By Ted Gioia

Let me share three stories.

The first tells of a terrible drought that devastates the countryside
in a South American country.   The peasants struggle to survive
in the face of bad harvests, dying animals, and a host of other
obstacles that pervade their apparently cursed lives.  Rumors
soon circulate about strange activities
on the estate of a wealthy landowner,
whose daughter and her nursemaid
are suspected of practicing witchcraft,
and thus bringing this endless blight
upon the region.  The landowner is
troubled by these tales, and one
evening he storms into his daughter's
bedroom, followed by his nine sons,
but what he sees shocks him so
deeply that he holds up his cloak to
block anyone else from witnessing
the troubling scene.  The father hands
over the nursemaid to the sons, who
kill the dangerous witch, and tie her
body to a log, sending it down the
river to the sea, where it will disappear
into the deep waters and remove the
curse from countryside.  The landowner's daughter is sent to
a convent, where her dark past and unholy connection to infernal
powers will be hidden from view and eventually forgotten.

In the second version of the story, the landowner's daughter is
not a witch, but a saint.  The father travels from his estate south
of the Maule River to deliver the pious young lady to the convent
of the Capuchin cloistered nuns, and he donates a large sum of
money to establish a chaplaincy in his family’s honor.  The girl
dies at a young age in an aura of sanctity, but before her death
she astonishes the nuns by anticipating an earthquake that
destroys every other building in the area.  The convent is saved
by landowner's daughter, who kneels down amidst the tremors,
stretches out her hands and offers a prayerful entreaty to the
divine presence.   The nunnery is saved from ruin, even as so
many others are levelled to the ground, and word soon begins
to spread throughout the country, even to the capital, that the
daughter of one of the nation's wealthiest families possess an
awe-inspiring sanctity and has been blessed by the Lord with
miraculous powers.

In the third version of the story, the young lady is neither witch nor
saint. She is  simply a guileless landowner's daughter who falls
in love with a country boy.  She enters into a clandestine romance
with the young man, assisted by her nursemaid, who is incapable
of refusing any of the girl’s wishes, no matter how sinful or
dangerous.  In this telling of the tale, the father again storms into
his daughter’s room, and blocks the ignoble scene from view
with his outspread cloak—but the shocking vision is now the sight
of the girl in the agonies of childbirth.  In this version, he still sends
the young lady to a convent—but merely to avoid scandal.  Here
she is forced to take the veil and expiate her transgression.  
Hiding his disgrace behind a mask of piety, the father donates a
large sum to establish a chaplaincy, and never tells anyone—
including his nine sons—the true story of his daughter's defilement
of the family's honor.  

Each of these stories is related during the course of José
Donoso’s novel
The Obscene Bird of Night.  And which one is
the true story?  In the topsy-turvy world presented in these pages,
all of them are true.  Or perhaps none of them.   

Those who apply the standards of strict realism to works of fiction
will insist that only one valid sequence of events can exist within
the structure of any story.  From this perspective, a novel is no
different from a work of non-fiction, and must avoid contradiction
and incompatible plots at all costs.  Yet even staunch realists are
familiar with other styles of narrative in which such restrictions do
not apply.  In the world of myth and folklore, different versions of a
story co-exist, each with its own validity and signification.  In the
modern day, rumor and gossip operate within a similar realm of
ambiguity and multiplicity.  On closer examination, even non-
fiction must embrace paradox and contradiction if it aspires to
scrupulosity.  No honest historian could, for example, write an
account of JFK's assassination without addressing the various
conflicting narratives in which that event figures.  You don’t need
to be a conspiracy theorist to cast doubt on simple, linear
interpretations of reality—you simply have to probe beneath the
surface and listen to the background noise.   

That background noise soon overwhelms Donoso’s novel.  Every
fact here is provisional, and each succeeding account likely to
get swept aside by the next interpretation of events.  Even the
chief protagonist mutates repeatedly during the course of the
book.  At some points, we know him as Humberto Peñaloza, an
aspiring author who hopes to overcome his obscure origins and
gain some renown for his hitherto humble family name.  At other
points, he is Mudito the deaf-mute, a caretaker at the Casa de
Ejercicios Espirituales de la Encarnacion, a home for nuns,
orphans and retired servants.  In other instances, he is a baby,
or an old woman.  During one interlude in the book, he wears a
large papier-mâché head, which makes him look like a giant—a
fitting symbol of this whole book, in which masks are inevitably
mistaken for the true features they hide.  

Peñaloza, in his many guises, serves as narrator for most of the
novel.  But other first person voices regularly emerge during the
course of this stream-of-consciousness—sometimes shifting
multiple times within a single paragraph or even a single sen-
tence.  Such is the ambiguity of this book that the reader is often
forced to puzzle over these disjunctions, unsure whether the
narrative voice has changed or the narrator himself.  When the
point-of-view moves from Mudito to a stray dog, we are always
left with the possibility that Mudito has turned into a canine—and,
indeed, the metamorphosis of human into animal is a recurring
element of the plot.  

Peñaloza's life is intertwined at many levels with the Azcoitía
family, whose wealth and distinction is the mirror image of his
own poverty and obscurity. Don Jerónimo, paterfamilias of this
illustrious clan, is left without a male heir, and his wife has
abandoned him, focusing her energies on securing the
beatification of Inés de Azcoitía, a long dead relative, from
the cardinals in Rome.  Unable to grant her husband a son, she
has decided that the family’s lasting renown can only come from
elevating an Azcoitía to the ranks of the venerated and saintly.  

But in Donoso's novel, each plot has its own alternative, and in a
different, co-existing version of Azcoitía's story, Don Jerónimo
does have a son, but he is monstrous and deformed.  The family
patriarch sends him off to a remote part of the country, where the
boy can be raised away from the prying looks of friends and
strangers.  Here the family heir is surrounded by others equally
disfigured, in a confined setting where he will never feel the shame
of being an outsider.  

Donoso's novel puzzles and provokes by turns. The prose never
actually falls into incomprehensibility—the reader can grasp
each scene in its particularity; but confusion reigns whenever
the different incidents and chronologies are juxtaposed and
compared.  Nothing fits together here, or stays the same for
more than a few pages.  Certainly one can complain about the
author's effrontery in presenting such a stubbornly fractured
narrative, but this provocation is clearly intended. Donoso came
of age during an era in which all of South America, but especially
his native Chile, was a playground of competing ideologies and
interpretations, where reality was not a static set of given facts, but
a battleground over which various interests and forces fought, and
one person's truth was another's distortion. In
The Obscene Bird
of Night
, Donoso captures this disturbing sense of mutability.   

Other works of Latin American magical realism—by authors such
Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Amado, Miguel Ángel Asturias,
Laura Esquivel or fellow Chilean Isabel Allende—may be more
fanciful or enchanting, but Donoso prefers to evoke a darker
magic.  More than these other storytellers, he comprehends the
threatening side of the phantasmagorical, the terror and confusion
that disorient us when things prove much different from what they
seem.  Yes, this is an unsettling novel to read, and probably was
an unsettling book to write. Long before you finish it, you may be
looking for an escape.

In its final pages, this lack of exits takes on physical, even
physiological, form.  Donoso draws on the folklore figure of the
imbunche, a child stolen by witches, who sew up all of the
infant's orifices. Humberto Peñaloza, in his final manifestation,
becomes the imbunche, and now Mudito is bereft of all senses—
mute, deaf, blind, even unable to take in a breath of fresh air. This
grotesque turn of events serves as an all too fitting conclusion to a
tale that started as a historical novel and now has morphed into a
bizarre horror tale.  You will be left with many questions, and
conflicting interpretations, but on one matter you will be absolutely
clear:  few authors have gone as far as Donoso in capturing the
sense of claustrophobia and turning it into a literary style.  
The Obscene Bird of Night
by José Donoso
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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