence in a journey that begins with theology and transforms into a life of despair. Likewise, in "El Mocho" (1997), the protagonist undergoes a process of becoming aware of his existentialist self as he is not able to finalize his religious studies to become a priest.
El Mocho, the last novel that Donoso submitted to his editors, has its origin in a trip he made to the mining zone of Lota in Chile in the early 1980s. The creation of this novel was not consistent but carried out for several years until Donoso gave the book its conclusion in 1996 when his health did not allow him to continue his work. Among his peers there was a notion that the only thing that kept Donoso alive was the will and determination he had to finish El Mocho. As described by the editor of the novel, Marcelo Maturana, "Donoso escribe y a veces, al escribir, está preguntándose qué, cómo y por qué escribe". By this, the editor was referring to how Donoso utilized the process of writing this novel to profoundly reflect on what, how and why he took up writing.
Some of the central features of El Mocho include: interrupted streams of communication, depictions of the aristocracy, social marginality, self identification and social assimilation. A very important aspect of El Mocho is the compulsive manner in which some of the protagonists seek their genealogical origins because it is an essential factor in determining their identity. Apart from all this, the society depicted in the novel undergoes political repression that limits the free will of the citizens.
Upon his return to Chile from Spain in 1981, Donoso directed a literary workshop that played an important role in the creation of a nueva narrativa chilena ( a new Chilean narrative) which encouraged writers to explore new techniques and styles of writing that were not commonly used in the country. His return to Chile came as a surprise to many that believed that he would not return because he had lived so far away for such a long time. However, as reflected in his works, Donoso demonstrated that he never really lost touch with his home country. José Donoso died in Santiago, Chile, on December 7, 1996.
Select titles of Jose Donoso's works.
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