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When I Grow Up I Want to Be an Old Woman

(I certainly hope you recognize the allusion:  I can’t actually find Michelle Shocked’s original version of it on YouTube, just a whole bunch of mediocre covers of it.)

This novel’s like Don Quixote:  when you’re young you read it one way and you focus on Humberto Peñaloza and Iris Mateluna and Boy, but when you’re old and decrepit and you haven’t left your sad, sad rented house in Ohio since Friday afternoon except to go out on the porch to pay the pizza delivery guy (twice in six days!), well, you read it a different way and you focus on Mudito and Peta Ponce and Inés.  Which isn’t to say that the novel hasn’t been heading in this direction all along.  And anyone who says otherwise –and sooner or later, you yourself will say otherwise– is a liar.

For our convenience to break the book down into four weeks we read chs. 17-23 for this week, but I already blogged briefly about chs. 17-18 in the last comments section, which do belong to the saga of Boy and the experiment of eliminating normality in La Rinconada, and after the shift to Book Three chs. 19-22 all belong together. Still, it’s nice to see the way ch. 18 uses Emperatriz and Dr. Azula’s surgery, transforming Humberto into Mudito by carving out eighty percent of him, in parallel with how ch. 23 uses these same characters for Inés’s hysterectomy (and to cover the ground of how La Rinconada changed after Humberto left running it –I think we’ll get some more of that soon–).  Since I made such a big deal of comparing Humberto’s plans for Boy to a Borgesian experiment in bringing about the paralyzing inanity of a pure presence, I might as well go all in and compare the little we see of the post-Humberto La Rinconada in ch. 23 to the difference between the main story of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Obis Tertius,” where the tale of a world of idealists starts out quirky and charming if bizarre, to that story’s postscript, where Tlön enters into the supposed real world of 1944, we discover that the encyclopedia had been bankrolled by an amoral American billionaire, and comparisons are made to Marxism, Nazism, and anti-semitism, not idealisms but ideologies, whose totalitarian world-views will bring about the elimination of whatever won’t fit.  Boy, still breast-feeding at the age of four in a world full of naked people, is a kind of idiot innocence; adolescent Boy, amid orgies run by the unscrupulous Emperatriz who lies to Jerónimo about sustaining the “fictitious limbo” (327) part of the experiment, is the vulgar and possibly dangerous version of that idiot innocence.  No Donald Trump Jr. comparisons, please.

[And for the true Spanish literary history nerd, Boy’s imprisonment in an environment which is guaranteed to create in him a moral monstrosity to match his physical monstrosity is a demoniacal echo of the set-up of Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream (1635), the Baroque masterpiece that is more fun to think about than to actually read or see performed, but then that’s what Wikipedia is for: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_Is_a_Dream.  The parallel isn’t very close, and Boy doesn’t leave and get dragged back to the compound the way that Segismundo leaves his Tower and is returned to it –but then, Boy also never learns to be good, either. ]

But chs. 18-22 are back to the other grotesque version of the aristocratic house/nation, La Casa.  And if La Rinconada is the grotesque form of a hierarchical house with a single man at the top of the pyramid (even though there are multiple apexes:  in some sense Boy is, in some sense Humberto was, in some sense Jerónimo is), then La Casa is the grotesque form of a non-hierarchical house presided over –and “under”– by women.  I had forgotten completely how fully Inés is worked into the gendered politics of this novel: throughout its first half she is just the name of the wife in Rome chasing after an ancestor’s beatification, but when we finally meet her in the chapters describing how she is influenced by Peta Ponce to strike her fiancé, and running all the way through to her setting up a household separate from her husband in La Casa, we really see how hers is a parallel power to Jerónimo’s.  (It also reveals that its power lies in pagan, not Catholic, sources:  I got a kick out of the desacralization and execration, with its satirical presentation of Padre Azócar who takes away the religious objects, and the way that the old women, including Inés, quickly brush off this loss of the Casa’s original reason for being. Inés says that the trip to Rome for the beatification of the earlier Inés was also just a pretext to get away from Jerónimo.)  And yet I say it’s non-hierarchical:  not only is there no (male) Catholic Church to assert its domination, but the various sites of female power act almost independently of each other and are often literally unaware of each other:  the ostensible hierarchical head, Madre Benita, has the least power; neither Madre Benita nor Inés know (yet) about the sway that the pregnant Iris Mateluna has over the other old women; truly-poor Madre Benita knows, but faux-poor Inés does not, that seemingly-poor Brígida had amassed a fortune that was administered and is now owned by Misiá Raquel; and Iris still doesn’t know that Mudito was the one wearing the Gigante head when she got pregnant by it, nor that Mudito has plans to convince don Jerónimo that he (Jerónimo) is the still-not-yet-born baby’s father.  The most obvious example of the dissolution of obvious hierarchies is the way Inés quickly devolves into just another old woman after entering la Casa (I had forgotten about her fooling her own husband with Rita’s voice over the telephone (p311).  And yet there is one hierarchy still grotesquely observed:  Iris being treated as Mary the Mother of God, with Mudito forced to take the role of the Christ Child (although of course we can see that he’s really being prepared for a role as an imbunche).  I love how he convinces Iris every night to let him out of his imprisoning swaddling clothes and out of the Casa to go to the townhouse and eavesdrop on the Azcoitías, although Donoso is clear that Mudito is inventing paranoiacally just as much of the conversations as he is actually hearing (316-7, 321).

Once again, the tossing of voice and subject from one person to the other, with multiple addresses in the same sentence (though curiously, never across the fourth wall to the reader directly), is the version on the level of prose of the lack of hierarchy on the level of plot.  Identities on the level of plot transmogrify:  after his surgery Humberto becomes Mudito, goes to the Casa, and nobody recognizes him; after her surgery Inés becomes the old woman she’s wanted to be, goes to the Casa, and her former society lady friends no longer recognize her. (And she doesn’t recognize Mudito as Humberto, with whom she supposedly had sex that night.)  In those long paragraphs where voice is being passed around to a range of characters (pp. 251-54, for instance), I sometimes have a leg up on someone reading in English because, perhaps unexpectedly, Mudito refers to Madre Benita as “usted” but refers to Inés as “tú.”  But of course just as often he is referring to himself and the other old women as “nosotras,” and the only person Donoso tries to give an individual voice to is Iris, through urban lower-class vocabulary and grammar (the old servants do use a more rural folkloric vocabulary at times –when I’ve had to look up a word, a quarter of the time it’s spoken by the old ladies and the dictionary registers it as a Chileanism of Mapuche origin).  Mudito, whose potency derives from his eyes not from his penis (and who lost eighty percent of himself under the doctor’s knife but not his eyes), seems to be ubiquitous even when he spends all day curled up on a chair and the first half of each night crushed into swaddling clothes on a pregnant woman’s lap, but the effect of his being everywhere is that his self is being diluted into everyone else, a fate you would presumably expect from someone whose father was tormented by being a nobody and kvelled at seeing his son’s name in the press as an author, a somebody,  but who was constantly being forced to serve as the supplement of Don Jerónimo’s heroic patriarchal subjectivity.

Given the flux of all these narrators piled up on each other and filtered through Humberto/ Mudito, we naturally can’t expect all the stories to add up:  Inés can’t really have gotten pregnant with and delivered Boy and menstruated regularly every month into her sixties. We never had a scene of childbirth in which Inés was on the midwife’s table, so it’s not impossible that we’re supposed to believe that Boy was born from Peta Ponce not from Inés, but it’s just as possible that a traumatized Inés has forgotten her pregnancy and monstrous birth.  Or she’s lying, just as Mudito tells a different but similar story to Iris every night to get her to free him.  Hey, maybe I didn’t spend the last six days at my sad Ohio kitchen table, maybe I am in New York and I spent the last six days in the catacombs of Greenwood Cemetery that only the oldest of old Brooklynites know about, waiting for an unhappy wife who bore a monstrous child to abjure her civic and intellectual husband and join me in the catacombs where she can finally attain her long-desired witchiness.

You know that when they turn Dog Tracks into a massive multiplayer on-line role-playing game, all us old ladies who have been catching up on Adventure Time episodes will turn to that instead.  But there’s 110 more pages of Chilean late modernism to savor first!

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August 9, 2018 - Posted by | boredom |

1 Comment

  1. Still loving the book and still reading along on pace, but it’s harder than I thought it would be to find time to sit down and write out thoughts. How would people feel about setting a time and place at the end for an actual live video chat conversation?

    I will also try to write thoughts soon. That long hallucinatory end to section 2 was amazing, and I am really taken with the shift to the Ines story in part 3. The section K-sky quoted from the original legend comes back (the father hiding his daughter under the cloak), and the section where she explains her desire to have a hysterectomy is also fantastic…

    Comment by Joshua Malbin | August 10, 2018


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