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Yumyum! Gothic Late Modernism

I am having so much fun re-reading The Obscene Bird of Night that I can’t believe it’s been 28 years since I read it the first time.  To be sure, the formal fireworks can sometimes seem like a ruse to distract us from second-guessing what’s at stake in the story, but at other times these same formal and verbal tricks seem to give us exactly the insights we need to understand what is at stake in this story of Mudito/ Humberto Peñaloza, the extended family and servants of the Azcoitía family, and the decrepit and haunted House where most of them live.

In the housekeeping of literary-historical labels, the novels of Latin America’s Boom were at first labeled “post-modernist,” but more recently we call them “late-modernist,” to suggest that they follow in spirit the same practices as Joyce, Woolf, Gide, Mann, and (himself later than the rest of them) Faulkner.  I’m good with that in this case:  I think it’s clear to see how Joyce and Faulkner in particular  help inspire the verbal and formal hijinx of this book:  especially, the tricks with the first-person voice (usually Mudito but it can be shared around when Mudito narrates something he’s invented as if he himself were one of the people there –the most ambitious and significant of these games is ch. 7, where he is not present but has so identified with the head of the Gigante that he narrates much of it as if he were the Gigante head) and the rearranging of episodes, so that we can begin with the death of the servant Brígida but many of the chapters that follow take place while Brígida is still alive and we have to put them back into chronological order.

One of the elements that feels particularly Latin American (though also characteristic of the high modernists) is a tension between a not-yet-achieved modernity and pre- or anti-modern folkloric or magical elements of the society, elements that are taken seriously by the narrator (the genius of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that these unmodern magical elements of the society were taken seriously by an omniscient narrator).  While the “official European anti-modern superstition” of Roman Catholicism, and the Azcoitías’ failure to get one of their ancestors canonized, is mostly played for laughs, nobody is laughing at the story of the imbunchenarrated almost as a fairy tale in ch. 2.  In fact, you can already see how much of the main plot is constructed around the elements of the imbunche story:  old ladies as witches; the colchón or flying head as a manifestation of power; the yellow she-dog as an effect and an omen of witchcraft; and the imbunche itself, a powerful symbol of youth and vigor that is thwarted and made impotent –although in his weakness at times Mudito finds that impotence seductive, insofar as he wants to hide from the world and make his social impotence completely literal.  (Against his literal impotence and the literal impotence of don Jerónimo, the last of the Azcoitias, you have Mudito’s (and Jerónimo’s)  potency with Iris/Gina while wearing the head of the Gigante.)

(It’s not clear to me who among the Boom novelists, if any of them, had read Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959), a novel with many parallels with this Donoso novel in particular.)

It’s probably unnecessary to point out all the gynophobia and castration anxiety in this book, so I won’t bother.  The young sexually active woman is a halfwit, who mentally tortures the weak male protagonist into doing her bidding (although all the torture is fantasized on his part –he’s not actually turned into a dog with a leash and an inside-spiked collar (ch.5), or is he??–); the spinster who has gone to Rome to achieve a beatification; and the old ladies who are planning to help Iris deliver her baby in secret and then turn it into an imbunche: none of them are real women, just images that produce panic in Mudito. The only good women are mother figures, Jerónimo’s wife misiá Ruiz and the convent head la Madre Benítez, but they are kept passive and out of the loop even when no one overtly questions their authority.

The politics of this book are likewise retro, paranoid, impotent (and elevating impotence to a moral good):  the two options in the novel’s politics are to go along with the aristocracy and Church, or to be part of a revolution.  The aristocracy and Church are both obviously decadent; the revolution only appears as a photo of a bearded revolutionary on the paper hat that Iris makes, helping to threaten and intimidate Mudito (ch. 5).  There is infighting between Church and aristocracy, due to the inability of the Azcoitias to produce a male heir to inherit the House. Curiously, there is no praise of the appearance of the Church –it is mostly symbolized by the cemetery of the fragments of statues of saints (ch.4)– that might correspond to the praise of the appearance of the aristocracy, in the description of the carriage of Brígida’s funeral in ch. 1 or in the overpowering harmony of grays in the suit of don Jerónimo in ch. 7, a power that has been prepared for by Humberto’s schoolteacher father’s obsession with not being somebody.

Conversely, Donoso is also trying to figure out how to describe the power of being nobody, of being the weak and the abject.  Some of it is straight up Hegelian master-slave dialectic (at least I think it is; I haven’t read Hegel on this topic, although, as Josh knows, I know what I’m supposed to say about it): the servants and women do much of the dirty work involved with their master’s bodies, and so although they have no contribution to make to official politics they can affect things unofficially (ch. 4), and Mudito in particular has the power of his envious gaze, his status as witness, which Jerónimo found necessary in order to perform in bed.  The power of the abject is partly symbolized in all of the amazing amount of junk that Donoso describes for us in the House, and it is partly symbolized by the eyes of the Gigante.  But of course the main power of the abject in the novel so far is the power of feminine witchcraft (the old ladies) and feminine fertility (the young Iris), and Mudito can’t participate in either of those powers directly and runs the risk of being destroyed by either –by the old ladies when they realize that he isn’t mute (“mudito” = little mute boy) and has his own agenda, and by Iris when, how, if, whether she gives birth.

I titled this post “Gothic” late modernism because it’s clear that much of the genre conventions of the Gothic are at work in this book, especially the haunted castle (the section on the ghost of don Clemente (ch.3) is currently being played for laughs or black humor, but as I say the story of the imbunche is being played for keeps). One of the fun reasons to invoke a generic convention is to see which elements of that convention are not used, and it is interesting to see a Gothic castle without a brooding male hyper-potent presence at the center of it, just lots of old ladies and a seemingly impotent male servant. We’ll see how all this plays out, as well as seeing the impending main event (Iris giving birth to Mudito’s child, who will be passed off as the last male Azcoitía) in the chapters to come.

July 25, 2018 - Posted by | boredom |


  1. I know I keep using this word, but this book really does remind me of a Garcia Marquez where the gothic or high modernist supernatural elements are played for horror instead of for whimsy. In truth there are far fewer breaks with realistic possibility here than there are in Solitude, and the breaks are more in narrative style than in actual incident (the narration from the Giant’s head is impossible, but what is actually happening in the scene is totally realistic). In other words, there are no literal ghosts, at least not yet. None of the witches is literally a witch. It’s the horror of Grey Gardens.

    I didn’t pick up on the Hegelian dynamic between Mudito/Humberto and Jeronimo, although it is clearly intended to be there, and in the relationship between Mudito and Iris and Mudito and the old women. Humberto’s scheme to destroy Jeronimo depends on Iris as his instrument, and although he sees her as a debased halfwit (describing her literally as just a shell around the embryo of his son), the fact that she is essential to his plan also positions her to destroy him. (As starts to become even more obvious in the chapters that follow the end of our current reading.) I don’t think it’s necessary to look away from the gynophobia and castration fear in this book, because even before I started thinking about the master/slave dynamic it seemed plain to me that Mudito’s fear and loathing of women young and old was supposed to part of his sickness and society’s, and I don’t think it’s possible to understand what’s going on without looking at what are supposed to be his obvious blind spots. They are simply too central to his character, to the entire architecture of the plot, and to the myth of the imbunche that is set up to be its thematic center.

    Before we even get to the imbunche, though, there is that arresting scene where Mudito and Mother Benita go through all of dead Brigida’s belongings, all of the little worthless things wrapped up in their individual wrappers and stored away for death, where the fact of their being wrapped up and stored away gives them power despite (or because of) their worthlessness, in this community that seems to be made up of old women who all used to be house servants: “…things saved for the sake of saving, packing, tying, preserving this static, reiterative community that never lets you in on its secret, Mother Benita, because it’s too cruel for you to bear the notion that you and I and the old women who are still alive and those who are dead, and all of us, are tied up in these packages you want to force a meaning from because you respect human beings…”

    This book is so damn good. I’m really happy I finally badgered you into reading it with us.

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 27, 2018

  2. Do any of the names mean anything Spanishy?

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | July 30, 2018

  3. Not per se. As I said, Mudito means little mute boy. Humberto says that Peñaloza is a common name and Azcoitía sounds aristocratic (and Azcoitía is a Basque name, so the implication is that the family goes back to the conquistadors), but there seem to be plenty of upper middle class Chileans named Peñaloza, and in any case there aren’t any famous or infamous people by those names that I know of. I presume that Gina sounds more modern than Iris because of the Italian actress of the day Gina Lollabrigida. Jerónimo and Clemente also just seem plausible (rather than allegorical or specifically) upper-class names. I just hit the story of Peta Ponce yesterday, after trying to remember throughout the first ten chapters who she was when her name was dropped in: I don’t know of any allusions in her name, either. So, roughly, no. Of course, Boy means what it means.

    Comment by poc2666 | July 31, 2018

  4. I just got out of the woods where I was able to hunker down and clear Part One, so I’m still behind where I’m supposed to be for last Thursday. I’m just going to drop a few pull quotes here for now and come back with some thoughts. Like Josh I was taken by the descriptions of the “things saved for the sake of saving, packing, tying”, see also “Don’t you see, Mother Benita, that the act of wrapping, and not what’s inside the wrappings, is the important thing?” (20). Along with a few other passages it struck me as of a piece with the books own instructions for reading, perhaps for language more broadly, and perhaps of two opposite ideas in tension: muteness full of speech/meaning (our main character, the imbunche), and proliferating text with nothing, or something misleading, at its center (the wrappers).


    Only the essential facts stay the same: the father’s huge poncho blocks a doorway and, under its discreet cover, he makes the noble daughter vanish, thus removing her from the center of the story in order to shift the attention and vegeance of the farmhands to the old woman.

    p. 49: I wonder if this photonegative made from filth is also a clue to how we are to read the moral currents of this book—which I agree with Big Josh can’t just be swept into pre-modernity. After all the word obscene is right there in the title, and may have traveled from James to Donoso.

    Sometimes I get the feeling that , instead of sleeping as they should, the old women are very pulling things out of drawers from under their bed and out of little bundles‚thing they’ve been hoarding, such as their employers’ fingernails, snot rags, vomit and blood-stained sanitary napkins—and reconstructing with all that filth a sort of photographic negative not only of the employers they robbed it all from, but of the whole world.

    p.64… hmm not really sure what I was on about there.

    On p.67, this recalls the onion layers of wrapping, and is recapitulated in Mudito’s plans for Iris:

    You put it over me, as if going through a ritual, like a mitered bishop crowning the king, eradicating with this investiture each of my previous existences, every one of them […]

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 5, 2018

  5. Oh, also there are some weird doubles, especially stemming from the Chonchon myth: not just the traveling sex head of the Giant, but also Mudito referring to himself as a yellow bitch. Another one was the lack of room in a mausoleum: that affects both Mother Benita’s story early in the book, and it comes back around for the Azcoitías. I had to check that that wasn’t the same story, but I don’t think it was.

    Comment by Josh K-sky | August 5, 2018

  6. Thanks to Josh M for mentioning that he and Josh K had posted here –I didn’t set things up for notifications, and missed these two points.

    As that great old-lady-before-his-time Walter Benjamin wrote, tradition is like a rolled-up sock in a sock drawer (he says this in his memoir A Berlin Childhood: apparently socks fascinated him): the object is wrapped up by itself, it is the container as well as the thing contained.

    Perhaps it shouldn’t, but the image of the father concealing the daughter’s witchy shame with a cloak reminds me of the bit in the Bible where the sons of Noah hold up a cloak to conceal the drunken patriarch’s nakedness.

    In Donoso’s concomitantly written novella, Hell Has No Limits, the patriarch’s cloak is (homo-)eroticized: Pancho, the married truck driver who is turned on by the drag queen, flashes back to a childhood memory when as a five-year-old he was caught misbehaving by the vineyard owner Don Alejo, and he remembers the tension between guilt and forgiveness for the transgression (Pancho is the playmate of Don Alejo’s daughter, and has some house privileges), and between the softness of Don Alejo’s vicuña cloak and the strength of the adult male who was wearing it.

    Comment by poc2666 | August 11, 2018

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