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Noble Monsters

I’ve only got twenty minutes before this coffeehouse closes, so let me be super quick: Yup, this sure is a masterpiece.  I had remembered the extensive set piece in La Rinconada after Boy’s birth, in which the estate turned into a place without a sense of the normal and abnormal, so that Boy’s deformities would not engender any sense of inferiority:  I had forgotten

how explicit the language is of making the grotesque a kind of sublime, beyond beauty and ugliness.; and I’d forgotten about Humberto’s unusual status as the representative of don Jerónimo in La Rinconada, and how he feels partly a prisoner of the “grotesque elite,” even though in many ways he is their jailer, not the jailed.

[Post 2pm addendum:  p.188: “Don Jerónimo saw to all these details, because nothing around Boy must be ugly, mean or ignoble.  Ugliness is one thing.  But monstrosity is something else again, something of a significance that was equal but antithetical to the significance of beauty and, as such, it merited similar prerogatives.  Monstrosity was the only thing Don Jerónimo de Azcoitía would set before his son from birth on.”

[This is a repurposing of some classical aesthetic theory.  A few years ago I directed an independent study on the aesthetics of ugliness, and the language of ‘going beyond ugly vs. beautiful’ is usually associated not with the monstrous  but with the sublime.  But it’s also true that the tradition of the sublime often includes hurting the observer:  whether it’s Edmund Burke’s sublime, where trying to take in the size of the mountain range you observe is supposed to hurt your eyeballs, or Kant’s sublime, where the power of nature or the infinity of the stars reminds the human being that he is facing a reality that is non-human, the sublime is not measured by the social or the human and in some way endangers the viewer.  So why not apply this vocabulary to the monstrous too?  Still, the passage above is not just organized around getting beyond the beautiful and the ugly; it’s organized around eliminating the category of the abnormal:  the monstrous (and the classical grotesque) is about violating human norms.  No norm, then nothing is monstrous. –or, as in the novel, Boy becomes the norm, his status will not be threatened by his shape.

[And this particular passage plays with the ambiguity in the word “noble”:  an economic elite (Azcoitía is throwing a lot of money around to make this place for his son); a social hierarchy (there is an élite of monsters, and a second tier, a third tier, etc., and the ones below hope to be promoted to higher levels if someone in the higher levels leaves –Emperatriz acutely perceives this aspect of the Rinconada); and most importantly, an aesthetic or qualitative sense in which some monsters are just better at being a monster than others are.  In practice, the people who decide what makes for a noble monster are Humberto and Don Jerónimo, so this is not an internal criterion.  The relish with which Donoso/Humberto describes the monsters –the bat’s ears, the humps, the useless limbs, etc., put me in mind of Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932); even though Boy is never supposed to be looked at by the norms, the same spectacularity that is at work in the sexual scenes of voyeurism is also at work in the hiring and the describing of the grotesque servants of La Rinconada.] [And the constant demonizing of women!  Not just Peta Ponce, whom I’d forgotten entirely; but in La Rinconada, the machinations of Emperatriz ( = “Empress”), and Miss Dolly breast-feeding a four-year-old Boy which gives him green diarrhea –Donoso just does not let up on his gynophobia.

[But you sure can tell that Donoso has been reading his Borges carefully, too:  who else but Borges could have inspired this temporal, almost metaphysical version of an existence without norms? “…Boy was to grow up believing that things came into being as his eyes discovered them and died when he stopped looking at them, that they were nothing but the outer shell perceived by his eyes, that other forms of birth and death didn’t exist…. No whys, whens, outsides, insides, before, afters; no arriving or leaving, no systems or generalizations.  A bird crossing the sky at a certain hour was not a bird crossing the sky at a certain hour, it wasn’t headed for other places because other places didn’t exist; Boy must live in an enchanted present…without a key or a meaning that could subject him to a rule and, in subjecting him to it, cast him into the infinite void it was necessary for him to avoid” (197-8). Hello, Funes the Memorious as Solipsist.]

[Finally, and sorry I’m going on so long on this tangent, the father who engineers a mini-world in which his son is to be the measure of everything, however grotesque that son is, echoes the irritating methodology of Georg Lukàcs’s Theory of the Novel, where Lukàcs famously argued that in epic poetry man was totally in harmony with the universe in which he lived, and that the novel is the epic of the fallen universe, of man struggling to achieve again that failed totality:  Don Quixote refusing to believe that that universe had fallen, Candide and Oblomov and the novel of disillusionment, Tolstoy and a realism that opens windows to a Christianity that scorns this world.  One of the novelistic forms that Lukàcs also creates/examines is a sort of “rigged Bildungsroman,” Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Pilgrimage, where Wilhelm thinks he is growing independently but in the end discovers that his changes and growth have been carefully orchestrated by a secret society that wants to initiate him into their circle.  You couldn’t have a more fully rigged “novel of development” (in which the father doesn’t seem to think that the son will actually develop –certainly will never exit his universe into the larger real world) than this part of The Obscene Bird of Night.]

What I had forgotten entirely was the run-up to Boy’s birth. (I’d also forgotten the twisting of the time of narration, so that all these chapters are supposed to have taken place some twenty-plus years before Iris Mateluna’s pregnancy, narrated occasionally in Humberto’s own book –material that is helpfully in italics in the translation but not in the Kindle edition of the Spanish original–  but mostly narrated while Humberto/Mudito is holding Madre Benita’s hand, after he has confronted Boy in the police station and Boy does not press charges.)  I liked very much how Don Jerónimo’s early life after his return from Europe is narrated in a stuffy 19th-c. omniscient narrator voice, and only starts to unloosen as Jerónimo’s own life begins to harden (in politics) and loosen (in his inability to please his perfect wife Inés); and I had certainly forgotten the recreation of, or variation upon the theme of, the story of the maiden, the witch, the imbunche, the chonchón, and the yellow bitch.  Really, that whole section was more impressive to me insofar as it came out of nowhere:  when Inés challenges Don Jerónimo’s attempt to separate her from Peta Ponce and she scratches his face and a wet tablecloth falls on him (p.150) –I was actually shocked a bit. Likewise, the escape from the Social Club, the way that Humberto takes a bullet for Don Jerónimo (this explains that line “the wounded are sacred” (p.117) that I was puzzled about earlier in the text, when Mudito wounds himself while running from the carabineros after stealing a copy of his own book from the Azcoitías), and the creepy way that Humberto seems to have had sex with Inés the night she gets pregnant, only to conclude that it was witchcraft and that he was actually having sex with Peta Ponce at the same time that Jerónimo was having sex with Inés, so that Jerónimo was borrowing Humberto’s potency –as I said, all of that had the power of surprise, as if I had not read it at all the first time.  Reading in Spanish instead of English this time contributes to that too.

I’d also forgotten the range and variety of ways that Don Jerónimo and Humberto complete each other or can substitute for each other, such that Humberto is always on the verge of losing his sense of self or identity.  Stealing Humberto’s gunshot wound was a particularly satiric example of this; but the way the two of them collaborate on the sexual act, either when Humberto serves as the voyeur or he seems to impregnate Inés the night of the gunshot wound, when in the end it seems as if he really had sex with Peta Ponce.  But his dissolution of self extends beyond this in the last chapter we read, 16, where he has been sent to a hospital or fantasizes that he has done so, and is so sick that he can’t give his name to the doctors and nurses, and his innards are all exploding and taking on independent life, just as the people he has been telling la Madre Benita about also have life independent from him.  It really is something.

I haven’t checked, but I imagine that the English is as good as the Spanish for using long paragraphs with run-ons to convey Humberto’s panic, paranoia, and desperation at various points in the texts (let’s see, say, the last bit we read, pp. 214-17, when Humberto panics about being ill in La Rinconada and convinces himself that all the blood transfusions that he is receiving from the residents will turn him into a monster too –yes, very effective).  That’s a sublime grotesque on another level, I suppose you could say.  Nobly monstrous prose.

August 2, 2018 - Posted by | boredom |


  1. I’m on a subway and will try to fill in more thoughts later, but for now just wanted to mention a few details:

    Blood is used often through this section to pass identities: the blood Humberto passes to Jeronimo that confuses their identities and the blood that the monsters transfuse into him in Chapter 16 that turns him monstrous, among others.

    According to Wikipedia a chonchon is when a witch detaches her head, which then flies around on its own and drinks blood. It flies using its bat-wing-shaped ears.

    The imbunche is used by a witch or warlock to guard her/his lair and is created by deforming an unbaptized child and feeding it blood, goat’s milk, and human flesh. I think Humberto is supposed to be in the process of transformation in part 2, and later as Mudito (earlier in the book), he is farther along.

    I think we learn for the first time in this section that the girl in the legend told in Chapter 2 is the same person as the uncanonized saint Ines de Azcoitia. Which connects to the thread you were pulling about the connection between the monstrous and the sublime.

    More coherent things later I hope.

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | August 3, 2018

  2. So I read ahead the next two chapters to get to the end of Part Two (my Kindle Spanish copy doesn’t have book divisions into parts, but it’s possible the paper text did). There are SO MANY amazing paranoid and schizophrenic fantasies going on in Humberto’s mind in chs. 15-18 (while he’s in the hospital from the pain brought on by drinking whiskey –admittedly, he’d already been having paranoid thoughts about how Emperatriz is throwing a party in order to plot against him, and passing on the way that Boy called him “ugly” and the monsters in the garden all laughed at him– that his paranoid thoughts about blood seem just an interesting variation on the theme. In fact, one way the blood theme works is that he says that they are giving him monstrous blood but they are draining healthy blood from him to give to the monsters; and this is extended in ch.18 where he becomes a perfect organ donor for the monsters: they take out a healthy liver or arm or toe, graft on one of the monstrous livers or arms or toes, and soon that organ or limb is healthy again when it can be harvested again.

    The fancy-footwork French Theory that that connects up to is impressive, because it is quite abstruse stuff: Deleuze and Guattari’s psychoanalytic metaphysics in Anti-Oedipus (1972) and especially A Thousand Plateaus (1980) [both books written well after this one] talks about the “body without organs,” a fantasy of complete unity and autarchy, presenting a smooth surface to a world that it does not need. (D&G disapprove of this particular fantasy,) I can’t believe that someone hasn’t already written about the imbunche in reference to this theory in detail –I will go out into Academialand to look. But see how Humberto explicitly contrasts the torture of Don Jerónimo and the doctor, who keep him constantly open and vulnerable to loss, as a male strategy, with the female strategy of the imbunche as a defense against DJ and Azula (p.227). [Or maybe I’ve misunderstood the theory entirely! Or maybe it actually makes no sense! ]

    I can’t believe I spent as much time as I did in my first post talking about Donoso’s writing block without my having re-read the book or remembered that part of his masochistic fantasy in these chapters is that Don Jerónimo is punishing him for having directed La Rinconada for four years but not having written a word about the experiment. I am a little confused: I thought he burgled Don Jerónimo/Boy’s townhouse to steal a copy of the book that narrates the experiment, but from this chapter it seems as if he actually burgled a copy of the book he wrote before he accepted the job at La Rinconada, for which DJ had paid for an edition of five hundred copies by buying one hundred of them.

    Comment by poc2666 | August 4, 2018

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