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The Legacy of Writer José Donoso

(The following is a post by Georgette Dorn, Chief of the Hispanic Division.)

JoseĢ Donoso 1981. By Elisa Cabot. https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/7822341738

On Dec. 7, 2016, the Hispanic Division honors the great Chilean writer José Donoso on the 20th anniversary of his death. I recorded Donoso on three different occasions for our Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape — twice at the Library of Congress in 1975 and 1982, and once in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1983.

He was one of the five great Latin American writers of the Boom—a literary movement by young writers who wrote at a time of political turmoil in the region in the 1960s and 70s. The four other writers were Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes. According to María del Pilar Serrano, Donoso’s wife, of this quintet, the writer was closest to Cortázar whose use of fantasy and humor was like his own. Donoso wrote “Historia personal del Boom.”

Donoso was born on September 25, 1935 in Santiago, Chile. As a youth he worked as a shepherd in Patagonia. He attended an English-language high school and the Instituto Pedagógico in Santiago. With a Doherty Foundation scholarship he enrolled in Princeton University where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in English literature. For his work with the magazine Ercilla, he won the Chile-Italia Prize for journalism. Donoso’s literary career began with his novel “Coronación,” (“Coronation,” which deals with society’s deterioration, identity crises, madness and  which set the tone for the  some of the author’s later novels). The novel became a bestseller in 1957. It also received the Premio Municipal de Santiago award that year. It was translated into several languages and won the William Faulkner Prize in 1962.


Magnetic tape reel and box of José Donoso’s recording for the Library’s Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape.

Donoso led a peripatetic life which led him to many places, including Buenos Aires; Ames, Iowa; London; and, above all, Barcelona where he befriended his four companions of the Boom. He got along well with all of them. He spent several years in Washington DC, as a fellow of the Smithsonian Institution’s Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. An attractive, sophisticated, and generous couple, Donoso and Pilar were frequent visitors in the Hispanic Reading Room in the 1980s.

After “Coronación,” Donoso published many more novels, “Cuatro para Delfina” (Four for Delfina), “El Charleston” (The Charleston), “El lugar sin límites” (Hell Has No Limits), “Este domingo” (This Sunday), “El jardín de al lado” (The Garden Next Door),  and his magic realism masterpiece, “El obsceno pájaro de la noche” (The Obscene Bird of the Night), which became an international  bestseller. He wrote chiefly about the decadence and existential despair of Chilean society. Donoso vehemently opposed the Pinochet dictatorship and in general deplored the horrors and cruelties of modern life.

The Library of Congress has 231 books by and about Donoso in many languages. All his major books are available in English. Those interested can listen to Donoso’s recording by following the link to the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape on the Hispanic Division’s home page. You can find his works, as well as biographies and books about him in the Library’s online catalog and in the “Handbook of Latin American Studies.”

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