Places: The Obscene Bird of Night

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: El obsceno pájaro de la noche, 1970 (English translation, 1973)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Magical Realism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Places DiscussedCasa de Ejercicios Espirituales de la Encarnación

Casa Obscene Bird of Night, Thede Ejercicios Espirituales de la Encarnación. Home for elderly women in the fictional Chilean city of La Chimba. A large, rambling structure, the Casa has over the years become a labyrinth through two different but complementary processes of growth. Externally, additions of varying sizes and architectural styles have proliferated to the point that no one remembers what the original building looked like; internally, rooms have been divided and subdivided until even Humberto Peñaloza, the Casa’s caretaker, no longer comprehends its overall layout.

The Casa is variously depicted as a magic kingdom, a beehive, a prison, and a place to which both people and things go when they have outlived their usefulness. Clearly, it is a world of its own that is nonetheless intended to have some metaphorical relationship to the world as a whole. Its complex and labyrinthine character is further emphasized by the narrative’s frequent references to its many nooks and crannies, and to secret recesses in which witchcraft and other mysterious rites are practiced by its residents. Although it is supposed to be an institution that benevolently looks after those who live within, it is the inmates who have in fact taken control of the asylum, as the novel continues to develop its theme of the unpredictable and often irrational outcomes of human action.

La Rinconada

La Rinconada. Country estate of the de Azcoitía family. When Don Jerónimo de Azcoitía’s wife, Inés, gives birth to a monstrously deformed baby, the father decides to shield the boy from reality by fabricating an artificial world in which the abnormal will seem normal. La Rinconada is transformed into a haven for those usually identified as freaks, as once again readers encounter a world that has produced its own labyrinthine complexity in the process of creating an alternative to the conventional treatment of society’s underprivileged classes.

Because of its almost complete isolation from the mainstream world, La Rinconada becomes even more detached from mundane reality than does the Casa. Life within its well-guarded walls is portrayed as subverting conventional social structures. There, the very idea of the normal has been abolished, as Don Jerónimo strives to create a culture in which people are not classified in terms of any systems or generalizations, but are instead treated as unique individuals who will be accepted regardless of whatever each happens to be. Like the Casa, however, La Rinconada invents a future for itself in a way unforeseen by the de Azcoitías, as its inhabitants’ decision to murder Don Jerónimo represents their complete rejection of any degree of social control.

La Chimba

La Chimba. Major city of the region in which the novel takes place, situated near the real locations of the Maule River and the towns of Cauquenes, San Javier, and Villa Alegre in north-central Chile. Whenever the inhabitants of the Casa venture out into the surrounding city, they encounter another kind of labyrinth in which a rapidly growing urban community’s network of streets and buildings spills over into the adjacent countryside.

La Chimba hospital

La Chimba hospital. Site of Humberto’s operation for a stomach disorder. The narrative’s emphasis on labyrinths as the fundamental organizing principles of human nature is further elaborated when both the hospital and Humberto’s body are depicted as complex, proliferating networks characterized by multiple passageways and ultimate incomprehensibility.

BibliographyBaker, Robert. “José Donoso’s El obsceno pájaro de la noche: Thoughts on ‘Schizophrenic’ Form.” Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 26, no. 1 (1992): 37-60. A clear discussion of the sometimes confusing ways in which characters fuse with each other.Diamond-Nigh, Lynne. “El obsceno pájaro de la noche: An Allegory of Creation.” Hispanófila 104 (1992): 37-45. Emphasizes the religious metaphors used in the novel.Donoso, José. “A Small Biography of The Obscene Bird of Night.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, no. 2 (1992): 18-31. A fascinating discussion by the author on how the novel came into being, the various rewrites, and the various people and events which inspired their novelistic counterparts.Rowe, William. “José Donoso: El obsceno pájaro de la noche as Test Case for Psychoanalytic Interpretation.” Modern Language Review 78, no. 3 (1983): 588-96. Focuses on the relationship between Humberto and Jerónimo in the novel and looks at the themes of narcissism and self-destruction.Swanson, Philip. “José Donoso: El obsceno pájaro de la noche.” In Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction. London: Routledge, 1990. A tightly-argued essay which sets The Obscene Bird of Night in the context of Donoso’s other novels and concentrates on the different parallels constructed by the novel, such as those between Humberto and Mudito and between the yellow bitch and Peta Ponce.
Categories: Places