The Obscene Bird of Night

José Donoso (trans. Leonard Mades, Hardie St. Martin, Megan McDowell)

April 4, 2024 
The following is from Jose Donoso's The Obscene Bird of Night. One of the great Boom writers, Donoso (1924–1996) wrote novels, novellas, short stories, and poetry. He worked stints as a shepherd in Patagonia and a stevedore in Buenos Aires before studying at Princeton and teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop. He was twice a Guggenheim Fellow and won the William Faulkner Foundation Prize as well as Chile’s highest literary honor, the National Literature Prize, among many other awards.

The Chaplaincy founded by the father of the lay sister whose beatification Inés tried to promote in Rome has kept the Casa in the Azcoitía family for a century and a half. In the beginning, it was a modest retreat house for cloistered nuns, having been built by the landowner on his valuable properties in La Chimba, north of the capital, to provide a shelter for his daughter during her lifetime. After her death, the Archbishop could decide what the house would be used for. But legally, if not in practice, the founder’s oldest descendant, who passes on the family name, retains the right to sell, transfer, divide, donate, or pull the place down, as he sees fit. No Azcoitía has ever exercised these rights, thus reaffirming from generation to generation the family’s loyalty to the Church as well as a certain indifference toward something as unproductive as a chaplaincy dating from the end of the eighteenth century. And yet, in drawing up his will, or on his deathbed, no Azcoitía ever fails to make it clear that the Casa, along with his other numerous holdings, is to go to his heir, thus keeping in mind something that, in the final analysis, was really never forgotten: this chaplaincy that was buried away in archives and was the concern only of devout aunts and needy female cousins has linked and related the Azcoitías to God for a very long time, and they cede the Casa to him, in return for his preserving their privileges. In any case, lest they be pestered by what nobody can fathom, don’t let them bother us with talk of nuns and refuges and meddling priests and indigent spinsters and chaplaincies that are outdated in the contemporary world. Let the Monsignor do as he pleases with that nuisance of a retreat house.

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Fortunately we’re a long way from needing the money the sale of the property would bring in. The political plots and the deals, the heroic efforts and sacrifices involved in the politics of the country we’re trying to build here are what absorb us, we can’t waste time on matters that lead nowhere. So the Monsignor says that the daughter of the chaplaincy’s founder performed miracles and deserves beatification? Well, let him worry about it, if he’s interested; mysticism, spiritual things, are his business. Ours is the rough and tumble of politics, down-to-earth things. Let’s not be bothered by the Archbishop with unnecessary consultations about the Casa! The Monsignor knows perfectly well that he’s free to add all the new patios he wants, build all the wings he needs, raise another story, enlarge cloisters and extend galleries and knock down walls if he wants to, as long as he doesn’t expect us to foot the bills.

Left to the random demands and needs of different times, this structure has grown so much and so erratically that no one remembers now, and perhaps only poor Inés is interested in finding out, which section went up first, which the original courts destined to confine the founder’s daughter. The city expanded beyond the river to the north and this bank was settled. Miserable alleys took shape that pushed the little farms, whose tomatoes and melons fed the city, farther and farther out, the expanding side streets of La Chimba turned into avenues named after the defenders of workers’ rights, and as they surrounded and extended beyond the Casa de Ejercicios Espirituales de la Encarnación at La Chimba, they closed it in like a cyst, mute and blind, in a very central section of the city.

When the chaplaincy was founded, no one dreamed a day would come when there wouldn’t be a male to inherit the family name and pass his rights on, for according to the contemporary records that I was careful to include in the dossier Inés took to Rome, the founder had nine sons who could marry and, like everyone else, have many sons and grandsons and greatgrandsons.

But, from way back, the Azcoitías were always riding horses and getting into fights and so, as soon as the wars of independence broke out, they organized mounted revolutionary troops that were so fierce that the Spanish enemy found the country south of the Maule impassable. The Azcoitías were covered with glory. They were on every patriot’s tongue. But their number was cut down considerably.

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Besides, in the century following Independence, the Azcoitía family, as if under a curse, produced mostly females who were beautiful and rich and virtuous, who married young and well, connecting the Azcoitías to all the high society of the time through the distaff side, wielding the power that stems from gathering around the brazier, pulling the slender wires that snare men with their whispering and gossip, with the bedtime kiss that presides over their children’s dreams, with the farewell smile that makes or breaks reputations and traditions. They were women who remained in the background, discreet and silent in their world of sewing and servants and illnesses and visits and novenas, women who kept their eyes lowered over the multi-colored silk threads in the embroidery frame while rough male voices grew heated as the menfolk argued over things that we women neither can nor should understand because we understand only unimportant things like the openwork adorning the border of a low neckline, or whether it’s worthwhile ordering kid gloves from France, or whether the priest at the church at Santo Domingo is a good or a bad preacher. And while the family’s power kept spreading, hidden beneath generations of women with the family blood but incapable of passing on the family name or preserving the family identity, the Azcoitía male line gradually weakened: each generation produced many females, but only one male, except in the case of the clergyman Don Clemente de Azcoitía, the brother of Don Jerónimo’s father. The family name was in danger of dying out and, with it, prebends, rights, properties, power, sinecures, honors, that, split up among cousins with other surnames, would break down the power of that one Azcoitía that was needed in each generation.

Inés and Jerónimo have no children. Their surname will disappear with them, and they know it. Their fortune will be divided among relatives who don’t respect them, institutions that don’t interest them, heirs, charities. The Archbishop was waiting for the Casa, the project for the Children’s Village being ready. Jerónimo could sign it over whenever he felt like it, but he still kept alive the insane hope that his wife’s useless womb would procreate, and he could never bring himself to part with anything, not even the most useless things. That’s why no one could believe it when he suddenly, in his own lifetime, signed the batch of papers turning title to the Casa over to the Archbishop, with Inés still in Rome. Not even Mother Benita believes it, in spite of her enthusiasm over the project. Neither do I, in spite of my fear. But Father Azócar warned us to start thinking of putting the Casa in readiness for an auction of what he called all this mess, before the demolition gets under way once the place is vacated.

This block of walls, scarred where chunks of plaster have been breaking off, has the neutral color of adobe. From the outside, rarely can a glimmer of light be seen in its hundreds of windows covered with dust, or covered because I sealed them with boards nailed over and over again (others are covered even more, because I walled them up on account of their being dangerous). As night approaches in this noisy neighborhood of modest houses that surround us, houses also built of adobe and tiles but painted pink or pale blue or lilac or cream, the lights go on, the barbershop and bakery radios, the television sets in crowded bars, deafen you, while in those places and in the motorcycle repair shop and in the shop where novels and second-hand magazines are bought and sold, and in the corner grocery, the life of the neighborhood, from which we’re excluded, continues its course.

Not only have I been boarding up all the outside windows. I’ve also been closing off unsafe sections of the Casa like the upstairs floor, for instance, ever since Asuncion Morales leaned on the banister and everything collapsed—banister, honeysuckle vine, and Asuncion. There’s no need for so much space now, that’s why we have to cut down. It’s not like before, when the Archbishop subsidized the Casa handsomely and selected it year after year for his retreat, accompanied by uppity clerics, canons, secretaries, deacons and subdeacons, friends, relatives, and sometimes even a very very pious minister of state. Groups of very prominent gentlemen, religious congregations, schools for lilywhite girls, the most distinguished organizations in the country, made reservations months in advance to come and shut themselves off from the world and get close to the Lord again. From the pulpit and the confessional, silver-tongued friars who called for penance and sacrifice, magnanimity and repentance, awakening vocations whose light, sometimes, brightened the pages of History. At times, after dark, crying and moaning could be heard far into the night behind the doors of the hundred cells that form a U around the court with the orange trees: the pain of those who rid themselves of their guilt with nocturnal flagellations, ending up with a lacerated body but a pristine soul, only to surrender it the following morning, after a fervent Communion, to peaceful monastic dreams in the lushest corner of the garden, slumbers that usually culminated in a splendid donation.

Nowadays, of course, no one thinks of coming to the Casa de la Encarnación at La Chimba for spiritual exercises. They have institutions that are flooded with light, heated or cooled, depending on the season, and have picture windows opening on the matchless panorama of the snowy mountain range, that are ready to receive penitents. Why take the chance, then, of being kept awake not by an examination of conscience but the gurgling of broken pipes and the enormous rats scurrying through the lofts? Up until a short time ago, not anymore, girls from some obscure school or members of some second-rate institution would retire to the Casa to have little chats with the Lord and listen to lukewarm sermons inspired by well-known social injustices rather than by the Magnificence and the Wrath and the Love of God, as in the good old days.

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But what can you do? They say nothing’s what it used to be in the good old days. And yet, this place remains the same, and all the uselessness persists. There are only three nuns left now, whereas at one time an entire congregation saw to the comfort of the penitents so that their souls would soar, without material obstacles, to the purest regions of ecstasy. Only three nuns and, of course, the old women who eventually die off and are replaced by other identical old women who also die when the time comes to make room that other old women come to claim because they need it. And the orphan girls who, almost a year ago, were sent here one day, for a couple of weeks . . . Mother Benita, you have more than enough room to lodge them for a couple of weeks while the finishing touches are put on the new wing at the orphanage, you know how long these finishing touches take and how workers nowadays get drunk and don’t show up for work, the five little orphans are so forlorn in this labyrinth, so hungry and bored, with no one to put some kind of order in their lives because Father Azócar keeps promising . . . in another week, Mother Benita, a few more weeks . . . and no one gives them a thought . . . I have the keys and I lock the doors. Ladies recommended by the Archbishop or Inés rent cells from us to store their junk, it’s not worth anything but it’s little things you hate to part with and there’s no space for them in the small houses we have to live in these days. The ladies turn up from time to time, looking for some item or to pay the back rent, yes, we need the money, we’ve come to this, we have to rent cells to pay our most pressing debts because the Archbishop sends very little money. What he sends are truckloads of rubbish more than anything else: broken statues of saints that can’t be thrown out because they’re religious objects and must be treated with respect; mountains of magazines and old newspapers that clutter room after room with dead news items that have turned into food for mice; additions to my library of incomplete encyclopedias, of bound collections of Zig-Zag, Life, La Esfera, of books by authors no one reads anymore, such as Gyp, Concha Espina, Hoyos y Vinent, Carrere, Villaespesa; truckloads of assorted objects such as clocks, burlap sacks for wrapping heaven knows what; pieces of worn-out rugs and hangings; armchairs without a bottom—all the things that fill the endless cells and yet seem to always leave room for more.

Jerónimo has never in his life been inside the Casa. On the other hand, Inés used to visit very often before leaving for Rome —twice, sometimes three times, a week—to ransack her suitcases and junk in the four large cells she took over, as owner of the Casa. The authority with which she rings the bell, not releasing her finger from the button until poor Rita with her incurable bunions runs to open the door for her, bespeaks her privileged position. Sometimes Misiá Raquel came along with her and listened to her patiently without trying to dissuade her as she watched her rummage in the overstuffed drawers, taking out papers and photographs and charts and relics she might be able to use, motioning to me to take down the round basket on top of the wardrobe, to move the roll of hallway carpeting out of the way and reach up for a leather hatbox in which there might be a package with an envelope in it in which, ages ago, she might have put away an important certificate or a photograph, and I’d take down the basket and hand her the hatbox although I knew the certificate wasn’t there, because I know better than she herself what’s in every drawer, basket, suitcase, trunk, wardrobe in her cells . . . And yet, putting together everything she could, looking very elegant, in severe black, Inés left for Rome, with the papers I myself packed into an ordinary plastic bag, and presented her petition to the solemn cardinals, magnificent in their purple robes, who shook their heads, giving her to understand that nothing she had with her would help and that she ought to stay put in her country and make a donation worthy of her rank.

The Azcoitías’ total lack of interest in the Casa goes way back. It’s as if they had a fear of it they didn’t admit even to themselves and preferred to have nothing to do with it, aside from preserving their rights to it as proprietors. They’ve exercised these prerogatives, as far as I know, only when they sent Don Clemente here to die. On that occasion as well they said there was too much unused space in the Casa, adding that he was an Azcoitía after all, and had every right to move in.

When they brought him here, he was a very quiet, sad little old man. Mother Benita used to spoon-feed him like a baby and, between us, we’d undress him and put him to bed. I used to help him with his bodily functions because he gave no warning, and we had to see that he didn’t mess his clothes several times a day. Don Clemente would sit by the window in an easy chair, leaning on his stick, smiling sadly, without saying a word, until little by little, as though a curtain were being drawn very slowly, his smile gradually disappeared, leaving only a set look of sorrow carved on his Azcoitía face. Then we began to notice that this sadness in his blue eyes welled up in tears that one fine day started rolling down his cheeks as if his eyes no longer had the strength to hold them back. He spent weeks at a time sitting in his velvet easy chair, staring quietly at the orange trees in the court, without asking for food or to be cleaned, silent, with the tears running down his face and drenching his cassock the way a baby’s drool soaks his bib. And then he began to whimper like an animal, softly at first, as if something hurt him, that’s all, like a dog you pat when it whimpers and ask, “What’s the matter old man, what’s the matter?” even though you realize the poor brute can’t answer and whimpers over something you can’t understand, and you feel helpless about it because you can’t do anything to ease his suffering so as to quiet his maddening groans. After a time, Don Clemente went from whimpering to moaning, he didn’t sit still anymore in his easy chair and look at the orange trees in the court. He began to get excited in his cell, banging on the door and the windowpanes, until his moans turned into howls and he smashed the glass and almost knocked down the door with his banging, and we had to lock it; or else we stumbled into him when he’d get lost in the corridors, and it wasn’t easy to drag him back to his cell, because of his kicking and screaming with what little voice he seemed to recover, pronouncing syllables that had the sound of fear and night and prison and darkness and deceit—the things, or snatches of things, he screamed when we left him to fall asleep at night and he latched on to our clothes to stop us from leaving. He’d sit up, want to follow us, wouldn’t let us put his nightshirt on him and help him into bed, would fight us off to keep us from undressing him or putting covers on him, not that he wanted his clothes on either; he’d rip his cassocks and the old women would mend them, only to have him tear them again and not let us put them on him. He walked around half nude in his cell and, after we locked the door, stark naked. He’d come to the window naked, begging for help, for someone to come and stay with him, to rescue him from this terrible hospital where they mistreated him. Neither Mother Benita nor the old women entered the naked Don Clemente’s room; I alone did, and he used to chase me out . . . you filthy beggar, get out of here, don’t touch me, if you lay a finger on me I’ll cane you to death . . . and he’d go back to the window with the broken panes, stark naked. The old women and the nuns didn’t dare cross the court with the orange trees anymore. We decided that the best thing was to board up the shutters of his cell. But he always managed to break them down. Until one night, as Don Clemente slept, I walled up his window with bricks and cement, the first window I walled up in the Casa. Then, and this was my idea, I painted it over on the outside, the same color as the wall. And now you can’t tell where the window used to be.

Then, one afternoon, Don Clemente broke down the door to his cell. He came out to roam the hallways, nude, leaning on his stick, and during the rosary, with all the women of the Casa present, he appeared in the presbytery as naked as God cast him into the world, and, with his stick, began smashing everything he could find, as the old women wailed and screamed and fled, scandalized by the naked Don Clemente who desecrated the chapel and their eyes purified by old age, misery, and suffering. Finally, as he lashed out with his stick, the old man stumbled and struck his head. I rushed over to cover him with an alb and I took him to his cell, where, speechless once more, weeping broken-heartedly, he passed away two days later.

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There are old women left who boast that they’ve been in the Casa such a long time that they remember the terrible afternoon when Don Clemente de Azcoitía went into the chapel stark naked. I don’t believe them. Perhaps they say it because they know how easy it is to confuse one old woman with another. In any case, one of the main reasons for their terror, what stops them from going around alone in the corridors when dusk comes, is that Don Clemente, they say, appears completely naked and chases them, and they’re much too old to run. They tell how sometimes he has his hat and his garters on. Or shoes and socks. Or an undershirt that doesn’t reach his belly button. He never wears anything else. Whenever word gets around that Don Clemente’s apparition’s been seen, a pious shudder runs through the Casa, and the old women shut themselves up in their shacks and recite rosary after rosary, Hail Marys and Our Fathers and Hail Holy Queens; I’ve heard them droning on, scared out of their wits, raving, obsessed, saying more and more rosaries because they’re sure that the prayers will succeed in putting clothes on the ghost of poor Don Clemente, whom God’s condemned to wander naked through the Casa to punish him for scandalizing them with the exhibition of his privates and that God will forgive the old cleric only when so many of the women have said so many rosaries that He, in his mercy, will consent to give him back his clothing one piece at a time so that he may enter the Kingdom of Heaven with his clothes on. In the meantime, he has to go on wandering through the Casa to remind the old women to pray for him and make God give him back his shoes, cassock, underpants—yes, his underpants are the most urgent. They say Don Clemente hasn’t appeared without socks and undershirt for some time now. That’s something, at least. It stands to reason, then, that his underpants are the next thing God will give back. Let them be long underwear, the old women pray. And made of flannel, for winter. The hum of their rosaries at dusk fills the Casa like the buzzing of insects busy spinning cloth for those underpants, when Don Clemente, naked, pounces on some old woman at dusk while she’s thinking his thoughts are elsewhere.


From The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso (trans. Leonard Mades, Hardie St. Martin, Megan McDowell). Used with permission of the publisher, New Directions. Translation copyright © 2024 Megan McDowell. 

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