Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Douglas Messerli | "Bodies That Howl and Insult and Grope" (on José Donoso's Hell Has No Limits)

bodies that howl and insult and grope

José Donoso El lugar sin limites (Hell Has No Limits), translated into English by Suzanne Jill Levine (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995/ Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999).

After having watched Arturo Ripstein’s interesting, if not entirely successful, filming of José Donoso’s Hell without Limits, I determined to reread my 1995 republication of the translation of Donoso’s novel, Hell Has No Limits, much of which I brought into my review of the film. I must say the rereading was extremely revelatory, as I realized the marvelous significance and, at times, brilliant insights of Donoso’s 1966 work.

Of course we have come, so we believe, a long ways from the backwoods world of the small Chilean community of Esatción El Olivo, controlled by the local wealthy landowner and wine-grower Don Alejo, who has attempted to develop the community because of a new highway which, as in hundreds of such constructions throughout the world, passed by the village, foiling the Don’s aspirations. What remains is a basically abandoned adobe village, whose major businesses and individuals have abandoned it except for the most stubborn and poverty-stricken folk, including the strong-minded owner of a local whorehouse, Japonesita, the daughter of a strong-willed whore and a weakling drag-queen, La Manuela, whom she had seduced in order to win a bet with Don Alejo, granting her possession of the whorehouse. The mother, Japonesa (so named because of her eyes and smile), has died, leaving the odd pairing of a flamenco-dancing queer and his hard-headed business-oriented daughter, with little sexual talent, to continue the business. Together these two “ridiculous failures,” along with their fat whore Lucy and the elderly Cloty, and inducements of the wine they procure from the dangerously “beneficent” Don, offer the town’s only enjoyments and pleasures—a kind of remnant version of what once existed.
    What is amazing about Donoso’s story is how this failing couple, father and daughter, still can draw the desperate truck drivers such as Pablo and even his brother-in-law Octavio, to their doors. From the beginning, we realize that their insubstantial attraction is both a wonder and a damnation, a condition that can only continue to cast them into the hells of their own lives.
     The essential battle of this fiction is played out between the tired and bedraggled "fag," La Manuela, pretending feminine beauty and talent where little exists, the brutally vibrant but sexually confused Pablo, and the older Don, determined to buy back the town and all its properties to tear it down in order to create more space for his vineyards. Each of these three figures is fatally attracted to one other in a manner that can only end in their destruction. Don Alejo, who sought out Pablo as a son, forcing him to play with his daughter throughout her childhood before realizing that Pablo is also attracted to his daughter’s dolls, is now dying. Pablo, unhappily married to Octavio’s sister, traveling about the countryside in his red truck for which he has failed to pay the installments, and La Manuela, who attracts Pablo through her humor and sexual enticements, are all caught up in a kind of ménage-a-trois which they cannot even identify, let alone admit. Each pretends love, while hating one another enough to destroy them.

      In the end, although the poor, confused clown, La Manuela suffers a brutal beating and death, the others are also doomed to death and destruction, as Donoso brilliantly intertwines their internal realities: they are all aspects of one another, figures of delusion and hate, figures locked into the same uncircumscribed hell. Even the ancillary figures, Japanesita and the other whores, along with the up-and-coming Octavio are trapped in its remnants. But the saddest thing of all is how the central figures truly do actually love and desire one another without being able to properly express it. Don Alejo, as vile as he is, truly has loved his imaginary “son,” Pablo, kissing the “detestable fag" upon the lips, obviously does desire La Manuela, and La Manuela, would love to be even abused through his sexual acts. Despite the kind of open acceptance of this outsider community, however, their love is simply impermissible, a reminder perhaps of how even as we ourselves grow into a culture more embracing of gay and transgender individuals, how terrified we are all still of our emotions and open expressions of love.

Los Angeles, May 25, 2013

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