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on November 9, 2011
Point of fact: It is not humanly possible to figure out what exactly is happening in the Obscene Bird of Night (OBN). This may very well be the leitmotif of magical realism, but here, we have a splintering of human reality so profound that the whole piece fractures into miniscule shards which are propelled disparately away from the epi centre in furious motion, so when the dust settles, there is simply nothing tangible left to commemorate the premise.
The skeleton of OBN is framed by the multiple narrative of ostensibly one character, Humberto, who morphs continuously into a (eunuch?)deaf-mute, a newborn baby, and finally, into an Imbunche. The narrative modes vacillate between `You', `I', `He' and `We', and it can't be ascertained if any of the different manifestations of the same character are real or a figment of his imagination. The collapse of reality is woven together through the ideological model of Chilean imbunche myth and anchored, if that concept even exists, via the Casa de ejercisios espirituales which, with its labyrinthine, impregnable passages, informs the actual formation of characters. (a well known, well tested ploy: think Egdon heath in Hardy's `Return of the Native', as well as many more examples).
The question, then, is OBN likeable? Too often I felt emotionally detached from the unfolding surrealistic vignettes. On a clinical level, I've traversed enough through the annals of literature to grasp the main thrust of OBN: Yes, the collapse of external reality, the denouncement of a fractured society, the purported destruction of consciousness, and the multiple perspectives of the same reality.
The easiest trap to fall into here, is to obsess about the overtly prevalent theme of self-destruction, which on reflection, I don't believe underpins the novel at all. True, Ariel Dorman posits that the auto destruction of Donoso's character(s) is the result of their untenable position in Latin America, a region identified through prolonged violence, where desperation forces people to ultimately direct their energy in destructive patterns against themselves. I simply didn't see this. In fact, Donoso himself has this to say about his worldview: `Al describir un personaje lo desintegro. Un personaje es, por decirlo asi, treinta personajes y un solo'. And then there is the following: Donoso rewrote this novel in 5 months after originally taking 8 years to craft it, after a bout of temporary insanity induced by morphine after a haemorrhaged ulcer. He rewrote it, `dandole el orden que me habia sugerido la locura'. Or, to sum up these two points, the acute interest in multiple personalities may have less to do with socio-political considerations and more with Donoso's personal preference to view reality through a kaleidoscope. In any event, I don't see any self destruction of the self/consciousness at all. Fragmentation, yes. Collapse of unity, yes. But turning into an imbunche does not necessarily portray an annihilation of the id: Dividing and unifying into a mythical character represents to me a personal catharsis, the genesis of a creative process whereby the returning to a simpler form of life is not destruction but salvation of the soul.
Bottom line for me: OBN gels on an intellectual level but lets me down emotionally. It is also disconcertingly reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred years of Solitude (and no wonder, both authors are of the `boom' generation), but that was a book I couldn't finish.