Friday, December 25, 2009

goodreads book review: the obscene bird of night, jose donoso

The Obscene Bird of Night The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
themes of identity, humanity, reality, and belonging cycle through and circle the obscene bird of night. it's not really pleasant to read, though there are moments where a smile is not out of order. but most often it's really bizarre, and misleading, horrific even as its compelling. before philip k. dick died he was trying to write a book called the owl in daylight. i suspect he would have written his own version of the obscene bird of night. i think he would have understood this book. i cannot say i do. i am certainly in awe of it, in all its monstrosity, its virtuosity, despite the fact that it left me depleted and brain sore, overwhelmed by images of the grotesque, yes, obscene scenes that came alive, that are still burning in my mind. i will likely read it again half a dozen times, if not more, in trying to comprehend it. most of the action takes place in a rest home for old servants, owned by an old and respected family, and later, in the summer house of that same family, where a grand experiment is made, both buildings edifices that are bigger inside than out, and labyrinthine in nature, much like the book itself.

the main narrative voice is often one "i" but not always, a male servant. the fluidity of this "i" means it shifts and tricks you, so that it is no longer he but yet someone else, and just when you think you are beginning to understand, the "i" slaps your hand, and shows you something else. there's not really a central figure in this novel for me, unless it is the imbunche, the mythological creature story that has at its heart a witch that steals children, and seals up their nine orifices. the shards of the narratives are dark, stark, and nasty, yet somehow donoso (who is the ultimate "i" though not the only writer in this book) is matter of fact, makes you want to keep looking into all the different mirrors that he holds up, makes you want to keep reading even though your mind is reeling. the effect of his facility with these characters softens the blow somewhat; he makes horror palatable, as nabokov did when he made me empathize with humbert humbert. to me, it makes perfect sense (and i wondered if it was a tip of the cap to lolita) that the most-of-time-narrator is most-of-the-time called humberto. when he is not mudito. or an old lady. or a child. or a lover. or a papier-mache head. and iris is also gina. and ines can do everybody's voices, she's a natural mimic, so you can imagine where that might go. there are no villains really, there are no saints, though these capering fools will try to invent some, as the story unfolds.

since pkd never wrote the owl in daylight, i'll say this book is like a south american nightmare mutation of the sound and the fury. i didn't immediately understand all the threads in that book either but that's what keeps me coming back to it, and it's why i will read the obscene bird of night again -- that slap is a challenge that still stings.

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