Art of Artifice
Jose Donoso A House in the Country Translated by David Pritchard with Susan Jill Levine Alfred A. Knopf, 352pp.; $16.95
THE MOST SUBTLE STORY TELLERS barely hint at underlying conflicts; instead they use them throughout their stories as sources of vitality. Chilean novelist Joe Donoso has taken the art of raising questions one step further. In his third novel, A House in the Country,which has recently appeared in English translation, he brings up complex issues even outside of those involved in the actual story.
Donoso sets his simple, seemingly linear story in an isolated country park. The Ventura family, consisting of seven siblings, their spouses and their 33 children, has made its fortune on a family-owned gold mine in an unnamed South American country. Each summer they retreat from the capital city to their country home, built near their gold mine and surrounded by profile fields of thistle. Each autumn, the thistles seed, the air gets too thick to breathe, and the Ventura family returns to the city.
One summer the adults leave for a one-day picnic, taking with them the entire corps of servants and leaving the children by themselves. The children split into mutinous factions; the fence comes down; the natives--many of whom work in the Ventura mine--enter, the cousins' incestuous behavior flourishes, two of the cousins make off across the plains with the family gold. A year goes by in the park within that one larger day. The thistles go to seed and the cousins survive by staying huddled closed to the ground, according to native custom. Then the adults return, having passed a day in the country, and learn with horror that time has warped while they were away. Afraid of what might have happened in their house, they flee to the capital city and begin to arrange a sale of their gold mine. Eventually they return to the summer house with the pasty-faced, foreign prospective buyers. Despite the sight of their terrified children, they pretend nothing has gone wrong and entertain the foreigners. But soon the thistles go to seed. Some of the family members try to escape, and soon perish, but some survive by huddling close to the ground.
Donoso reinforces the wild improbability of his story with characters that can only be called surrealistic--a four-year-old boy, for example, whose mother insists on dressing in as a girl and whose intelligence is far out of proportion to his age. Donoso's remarkable combination of clarity and richness--preserved in translation--make the lurid plausible.
Juvenal's nails dug into the hard flesh of Higinio's penis, and with a how! Higinio lashed back at turn. The shaft of his now lifeless member lay bloody....His banal blond angel face with its tight puckered mount, withheld the radiant smile it normally squandered so freely in all directions, except when he was trying to escape the perverse chubby little squint-eyed Zoe, who chased him around urging the other small cousins to take up her terrible accusation. "Higinio has no pathos....Higinio has no paths..."
BUT IT IS THE VERITABLE melee of artistic issues that gives Donoso's novel most of its Does a work of art point outwards by mirroring, or does it stand apart from the outside world by reflecting--or inventing--human qualities in their purest form? In brief explanations interspersed through the narrative. Donoso insists that his novel is artifice and that a book should not remind its audiences of its daily existence. But he clearly depicts the turmoil produced in Chile and other clearly South American countries by an export illustrates the conflict between a foreign investors' elite and an entrenched local elite descended from colonial Spaniards. He attacks his topic with both satire and allegory. The Ventures are so ludicrous that they seem gross caricatures of a complacent elite, if they are characters in a satire their death in the thistle storm represents a sort of poetic justice. But the survival of some of the family by huddling close to the ground makes an allegorical point the cleverest way to weather totalitarian storms is to lay low and wait for them to pass over Donoso uses satire as a way of bringing out his allegory, but at times the two messages contradict each other almost as it the novel is questioning the validity of both device.
The story itself matters some of the artistic issues Donoso discusses. The Ventures have achieved isolation in the country only through an effort of will enforced through false stories of cannibalism outside. They maintain contact with the outside through trade with foreigners. In fact, their fortune comes from this trade. In the same way, Donoso adamantly creates a distance from the outside world, although his novel is richer for its reaching out. He claims throughout that the book is not open-ended. But were it in fact closed, its source of vitality would disappear. Even in the story's framework. Donoso questions the validity of his assertion that art is only artifice. Facades of fiction continuously shatter, and the characters reconstruct them each time. Eventually it becomes impossible to distinguish lies from truth, fiction from reality.
Critics, in a sniveling attempt to place Donoso in a genre, have often compared him to Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquees. Their similarities--in subject matter and setting, for example--stem only from the aspects of Spanish colonial heritage common to Chile and Colombia The mixing of several cultures gives these writer a wider range of plausible stories, as well as a greater sense of freedom to experiment with the unlikely. But unlike Marquez, Donoso derives much of his energy from the extreme self-consciousness of his art Each time Donoso turns from one event to another, he explains that he has determined the order of events as part of the book's artifice. At times one can suppose that the author himself acts in the book as one of its characters Donoso even includes a chapter in which he, the author, supposedly met one of his characters. The character reads Donoso's manuscript and attacks it for its distortions Garcia Marquez writes more traditionally, lending his portrayals of characters an aura of truth by not questioning their existence within the frame work of his novels. At the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude a character has discovered the manuscript and is translating it. But Marquez' character is mesmerized rather than critical: his reading of the manuscript confirms Garcia Marquez' authority instead of questioning it, as in Donoso's book. It is easy to feel like an invisible observer in the world of One Hundred Years of Solitude but impossible to do so in Donoso's novel. And because the work's and in a vacuum, it, isolation does not induce claus trophobia.
The Spanish title of Donoso's novel, Casa de Campo,is also the name of a park just outside of Madrid Donoso clearly does not intend the park's name as the title's only significance like other things in the book, however, the title points out ward and suggests a similarity between the Ventures' escape from the capital city and excursions in Casa de Campo. It suggests that the Venturas never left the city even in their isolation. The title's anchor in Madrid conveys the paradox of Donoso's pretended vacuum and stands as a monument to the art of saying something without saying so.