Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Jose Donoso

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Jose Donoso

Article excerpt

The Chilean writer Jose Donoso is a leading Latin American novelist. After teaching English literature in the United States and travelling in many countries, he lived in Spain until 1980, when he returned to Chile. His works have been translated into many languages. Among those translated into English are The Obscene Bird of Night (1979), A House in the Country (1984), and The Garden Next Door (1992). Here he explains his conception of the writer's role in society.

* In the minds of critics and readers alike, the Latin-American novel no longer occupies the dominant position that it held at the time of the "explosion" of novel-writing in the 1960s, although the great writers of that period--Gabriel Garcia Marques, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and yourself--are still publishing regularly, and a new generation of writers has emerged in every one of the countries of Latin America.

--A clear distinction has to be drawn between, on the one hand, the ballyhoo and commercial exploitation surrounding the 1960s explosion, which I denounced in my personal account of it (Historia personal del "boom", 1972), and on the other the grand ambitions that the writers of the period entertained to write the "total" novel. One thing that is certain is that, in the last ten years, Latin-American novelists have abandoned their dream of upholding, so to speak, the great blueprints for society that were a characteristic feature of the political and cultural life of the 1960s and 1970s.

Those blueprints were an integral part of the "cosmogonic ideologies" that proposed universal, radical solutions and stemmed from an unquestioning belief in the power of the will.

In Latin America, that period was marked by a "Bolivarian" dream of the continent's literary unity. At the same time, each novel aimed to be a literary "super-production" by virtue of its encyclopaedic accumulation of knowledge. Conversely, during the 1980s and even more so in the present decade, novels have ceased to offer the sort of absolute and all-embracing vision represented in the weighty tomes that many authors of my generation perpetrated, myself included. Our aim was not only to interpret the world but to change it as well.

* Yet you have never been one for certainties. You deal rather in doubt, ambiguity and contradictions.

--Contradictions and doubts that nevertheless formed part of an ambitious self-appointed task, that of saying "everything" in a novel that aimed to be representative of a particular moment in history, a moment whose special, unique nature seemed to us to be beyond doubt. History is now perceived subjectively and deciphered through the individual; what it has gained in relatively it has lost in "certainty". Novelists today present individual life-stories, which may be more or less representative, but they no longer have any pretensions to give lessons to their readers. Their characters are helpless, often loners and disoriented. We have no place to go to get warm now as we used to do, when ideology gave us a roof over our heads: nowadays, and I think this is all to the good, we are exposed to the elements, no longer sheltered by revealed truths from the storms of life.

* That is true for the characters, but what about the authors? What are their points of reference now? People have to believe in something, after all.

--Literature and aesthetics have taken the place of ideologies, and it's not the first time this has happened. I am thinking, for instance, of John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, tugged this way and that by the forces of the Renaissance and those of puritanism. His cultural references were those of his time: the recently rediscovered Greek and Latin poets, the writings of the Fathers of the Church, the Bible--he was writing for a readership steeped in the Scriptures rather than for one that shared his political beliefs. At times of crisis, it is the gossamer threads spun by the authors of the past that hold writers back from the brink of the existential void. …

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