Oct 28 2011

The Lizard's Tale by José Donoso

Lisa Fetchko

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Northwestern University Press, in a fine translation by Suzanne Jill Levine, has just released The Lizard's Tale, an unfinished novel by José Donoso first published in 1997, eleven years after the author's death. Donoso, a Boom writer and Chile's most important novelist until Bolaño, wrote The Lizard's Tale in 1973 while he was living in Calaceite, a village in northeastern Spain. Three years before, he published his best-known work, The Obscene Bird of Night, a dense, ambitious novel that clinched his reputation as a canonical Latin-American writer. There is evidence that Donoso considered including The Lizard's Tale in his collection Sacred Families, a trio of surreal novellas skewering Barcelona's bourgeoisie, but Donoso's daughter suggests he might have abandoned the novel, set in Spain with European characters, as frivolous in the wake of the September 1973 coup in Chile. (A week later, he began to write A House in the Country, a dark allegory about Chile under Pinochet.) Whatever the reason, Donoso rearranged the manuscript's five parts, polished the third, and set the work aside.

The lizard's tail (tale) refers to a key theme in the novel: what happens when you turn your back on something that once defined you? Disillusioned with the commercialization of the art world, Antonio Muñoz-Roa, a fifty-year-old painter from Barcelona, publicly breaks with Informalism, the artistic movement he helped to found. Muñoz-Roa, who also stops painting, likens this break to a lizard shedding its tail (although he isn't sure "if I were the lizard and the informalists… were the severed tail, or if on the contrary, I was the tail that would die and they the lizard that would soon grow another tail"). On an ensuing trip to the coast with his ex-lover Luisa, Muñoz-Roa discovers Dors, an unspoiled town in the mountains. He falls in love with the Dors, restores an old house, and lives there for several years. The town is so important to his post-painterly identity that he becomes obsessed with persuading the locals to preserve it from the crass developments springing up along the coast. Critics have drawn a parallel between Muñoz-Roa's disillusion with Informalism and Donoso's feelings about the Boom, but I wouldn't make too much of this. Donoso likes to isolate his protagonists as a way of having them reflect upon their lives, and for Muñoz-Roa, Dors serves this function.

There's plenty to applaud in The Lizard's Tale. For long stretches of the novel, Donoso's fluid and agoraphobic prose—which Levine does a marvelous job of following—lures us into the tangled web of Muñoz-Roa's many contradictions:

I leaned over to Luisa and kissed her on the mouth as if I loved her, as if I desired her, and she let me, but I didn't love or desire her, nor did she love or desire me. Missing was intimate passion, a different feeling, a feeling of passion bringing me close to that difference without ever feeling at one with it, and I felt, upon holding her in my arms and while she gently caressed the back of my neck, that no, no, that I wanted someone young, someone different, a stranger … I wanted youth, horribly, passionately, something new, something that wasn't La Garriga, that wasn't painting, that wasn't flattened from so much use.

Donoso's plotting, as always, is impeccable. The ending, which culminates in the ruin that Muñoz-Roa was so intent upon preventing, is especially good. Compared to Donoso's strongest works, however—The Obscene Bird of Night, A House in the Country, and Hell Has No Limits, a remarkable little novel about a whorehouse in Chile—the book falls flat. It feels dated, certain plot twists are undeserved; Donoso's dialogue, usually so rich and suggestive, is sometimes simplistic. Critics want to read The Lizard's Tale as a fable about artistic integrity, but Muñoz-Roa is so pedantic, so arrogantly opposed to the desires of Dors's lower-class residents that it's difficult to maintain the sympathy that would make this reading work:

And we [he and Luisa] talked and talked, saying there was only one solution: bring more and more people to Dors, but people chosen by us responding to our taste and our way of life, colonize Dors with more or less prominent people, more or less famous, with power, so that they wouldn't continue to ruin the village…

The Obscene Bird of Night went through more than seventy drafts, begging the question of what would have become of The Lizard's Tale if Donoso had spent more time on it. Did his writing start thin and get thicker? Would Muñoz-Roa's contradictions have become so full and rich that our sympathy for him would have grown? I suspect so.

Donoso is at his best when exploring our most twisted emotions. His male characters have hopelessly complicated feelings about women; his upper-class characters are consumed with guilt as they cling to privilege; many of his protagonists are trapped in paralyzing cycles of envy, doubt and insecurity. When his characters are Latin American, Donoso typically sets them within the ruins of an old, family house in which upper and lower classes are connected by the complex ties of domestic service. By doing so, he reveals a Latin America that is not only dark and monstrous but warm and familiar. Spoiled adolescents lose their virginity to servants, unsuccessful men cannot escape the wealthy relatives who abhor (and support) them, prostitutes love the clients who abuse them. By allegorically linking their stories to Latin America's larger problems—poverty, military dictatorship, the ongoing existential crises of a violently colonized continent—Donoso elicits sympathy for his characters, however twisted. "...where we are is hell, / And where hell is, there must we ever be..." says Mephistopheles in a Doctor Faustus quote Donoso uses to introduce Hell Has No Limits. A good deal of Donoso's work can be summed up in that line.

Muñoz-Roa, however, is Catalan, and he lacks the tormented complexity of Donoso's Chilean characters. Even though you get the sense in The Lizard's Tale of a writer who's exhausted with his theme, a writer who'd like to turn his back on his complicated inheritance and take a crack at something else, Donoso couldn't leave Chile behind. In 1981, after fourteen years in Spain, he moved back to Santiago. Most of what he wrote after The Lizard's Tale was set in Chile.

It's hard to read Donoso now without the mischievous voice of Roberto Bolaño whispering in your ear. In a short, ambiguous essay called "The Transparent Mystery of José Donoso," Bolaño writes, "Donoso's legacy is a dark room. In that dark room the beasts fight." Many of Donoso's novels are dark and full of beasts, and the problem with The Lizard's Tale may be that Spain wasn't beastly enough to unleash his greatest talents. But as Donoso recounts so well in The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History, Latin America, before the Boom, was a disconnected continent of young, unstable countries isolated by regionalism and literary insecurity. Without writers like Donoso plunging into those dark, beastly rooms to bring forth the tales of their story-rich continent, the Boom in Latin American literature might never have occurred.

Lisa Fetchko's fiction has appeared in n+1, Rattapallax and Glimmer Train. She has an essay forthcoming with AGNI.

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