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Winner, 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Translation
José Donoso was the leading Chilean representative of the Latin American “Boom” of the sixties and seventies that included Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Manuel Puig, among others. Written as a draft in 1973, set aside, and forgotten, The Lizard’s Tale was discovered among Donoso’s papers at Princeton University by his daughter after his death. Edited for publication by critic and poet Julio Ortega, it ...
Winner, 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Translation
José Donoso was the leading Chilean representative of the Latin American “Boom” of the sixties and seventies that included Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Manuel Puig, among others. Written as a draft in 1973, set aside, and forgotten, The Lizard’s Tale was discovered among Donoso’s papers at Princeton University by his daughter after his death. Edited for publication by critic and poet Julio Ortega, it was published posthumously in Spanish under the title Lagartija sin cola in 2007. Suzanne Jill Levine, who knew Donoso and translated two of his earlier works, brings the book to an English-language audience for the first time.
Defeated and hiding in his Barcelona apartment, painter Antonio Muñoz-Roa—clearly Donoso’s alter ego—relates the story of his flight with Luisa, his cousin, lover, and benefactor, after his scandalous desertion from the “Informalist” movement (a witty reference to a contemporary Spanish art movement and possibly an allusion to the Boom as well), in which he had been a member of a certain standing. Frustrated, old, and alone, the artist looks back on his years in the small town of Dors, a place he unsuccessfully tried to rescue from the crushing advance of modernity, and on the decline of his own family, also threatened by the changing times. In Levine’s able hands, Donoso’s clear prose shines through, forming a compact, powerful, and still-relevant meditation on the commercialization of art and the very places we inhabit.
Sometimes I do feel like going out: I feel, sometimes, that what would give me back my capacity to feel pleasure, my potential for excitement and for enthusiasm, would be not so much a date with a woman, or with a friend, but rather, a relationship with the city; I think of those I've known—Madrid, Paris, Buenos Aires, New York, Munich, Rome—but Barcelona is here and I am from here and I'd like to go out for a walk, in the morning, and without fear in the evenings, and rebuild that old relationship.
It's absurd, of course: I no longer belonged to the group by the time their faces started to appear in the magazines and newspapers, when they did that group exhibit which produced shock and scandal and for several years they were admired on all continents. No, I had already abandoned them. My face is not known. But going outside is exposing myself, nonetheless, to someone saying, "That's him, the poor guy," to being pitied by someone who might recognize my face from back then, who might by chance make the connection between my face and those paintings I did, and who will then come up to me and tell me that he feels so bad that I had abandoned painting at the very moment the informalists triumphed, that I was the best of the whole lot, the most talented, that I alone held the school up and that when I risked it all, the whole thing fell apart and became commercial, vulgar, impoverished ... Señor Muñoz-Roa, please, don't run away, I have a painting of yours, it would be such a great honor, you should have never stopped ... And it would be, of course, as if they were skinning me alive and applying salt and hot pepper to my raw naked flesh. It would be horrible to be remembered and told, for example, that they are hoping I will return ... "Hope" is a hellish word, the threshold to horror, to the impossible.
And how is it, then, that Luisa has hope, survives on hope, and that hope doesn't destroy her completely? I don't understand how she doesn't see life as hell, or perhaps it's because she does accept that life is hell that she doesn't fear death. Perhaps I fear death so much—when the sun sets, that threshold, real life after dark, the time of sacrifice, of love, of dreams, of orgies, of bodies—precisely because, though I don't know it, life doesn't seem like hell to me, but rather the opposite. And I sit here waiting, in the artificial light after night has fallen outside, and I sleep as little as I can, and I sleep with all the lights on in the apartment. But I always think of myself, never of her. And of course, I now realize, the good news she is going to bring me tonight is that if she passes this Pap test it means, finally, that she's free of cancer and will not die, will never die, and there will always be light and always day for her. That's the good news she's bringing me.
But, thinking it over clearly, no, that isn't the news. Never, not even in a case like this would she make such a hullabaloo about herself, and not out of generosity—her marriage failed because of her incredible selfishness and cruelty—but because of her vitality, because it really doesn't matter to her and she doesn't consider it "news." It's something else, something having to do with me, though I can't think of anything good having to do with me. After all, if I'm so afraid of death, it's because I already know what it is and how horrible it is because I've committed suicide. Yes, I was brave once, and committed suicide. What else could you call it, then, the shock I produced six years ago when I publicly snubbed everyone, saying in an open letter published in Destino that Spanish informalism was a rip-off that had turned into a dirty business arrangement between the artists, their marchands, and their critics. I swore, also publicly, that I'd never paint or draw again, and here I am doing nothing, with Triples, the big gelded black cat sitting in my lap purring, with the lights in this strange apartment turned on around me, waiting for the hours to slip by, knowing that I could be painting, that perhaps I should be painting, because it would give me pleasure, that pleasure ... Oh how I've left it behind, how difficult it is to touch it in some way and how easy it would be to take again in my hands that blank paper in my desk, and a pencil—or perhaps I would like even more some black ink and a pen, and a brush—and do a fabulous sketch ... Pleasure, do it all for pleasure. But no, hope would rear its head again, giving birth to fear, another fear different from this one I know so well, and don't like. Perhaps it was heroic to criticize myself in public, to declare myself mediocre and impoverished when responding to the angry letters of the other painters and marchands and journalists. Envy, they said, naturally, because Muñoz-Roa is the least brilliant of the whole group, the name that has received the least attention, something I must immediately state was completely incorrect. Envy. I committed suicide out of envy? I withdrew from the circle, hung up the habit, castrated myself, really, out of envy, for fear of competition? I don't think so. Luisa knows it isn't true. In my whole life I never envied anything or anyone. Frankly it was out of disgust. To see informalism—so passionate, so virile, so strong in its first moment—later decline into an unmistakably fake imitation of itself, without any character, until it was just a school that produced easy merchandise to sell here and in other countries, furniture for the pretentious bourgeoisie, some awful thing without engagement, without vitality ... And, of course, history has proved me right, because the lights went down completely, and then Pop and Op arrived, and zap! It showed its greatest relationship as much with life as with intelligence and then left them all exposed, useless, all of them except, maybe, Tàpies—or rather, except perhaps me if I had kept painting, but I didn't want to, I preferred not to, and I committed suicide out of disgust. Disgusted, I was not about to produce lifeless furniture for rich people, lithographs for books, for millionaires: I was a painter, a real painter—though I had never had any academic training and couldn't sketch a portrait, a still life, a cat to save my life ... Yes, I was a painter, I created paintings, produced works of art, not raw material to keep in motion the grand middle class and philistine machinery of the galleries, marchands, exhibitions, vernissages, aficionados, collectors, decorators, that whole inferior race, all the bloodsuckers who ended up prostituting and liquidating those who at one moment were painters but who today, to continue painting, have to deny their concepts and change, and change means not evolving but rather adhering to other ideas and schools they did not invent as we invented informalism, and lie, falsify in order to be able to sell names ... It's been six years since I've seen my name in print anywhere, which gives me pleasure. First my grand public act of self-criticism, then, for a couple of months, polemical letters, protests, insults, my name and my photo everywhere, for good of for bad, and generally more for bad, and then total silence, hunkering down in the attic, erasing oneself as a public figure to grow as a private individual brewing in the broth of my confronted fears, and thus recovering myself without turning my back on my essence, thus resurrecting myself from everything, even the insults of the friends I lost. Perhaps remembering—or rather feeling myself marked forever by what I did then and living out its harsh consequences in this solitude and this poverty and this disconnected present—is my great, my good consolation: I did something, although it meant killing a whole half of myself, which was probably a good thing.
The Dors experience, which began immediately after that, of course led me to fool myself into thinking this wasn't a partial suicide whose wound still hurts, a mutilation, so that at the beginning I didn't realize I had actually lost a whole part of my being—as when the lizard, faced with terror and a threat, willingly sheds its tail. Dors made me believe for the first time that within my reach was the possibility of a full life. Luisa was with me all the time, night and day, during that whole bitter time which followed my public act of self-criticism, my dismissal of the others' values, and my demand that they also criticize themselves publicly. One night, leaving a movie theater with Luisa and Alberto Mármol, her then lover, some young painters attacked me, cursing and throwing stones from the other side of the street. Luisa did not leave my side, nor did Alberto, but it didn't matter. Like all Luisa's lovers he was an appendage, one of her ephemeral objects. Very soon after this Luisa needed an operation and they removed her left breast—we are, the two of us, mutilated beings. This unites us in a kind of conspiracy and so I confined myself indoors with her, to watch over her day and night as she had watched over me, because her daughter didn't want to have anything to do with her, as she was married, living a very bourgeois life in Madrid, and hated everything her mother represented. Also, Luisa felt somewhat humiliated by the operation: losing one of her beautiful breasts was like losing part of her femininity—no longer Luisa de Noyà, powerful, olive-skinned, gypsy-like, who at forty, in a Dior miniskirt with a branch of basil behind her ear, could drive any guy crazy, any man, dancing with him in any nightclub in Cadaqués or Marbella. Now, she said, all that was over. It was necessary to find another existence, which I too had to find, and no one, I had to clearly understand—hence one reason why I alone took care of her and only I knew of her operation—that no one should know about her shame so that they wouldn't feel sorry for her. By the time she had convalesced "the sound and the fury signifying nothing" that raged around me and the scandal I had staged had already passed. People no longer recognized me in the café or on the street. Of did they pretend not to recognize me? Oh well, what does it matter? I felt so alone that I dialed the phone number of Ramón and Raimunda Roig as if to take the temperature of what they—so affectionate at one time and such admirers of my work, and those they saw, who had been my world in Barcelona—were feeling now with respect to me. I dialed the number, listened two seconds, and hung up. No, I couldn't expose myself to cheap shots like that. I had to do something, not close down but open up. And though I knew the tide against me was not unanimous in its direction, that perhaps I had found experts that even congratulated me for my attitude, I preferred to isolate myself. I told Luisa:
"I'd like to travel."
"Let's do it."
"You're not too weak?"
"I'm in great shape."
"I'm very poor, as you already know."
"I don't care, I'll invite you."
"But not a complicated trip, with languages I don't understand."
"No, a trip near here ... long ... leisurely."
"Well, a slow trip, to be able to look at things."
We packed our bags and left in Luisa's car for the coast heading south, toward Tarragona. Without planning it, both Luisa and I had envisioned lonely beaches in sleepy fishing villages where we could take long walks. But as we got closer to the south we realized that our fantasy was only a memory of the Mediterranean coast ten or fifteen years ago, not the base commercialization of tourism which brings in foreign currency but destroys all identity. Total prostitution: billboards announcing hotels obliterated the landscape; campgrounds with Dutch and French names followed one after the other; if the tourists came in summer, and then left with the horribly vulgar and superfluous equipment which has been built to shelter them, well, perhaps things wouldn't be so bad; but this commercial assault of the most vulgar taste on the landscape, on the natural environment, which the natives think signifies "progress," well, it was disgusting, simply repulsive. The bad quality of the food, the sculpture parks, the invasion of the masses from the north which the natives, even the middle class, which should have some discrimination, take as an aesthetic, moral, and intellectual model ... The water pollution, everything, all of it, as we got farther south got worse, so bad, that we no longer spoke about ourselves, our problems and our struggles and our suffering and our fears, but about that, about what we were seeing—the insult of not seeing a single bull, except the Osborne bull, and the awful possibility that a child, for example, would see an Osborne bull, aggressively disfiguring the shape of every hill, before knowing what a real bull looked like. We asked one of the friendly waiters serving us in some restaurant:
"Where are you from?"
"From Horta de San Juan."
"You know it?"
"No, but Picasso lived there."
"I don't know that man."
"And you like this?"
"Yes, a lot."
Excerpted from the lizard's tale by José Donoso Copyright © 2007 by heirs of José Donoso. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Lizard's Tale