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Privileges of Misery

Turning the upstairs-downstairs genre upside down

The Obscene Bird of Night by José Donoso, translated by Megan McDowell, Hardie St. Martin and Leonard Mades. New Directions, 528 pages. 2024

“Servants accumulate the privileges of misery,” writes Mudito, the narrator of José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night and a servant himself. “The demonstrations of pity, the ridicule, the handouts, the token help, the humiliations they put up with make them powerful.” The privileges of misery: let that sink in.

Stories about servants and masters are titillating because, invariably, they’re about a war waged among people who are forced to live together. Usually, the upstairs-downstairs genre—which encompasses 150 years of literature and media, including recent touchstones like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and the TV show Downton Abbey—is social realism at its purest, with characters acting out the interests of their class position. Servants may cadge a point here and there from their masters, but the rules of the game are clear: privilege is privilege, misery is misery, and the house always wins. So what does it mean, then, to imply that people can find power in humiliation and privilege in misery? Is it possible, as Donoso seems to suggest, that sometimes losing is the best way to win?

The Obscene Bird of Night, a sprawling, five-hundred-page masterpiece of psychedelic horror, is considered among the most mind-bending and formally ambitious books of the Latin American Boom—it makes One Hundred Years of Solitude seem quaintly traditional by comparison. Originally published in 1970, the novel has become an object of cult worship among lovers of dark, puzzle-like stories, who consider it unfairly neglected outside Latin America. But New Directions has marked the Chilean author’s centennial with a revised translation by Megan McDowell that restores twenty pages of text inexplicably excised from the previous translation. In today’s cultural climate, when stories are supposed to empower us to take a definite stance, Donoso’s artful blurring of the real and fanciful, literal and metaphorical, subjective and objective make The Obscene Bird impossible to instrumentalize. To call it a class parable with no discernible lesson may sound like an oxymoron, but the contradiction illuminates a great deal about the nature of power.  

At times in the novel, magic is very much real, and the classes wield it against each other whenever possible.

At the core of every upstairs-downstairs tale is a negotiation of who’s allowed up or down, and when—if at all. Mudito, or “little mute,” as the novel’s deaf-mute narrator is nicknamed, is a rare go-between who can move about freely, though not without risk. He lives in La Casa de Ejercicios Espirituales de Encarnación, a decrepit convent in an unnamed South American city, populated by unwashed orphans and batty old women who may or may not be witches. But he’s often summoned in his capacity as head servant and secretary to La Rinconada, the vast estate owned by the aristocratic senator Jerónimo de Azcoitía, reluctant heir to a land-owning family of “women of dazzling beauty” and “soldiers who’d been generous with their blood.”

When the book opens, the convent is set to be demolished and its chapel deconsecrated. Keeping it open was the pet project of Jerónimo’s wife Inés, who is off in Europe, ostensibly petitioning the Vatican to intervene in its condemnation, leaving Mudito to board up its crumbling windows and corridors. Also at risk of disappearing is the Azcoitía bloodline, since Inés can’t or won’t bear Jerónimo an heir. Creepily loyal yet almost certainly duplicitous, Mudito schemes up a plan to save the convent, the family, and, thus, his way of life.

The target of Mudito’s plan is Iris, a young street urchin who lives at the convent and likes to “play yumyum” with her adult boyfriend, the Giant, in exchange for magazines and trinkets. The Giant hands out flyers for discount mattresses while wearing a papier-mâché head, which Mudito uses to disguise himself and impregnate Iris in the back of an abandoned Ford. Like a deranged puppet master, he then rents the mask out to any man in the neighborhood who wants to have a go, including his boss, Jerónimo. “I won’t have trouble persuading Don Jerónimo that my son, who will be born of Iris Mateluna’s womb, is his, the last Azcoitía,” Mudito schemes. “He’ll become the owner of the Casa. He’ll keep it from being destroyed and it will go on as now, a labyrinth of solitary, decaying walls within which I’ll be able to remain forever.” The convent’s nuns deem the pregnancy miraculous and spend the rest of the book preparing for the virgin birth that will save their sorry flock.

At times in the novel, magic is very much real, and the classes wield it against each other whenever possible. One legend shared around the Casa’s meek hearth tells of Inés de Azcoitía—ancestor of Jerónimo’s wife—who, in a previous century, was said to practice witchcraft with her nursemaid, bringing famine and drought to the region. On moonlit nights, the legend goes, a head with the child’s face would fly over the fields, “trailing a long mane of wheat-colored hair,” going choo-ay, choo-ay, choo-ay, led by a “yellow bitch dog” that was “warty and scrawny” like the nursemaid. The rumor began with the Azcoitías’ tenant farmers, who spread it to the migrant workers, who brought it to every town in the region, turning the peasants against the family. The myth ends with the nursemaid’s father and brothers breaking into her quarters, where they find her lying in bed, “smeared with magic ointments,” half-alive, as if “her soul had taken leave of her body.” They don’t bury the witch—that would poison the land—but float her down the river for many days and nights, using a stick to push her past the mouth of the river into the ocean, thus breaking the curse and exonerating the landowner’s daughter.

Throughout the ages, Azcoitía family servants are forced to make the ultimate sacrifice. In one of many time jumps that tend to splinter into stories within stories, we learn that twentieth-century Inés—Jerónimo’s wife—owes a similar debt to her nursemaid, Peta Ponce, for curing her of a mysterious childhood affliction by magically sucking it out of her belly. “Poor Peta Ponce started to get sick with the same pains I’d been having,” she tells Jerónimo during a flashback to their newlywed years. “Peta’s gone on feeling those pains of mine all her life.” Jerónimo flies into a rage and forbids her from seeing the witch ever again. 

The upstairs-downstairs genre is littered with such sacrifices, going all the way back to its birth. In her book Feminizing the Fetish, critic Emily Apter follows this trope through time to the untranslated 1866 novel Servante d’autrefois by Zulma Carraud. In it, the servant protagonist cures her child mistress of smallpox by piercing the pustules on her face and sucking out the pus. “But soon, she too, poor girl, contracted the contagion’s symptoms,” Carraud writes. “In due course, she became very ill and was very kindly attended to by Mme. Sionnet and her two daughters. But less fortunate than the child, she would wear the disfiguring scars for the rest of her life.”

Where stories like these tend to have clear winners and losers, Obscene Bird is all about losers, who get the last laugh. Peta Ponce may live in agony and squalor, but by sacrificing her body, she manages to force young Inés’s loyalty, alienating her from Jerónimo and setting the patriarch’s ultimate downfall in motion. Meanwhile, the elder Azcoítia, Don Clemente, is controlled by his lifelong cook, María Benítez, “who was frequently caricatured in an insolent political lampoon as the embodiment of the oligarchy, a lady using a huge spoon to stir a cauldron labeled with the country’s name.”

Domination and submission become reversible states as the plot severs its already tenuous ties to reality and characters start to blur together. When Inés returns from abroad, it turns out she wasn’t in Rome arguing with the Vatican to save the Casa, but, in a Cronenbergian twist, was actually in Switzerland getting surgery to become her nursemaid Peta, complete with scars to look like wrinkles. Mudito, meanwhile, begins a process of literal self-effacement, having his limbs and organs surgically transplanted onto Jerónimo so that he may live and procreate. Through this, it becomes clear that Mudito wasn’t always deaf and dumb, and that the book is an internal monologue delivered by a paraplegic trapped inside the cocoon of his mind. Still, even in annihilation, Mudito has his “privileges of misery,” having usurped the Azcoitía bloodline by replacing his master’s penis with his own.

While this may seem counter to the social realist tradition, the upstairs-downstairs genre is rife with the “carnivalesque ritual of parodic doubling,” Apter writes. In Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel, Diary of a Chambermaid, for instance—an ur-text of the genre—a perverted power dynamic blossoms between the titular chambermaid and her master, who is obsessed with her leather boots. “The quest for humiliation, part of the complex, inverted nature of fetishistic pleasure, is encapsulated by Mirbeau in the master’s desire to polish the boots of the maid,” Apter writes. His desire to smell and lick her feet, an olfactory taboo that Freud describes as a proxy obsession with shit, ultimately leads to his demise. He ends up choking to death on the boot, with the shoe “so firmly clenched between his teeth, that after much useless and horrible effort, I was forced to cut through the leather with a razor in order to tear the boot out.”

What makes Obscene Bird so delightfully heretical, then, is that it confounds both the modernist view of power as teleological and the postmodern view of it as performative. That’s because Donoso fills the novel with characters who, though separated by chasms of time or circumstance, are perfectly symmetrical metaphors for one another, like Inés the witch and Inés, Jerónimo’s wife.

It would be overly expedient to read Donoso’s imbunche, or any other figure or episode in The Obscene Bird of Night, as strictly allegorical.

The “yellow bitch,” originally introduced as an avatar for the girl-witch’s nursemaid, reappears throughout the story as an agent of subterfuge whose dispossession is precisely the source of her power. She’s constantly stealing scraps of meat from the four black dogs that guard the Azcoitía estate, who are so busy fighting among each other at feeding time that they don’t notice. “Skin and bones, eager, voracious, capable of eating whatever, even the most disgusting things,” she is a living reminder of the abjection—age, sickness, death—that awaits us all. “She’s content, as if in anticipation of greater pleasures, to sniff the puddles of their urine and poke her nose in the fresh dung,” Donoso writes. And like the master who derives pleasure from the smell of his maid’s feet, Jerónimo’s revulsion toward the yellow bitch is tinged with envy and a desire to debase himself.

When twentieth-century Inés-Peta returns from abroad transformed, she barricades herself in the Casa along with the witches and orphans who live there; to pass the time, they bet their scant rags and baubles away at a board game called Dog Track. Desperate, the street urchin Iris bets her newborn baby, who, by the way, has been replaced by Mudito in a ceremony where the witches “shave my pubic hair, my testicles, they handle my organ without scorn because they know it’s something useless.” Inés-Peta, using a plastic yellow greyhound as her token, bets her dentures and takes it all. “The yellow bitch always wins,” Mudito muses.

In a masterful flourish, this doubling—or tripling, quadrupling—also occurs at the level of form. The book’s central metaphor, drawn from another folk tale told around the fire, is the imbunche: a kidnapped child turned human talisman by witches who sew its eyes, ears, and orifices shut, then break its bones and twist its head so that it walks backward. The imbunche, horrifying as it is, is the thing most people remember about Obscene Bird, and it doesn’t require much of a jump to see that Mudito, immobile and nonverbal, and the Casa, with its boarded-up windows and wings, have both been “imbunchified.” But the aha moment hits when you realize the book is also closing in on itself, as characters are subsumed into each other or stripped of distinguishing features. By its final pages, the novel’s universe—which began as a sprawling ensemble cast—collapses into a single “clear and tangible image,” the critic Adriana Valdés wrote in an untranslated anthology of essays on Donoso from 1975. This is “further proof of the text’s secret order, of its will to take the shape of, among other things, the imbunche.

In 1985, the exiled Chilean author Ariel Dorfman related the imbunche myth in a New York Times op-ed about renewed censorship under Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean people, he wrote, “even if they are not arrested or beaten up by the police or thrown out of work, they are, in a way, already like Imbunches. They are isolated from each other, their means of communicating suppressed, their connections cut off, their senses blocked by fear.”

It’s a compelling metaphor, insofar as it captures the terror of losing one’s ability to hear and be heard. But it would be overly expedient to read Donoso’s imbunche, or any other figure or episode in The Obscene Bird, as strictly allegorical—though surely other reviews will do exactly that. The book is satirical in the way it depicts the conspiracy of Chile’s landowners and the church. It’s no coincidence, for instance, that Jerónimo’s four black guard dogs find their reflection in the four black-clad priests who evict the nuns from their convent when it’s finally condemned. But such a reading would do a disservice to the novel’s more universal insight, which is that the geometry of power can’t be cleanly mapped by sorting people into haves and have-nots. Rather, in the words of Valdés: “Power makes an imbunche out of all who exercise it.”