The Obscene Bird of Night

jose donoso

The Obscene Bird of Night (El obsceno pájaro de la noche, 1970) is the most acclaimed novel by the Chilean writer José Donoso (1924-1996). Donoso was a member of the Latin American literary boom and the literary movement known as magical realism. The novel explores the cyclical nature of life and death, in that our fears and fantasies of childhood resurface in adulthood and old age. It is about the deconstruction of self – to the extreme of trying ‘to live’ in non-existence.

The Imbunche myth is a major theme in the novel. According to legend, the Imbunche was a male child kidnapped by, or sold by his parents to a sorcerer who turns the child into a monster to guard his lair. It symbolizes the process of implosion of the physical and/or intellectual self, turning the living being into a thing or object incapable of interacting with the outside world, and depriving it of its individuality and even of its name. This can either be self-inflicted or forced upon by others.

The myth comes from the oral tradition of Chiloé Island, an island of the southern coast of Chile. In its physical manifestation it is a grotesquely disfigured being that has been sutured, tied, bound and wrapped from birth. In this way, its orifices are sown shut, its tongue is removed or split, its extremities and sexual organ bound and immobilized. It is the product of magic and witchcraft, and is the incarnation of the very realistic fears we feel as children, when monsters, magic and imaginings all seem real – they are the deeply rooted fears that, despite rationalization, remain present (albeit dormant) in the recesses of the subconscious.

In the novel, the intellectual/spatial manifestation of the Imbunche is the self-imposed alienation from the outside world, i.e. an adoption of the ideal of the physical Imbunche in terms of space, with the purpose of taking away the power that others have over the individual and choosing a life of non-existence. This auto-segregation is achieved by fortifying one’s living space, i.e. sealing off all the entrances (like the Imbunche’s, metaphorically speaking). This seclusion from the outside world is a form of self-preservation from an oppressive and anti-individualistic society. Later on in the novel, a reversal from the state of Imbunche begins, with the recuperation of one’s own name – the word that represents the concept of an individual. Ironically, the re-discovery of the self here depends on being acknowledged by the outside world, to be named by others.

In ‘The Obscene Bird of Night,’ the narrator and protagonist, Humberto Peñaloza, goes through the different stages of the deconstruction of his personality. He not only becomes El Mudito (The Mute or The Mutey), he eventually transforms into the monstrous Imbunche. This mutation also affects the characters in other ways, as in the case of Doctor Azula and the endless pregnancy of Iris the Orphan, and the regeneration process of Humberto himself. Even the identity of the characters becomes ambiguous or distorted sometimes, as for instance when Humberto says that Iris was developing a substantial clientele in the neighborhood and then proceeds to say that he would hide inside the Ford car to watch her make love… to himself, as if it were an out-of-body experience.

In this way Humberto provides the possibility of duplicity of narrative voices within the same character, and thus two subjective perspectives of the same reality: on the one hand, the narrative can be interpreted simply and realistically in terms of its context, in which Humberto Peñaloza, a middle-class law student and writer, is trying to make his way though the ranks of the contemporary Chilean society, which was strictly divided according to class; on the other hand, the narrative can be interpreted in terms of its ambiguous and amorphous nature, in which identity itself is not defined, history is the result of myth and the boundaries between the material and psychological world are broken and in flux, therefore opposing the solidity and immutability of the physical world and established society, where individuals are forced to lose part of their identity and freedom in order to acquire a role in society and thus not be otherwise marginalized.

Ultimately the novel postulates and explores an existential paradox: the struggle between being vs. non-being, internal vs. external, interaction vs. separation, and society vs. individuality.

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