A Horror House

The 1960s and the 1970s saw the remarkable rise of young Latin American writers whose works have swept Europe and the rest of the world. Their astonishing rise from obscurity was accompanied by their scrutiny of traditional Latin American literary norms. Their daring and experimental opus placed the proverbial microscope on Latin American literature. This literary movement, known as the Latin American Boom, was ignited by Argentina’s Julio Cortázar, Mexico’s Carlos Fuentes, Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa, and Colombia’s Gabriel García Márquez, with the last two being recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Popular works that characterized this era include Marquez’s Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967), Cortazar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1963), Fuentes’ La muerte de Artemio Cruz (The Death of Artemio Cruz, 1962), and Vargas Llosa’s La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero, 1963).

In Chile, José Donoso was making his own contributions to this trailblazing movement. Some literary pundits have even considered him the fifth pillar of the seminal literary movement. His integration of dark surrealism and social satire was palpable in his novel, A House in the Country. Originally published in 1978 in Spanish as Casa de campo, the novel centered around the Ventura family. A member of the elite, the affluent Ventura family earned their wealth from the gold mines in the countryside but resided in the capital city of an anonymous country. The big clan was comprised of 13 adults – including the seven Ventura siblings – and the 33 children among them. Annually, they retreat to their countryside home in Marulanda. In the titular house in the country, the family spends the three months of summer.

The action of the novel commenced one summer day. The adult members of the family planned to go out on a picnic in a mythical and mystical site located within the vast family estate. Accompanying them are all the family servants. The children, meanwhile, were left in the manse. The children, whose ages ranged from six to sixteen, were to fend for their own for the very first time: “The thirty-three cousins were left locked inside the park, perched in trees and hanging over balconies, waving farewell handkerchiefs while the youngest stuck weeping faces through the wrought-iron bars, staring after the cavalcade as it disappeared from view among the grasses rippling over the flat landscape to the horizon.”

“When the children found themselves alone after the departure of the great ones, with no other protection than the vigilance of the Atlanteans who from time to time supported the balustrade of the terrace, they felt that they could not transgress the borders assigned by custom without precipitate the disaster: the family park had an unusual, hostile air and the house, today so depopulated, was colossal, autonomous, similar to a dragon with entrails made up of corridors and gilded and carpeted rooms capable of digesting anyone, with tentacles that were the towers that tried to catch the ever-fleeing clouds.”

~ José Donoso, A House in the Country

The Ventura children were used to having the presence of adults around, including the servants. The servants, after all, were extensions of authority, devices used by their parents to keep the entire household in order. Spearheaded by the Majordomo, the servants were given full authority over the estate and the children, further ensuring that everything was under control. Bereft of any adult influence, the young Venturas were left bewildered. But the Ventura children have a world of their own. The family home was soon teeming with activities once the adults were beyond earshot. Left to their own devices, the children indulged in their own whims. Each child to his or her own. Order was evaded in exchange for what was supposed to be a day of puerile fun.

Of Magic and History

A House in the Country, however, does not reduce itself to a mere exploration of family dynamics. Donoso provided the readers a multilayered narrative that grappled with several seminal subjects. Beyond the phantasmagorical elements woven into the narrative, the novel was, at its heart, both an examination and exploration of history. Under Donoso’s magical storytelling, the Ventura home and the entire estate were transformed into an allegory of the author’s homeland, Chile. While Chile was never explicitly mentioned in the story, the descriptions and the symbolism rife in the story vividly referred to Chile. Moreover, Donoso started working on the novel following the 1973 coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet that overthrew President Salvador Allende. Pinochet’s regime which lasted from 1973 to 1990 wreaked havoc well beyond the novel’s publication. Interestingly, the rich, like the Venturas, were barely affected by the atrocities of the regime.

Unlike its contemporaries like Augusto Roa Bastos’s I The Supreme (1974), and Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), A House in the Country does not paint the image of a dictator. Rather, the novel’s focus was on historical events and their adverse impacts that continue to resonate in the contemporary. Leaving the country unnamed was a stroke of brilliance on Donoso’s part. The events that transpired in the novel transcended geographic and political boundaries. These were events that have become ubiquitous in history, particularly in Latin America. The most palpable reference was to the rise of dictatorships, a familiar scene in Latin American contemporary history where the likes of Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner, have stamped their atrocities in the pages of history books.

Beyond dictatorships, the novel underscored the increasing militarization occurring in the countryside, depicted primarily through the servants, with the Majordomo at their helm. They were the symbols of authority and, at the same time, fear. Meanwhile, the Ventura parents distanced themselves from the disciplinary sanctions committed by the servants even though the servants were the active vessels of the adult Venturas. This way, the parents were able to maintain the veneer of being well-meaning masters while staying firmly in control. The Venturas were the quintessence of the classic populist politician. Further reinforcing authority and control were images similar to concentration camps and detention centers

“It provided an escape, not just for the protagonists but for the extras as well, to another level where, without having to question family dogma, they could stand waiting in the wings for the moment when they too would be “grown-ups” and, ascending to that superior class, cease to be bulnerable to the doubts which , by their very nature as children, assailed them, for then they too would be creators and manipulators of dogma.”

~ José Donoso, A House in the Country

Resistance and the White Savior

History, under Donoso’s astute pen, reached deeper, further back. In the same vein, the novel alluded to the Spanish conquests of the sixteenth century. The novel captured how the Spanish conquistadors exploited the countryside. They captured and enslaved the natives, then forced them to extract their gold and other natural resources. The foreigners, however, were the only ones who profited from these enterprises while the overworked native inhabitants were forced to live and survive in barely liveable circumstances. Their masters, on the other hand, lived comfortably in expansive homes and estates. These were reminiscent of how the Venturas have earned their wealth and exploited the locals of Maralunda.

Meanwhile, the Venturas sanitized the conversations on exploitation by repeatedly emphasizing their “white savior” role. Their perceived excellence and superiority made them believe that everyone owed them. They have built and even cultivated the illusion that their presence saved the native inhabitants of Maralunda from inevitable ruin. For years, they have kept them under a leash. They even framed them as dangerous, filthy cannibals. This myth was veiled as a warning to their children to keep them from venturing beyond the safety of their estate. By instilling fear into the children, the adults have effectively maintained power, one of the leitmotifs of the story.

Always, power concentrated on the Ventura adults, and any form of dissent was immediately stymied: “He soon noticed that for the Venturas the first commandment was that under no circumstances should anyone confront anything openly, that life was pure allusion and ritual and symbol, which precluded any questions and answers even among the cousins: you could do anything, feel anything, desire anything, embrace anything, so long as it was never spoken of.” The laws that the Venturas were dynamic, dependent on the whim of the adults or what a certain situation calls for. This, however, did not keep them from amassing power over the years. This allowed them to be brazen as well in the cultivation of their business interests, effectively becoming oligarchs. The novel also underscored how their partnership with “foreigners” to whom they sold their stakes alluded to the increasing intervention of other states in the affairs of Latin American nations, particularly in the twentieth century.

Cracks on the Surface

Power is not absolute. As the adults’ stranglehold on power got tighter, cracks started to appear. One of the ruptures emanated from nine years old Wenceslao Gomara, the youngest child of the youngest of the Ventura siblings, Balbina. His two older sisters, Aida and Mignon, passed away even before they reached their teenage years. The memories of her two daughters lingered, manifesting in Balbina’s eccentric habit of dressing Wenceslao in girl’s clothing. Still, he was precocious and even-keeled, more mature than his older cousins. Amidst the sea of fun and confusion, he was the first to challenge the dogmas that were inculcated into them by their parents.

“For a second he hoped that as he spoke his name, his father would rise to his feet, opening his arms to welcome him after four years of separation. But as he advanced to his bed, he saw him lying there, wrapped in a straitjacket like a brutal chrysalis, gagged, with a blindfold over his eyes: a human being who was his father was lying on blankets filthy with blood and spittle and stinky of vomiting.”

~ José Donoso, A House in the Country

The counterweight to the Venturas was Adriano Gomara, Wenceslao’s father and Balbina’s husband. However, he found himself incarcerated in the mansion’s tower after his establishment of contact with the natives resulted in grisly consequences. The Ventura children, left to fend for their own, freed their imprisoned uncle. Adriano immediately dismantled the prevailing power structures and established a new order where parity was the driving force. The mansion opened its gates to the natives. Despite resistance from some of the Ventura children, everything was fine, at first. Chaos soon descended as resources started dwindling. Adriano had good intentions but his execution was poor and his authority was soon undermined by the factions that has formed. Some children stole their parents’ gold and escaped to the city. Order, which entailed fear and terror, would only be restored upon the return of the picnicking Ventura family members.

With its dark and heavy subjects, A House in the Country was no easy read. Apart from fear, chaos and brutality permeated the labyrinthine story. Death and violence were recurring themes. Donoso, with an unflinching gaze, riddled the story with graphic images. The repeated mention of cannibalism soon turned into reality. In one instance, we learn about how one sister murdered and beheaded the other, serving her roasted head to their father. Through teenage characters, the novel explored psycho-sexual repression; some of them were sexually involved with another. These are some of the discomfiting and grim images that abounded in the novel. The dense narrative also grappled with the generation gap, teenage rebellion, and the conflict between idealism and materialism.

The Narrative Process

Adding an interesting complexion to the story was Donoso’s interjection of himself in the narrative. It was a means of engaging the reader in the creative process. At times, his ruminations delved into the very process of novel writing. “Secondly, I have decided to resurrect Wenceslao because of events that have occurred after I wrote the first drafts of this fable (pardon me, novel – though I can’t quite bring myself to drop that spontaneous word in favor of this more apt and conventional term; events, I might add that are related to your humble scribe’s own life.” In integrating magical and surrealistic elements, Donoso conjured a book that was the quintessence of the Latin American boom. However, the growth of the characters was sacrificed for the book’s magical realistic elements.

An interesting literary device was the blurring of several lines. The setting was not explicit but time devices were also not defined. When the picnicking adults return to the mansion, they learn that a year has already transpired in the lives of the children while for them, only a day has passed by. Reality was also never linear. When the adults left, the children participated in an improvised play titled La Marquise Est Sortie à Cinq Heures (The Marquise Went Out at Five O’clock). They were engrossed in acting out various scenarios in that the lines between reality and imagination were blurred. With real atrocities being dismissed as one of many scenes from the play, one must sift through the sea of illusions.

A House in the Country is the convergence of several evocative elements woven together in a rich tapestry by Donoso’s masterful storytelling. A trademark of the Latin American book, Donoso challenged the prevailing literary norms to conjure a riveting narrative about his country and its rich albeit tumultuous history. In what Donoso considered his best work, he grappled with a plethora of subjects such as power dynamics, the exploitation of natives, dictatorships and militarism, and the repeated intervention of foreigners in Latin American affairs. While it was local in its flavors, the subjects and themes it has tackled made it resonate on a global scale. Like the book transcending geopolitical borders, A House in the Country is a literary masterpiece that will transcend time.

“Perhaps these pages merely represents certain nostalgia for the literary materials of what by habit we call reality – particularly generous in support points – when one has chosen the dizzying opposite, call it whatever we will.”

~ José Donoso, A House in the Country
Ratings

83%

Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 
25%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
14%

Prior to 2020, I have never heard of José Donoso. By pure chance, I encountered one of his works through an online bookseller. Driven by sheer curiosity, I acquired the book and made it part of my first-ever excursion into Latin American literature. After Roberto Bolaño, Donoso was the second Chilean writer I read during that stretch; Chilean writers dominated that reading journey. Anyway, I was really excited to read A House in the Country. There was an appeal to it that immediately captured my imagination hence, my interest. It was no easy read. The ease by which Donoso conjured images in the readers’ minds was a credit to the power of his vivid writing. However, the repeated graphic images were tedium. Look past it and the story takes a different shape. How I wish that the book also explored more extensively the psychological profiles and the growth of the characters. Otherwise, A House in the Country was an overall excellent albeit brutal read that makes me look forward to reading more of Donoso’s works.

Book Specs

Author: José Donoso
Translator (from Spanish): David Pritchard and Suzanne Jill Levine
Publisher: Aventura
Publishing Date: April 1984
Number of Pages: 352
Genre: Historical Fiction, Magical Realism

Synopsis

In this tour de force, whose epoch is the end of the nineteenth century, and whose setting is an extravagant summer retreat in an unnamed South American country, the scandalously wealthy Ventura family, its various lackeys and the latently cannibalistic oppressed natives of the region enact a shocking drama of murder, rape, incest, homosexuality and revolution.

About the Author

José Manuel Donoso Yáñez was born on October 5, 1924, in Santiago, Chile. He studied in The Grange School and in Liceo José Victorino Lastarria (José Victorino Lastarria High School). After graduating from high school, Donoso enrolled at the Instituto Pedagógico of the University of Chile. Three years into his education, Donoso was awarded a two-year scholarship by the Doherty Foundation. In 1951, Donoso received a Bachelor of Arts degree at Princeton University.

Post-university, Donoso taught English language and literature at the Instituto Pedagógico of the Catholic University of Santiago. He also held an appointment in the School of Journalism at the University of Chile. Donoso’s first published works were short stories. In 1955, his first book, Veraneo y otros cuentos (Summer Vacation and Other Stories) was published. The collection of short stories won him the 1956 Premio Municipal de Santiago (Municipal Prize of Santiago). Two years later, his first novel, Coronación (Coronation), was published. The English translation of the novel won him the William Faulkner Foundation Prize in 1962. His other works include Este domingo (This Sunday, 1966), El lugar sin límites (The Place Without LimitsHell Has No Limits, 1966), El obsceno pajaro de la noche (The Obscene Bird of Night, 1970), and Casa de campo (A House in the Country, 1978). He has also published short stories and novellas.

For his works, Donoso was awarded the Chilean National Prize for Literature (Premio Nacional de Literatura) in 1990. From 1965 to 1967, he was a Visiting Lecturer in the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. At the end of his lectures, he moved to Spain before returning to settle in Chile in 1982. Donoso, along with Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, and Carlos Fuentes, was considered one of the great Latin American writers of the Boom.

Donoso passed away on December 7, 1996, in Santiago, Chile.