Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Jose Donoso, The Garden Next Door

I was afraid this would be an abysmal and dry novel, in the way that novels which belabor the inner lives of intellectual, middle-aged couples can be. I’m thinking John Updike.

And it was—in a sense. Abysmal and dry in that the novel hovers around the endless decline and sardonic posturing of characters stalled in various ways, not least of which in their marriage. Meet Julio--Chilean exile living in Barcelona in the early 1980’s, bemoaning his inability to write a novel about his 6 days spent in prison during the unrest in Chile. Gloria, his wife, with her brassy red hair and her pot smoking, burned out hippie friend. Their too-many valiums, their loathing for the rich, their envy for the wealthy, their pining to be again among a boho crowd where artists and politicians are doing important work, their derision for the Eurotrash Rimbaudian kids that surround them and seem to care about nothing. Their adulation for writers like Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa and their scorn for the gimmickry, but admitted mastery, in the novels of the Latin American Boom writers.

It is a realist novel till the end. Gloria does not ascend to heaven with the bed sheets. Yet, the novel borders on the marvelous not because there is anything like magical realism per se, but what I would call the emotional phatasmorgic. Each spouse is a kind of emotional phantasm for the other. If you plot marriage and resentment and personal failure on a line and then have that line intersect with a line that stands for the shimmery and jagged trajectory of expectation and regard and importance an artist vests in his or her work, you arrive at a place that is slightly, though violently, other than reality, so turbid is it with the kind of phantasms that battle it out under the surface. In the end, the collision and ultimate conversion of said lines makes for a refractory conclusion and the twisted corners of a reality that is common to the tropes of mirror and labyrinth you find in the same Boom writers the narrators so admire and scorn. At the same time, it is true to an account of any marriage.

The relationship of Julio and Gloria and their relationship to their inner worlds spin out in a series of turns that seem deceptively bland, overblown, hilarious, self-parodying, pathetic, until suddenly, all is turned on its head. There is a complete change in the dynamic of the relationship, but what happens for the reader is something more like an ontological out-maneuvering. What seems miraculous is that it is still the real world through and through. The reader is compelled, upon reaching the final pages of El jardin de al lado, to slow down and look back, to try and identify the sleight-of-hand that turned things upside down and in a way, righted them again. But the trick is that there is no trick. There is rather, a force and a spiraling outward. An enfolding. The involutions are not the delicate petals of a flower, but rather the dark green eurrent from a carnivorous garden.

Passage from a Dalkey Archive interview (don;t read it if you don't want to know how El jardin ends). On transfomration.

RGM: In a novel like HeIl Has No Limits, role-playing is intimately tied up with sexual politics, with the power game between the sexes. What is your interpretation of the transvestite?
JD: Difficult, I really don't know myself why at that point in my life I did that. Funny, the things that are real and the things that aren't; things that are verbatim in that novel are the whorehouse, the little village, the little railroad, the countryside, the vineyards. But in that village that I know la Manuela didn't exist; I brought her over from another set of experiences.
RGM: How do you see the relationship between the roles that she plays--which are of both genders--and the violence in the novel?
JD: Well, I feel that transformation is always punished with violence. God didn't put us here to be transformed, He put us here to be what we were told to be.
RGM: What you're saying is that authority cannot accept metamorphosis, it's a transgression, no? And speaking of authors and authority, I'd be very interested in hearing your interpretation of the power game in The Garden Next Door between the male author (who cannot write the novel we're reading) and the female one who does write it.
JD: Well, I think that all men carry inside them a lot of other men, a lot of possibilities. I think that in The Garden Next Door transformation takes on not what happens in Hell Has No Limits but something very near it.
RGM: In what sense?
JD: I've been asked this question several times: why is it that you, who are a successful writer, can draw a picture of a writer manque? My reply is that I hope I'm still a writer manque. I carry inside me the shape of a fracasado. If I lose that, my irony and my humor and my sarcasm, maybe, or my cruelty, everything that is more or less impassioned in me would fail. I am a failed writer; I'm also a successful one.
RGM: That doesn't explain the fact that a woman ends up writing the novel.
JD: I may have wanted to be a woman at one point . . .
RGM: You said before that you give your stories to read to two people in particular, both of whom are women: Delfina Guzman and your wife. Does that mean anything?
JD: Yes, I have a better relationship with women than with men, far and away. I'm much more interested in women than I am in men.
RGM: Do women make it easier for you to be creative?
JD: They are more intelligent, somehow; they have a greater panoply of . . . I don't know, desire, or possibilities.
RGM: How do you think women were portrayed by the novelists of the Boom?
JD: There isn't a true woman in the pages of the writers of the Boom. The women in Vargas Llosa are not women, they are sketches!
RGM: And the women in One Hundred Years of Solitude?
JD: Not plausible, not felt. They have no freedom, they transgress nothing. And La Maga [from Cortazar's Hopscotch], look at the name . . .
RGM: Do you think that any woman writers were excluded by the Boom?
JD: No, no. I don't see any women writing at the same time. Clarice Lispector, perhaps . . .
RGM: Can you name some interesting women writers today in Latin America?
JD: Yes, Rosario Ferre, for instance.
RGM: What interests you in her?
JD: People speak of two poles in Latin America: civilization and barbarism. I think she's both.

1 comment:

Melanie Westerberg said...

I just started reading this book yesterday, and I think it's hilarious. The 6 days in prison! "Ugh, you smell like barbeque." Etc. Thank you for writing about it--I love your reviews.

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