I recently finished two books by the Chilean novelist Jose Donoso. Both excellent reads. As I've written before, The Obscene Bird of Night is one of my favorite works of magical realism. (It may be my favorite, eclipsing even One Hundred Years of Solitude.)

I'd started A House in the Country maybe a dozen years ago, but couldn't get into it. This time I couldn't put it down. It's a long book, also written in the magical realistic vein. It is supposedly a critique of South American politics (embedded with actual political speeches by Allende and Pinochet), though one not versed in South American politics can't really tell.

On its surface the novel is about a set of families (the Venturas), a fabulously wealthy group who retire to the county in the summer months with their thirty-three cousins, children sixteen years old or younger.

This particular summer the grownups decide to go on a daylong picnic without the children, who will stay behind to be watched over by the servants. (To the children the daylong excursion lasts an entire year.)

The children take over the country house, looting the gold the grownups have hidden in the basement--gold which apparently comprises the family fortune--and pitting themselves against the servants. They discover the husband of one of the families, a half-dead man who has been imprisoned in a tower--apparently for plotting against them--and set him free.

At this point the story turns into a nightmare: there are episodes of incest, collusion, and brutality. It becomes difficult to tell what is real and what is not. Very Obscene-Bird-Of-Night-like. Throughout, the writing is beautiful. Highly recommended.

Curfew, Donoso's final novel, is quite different. No magical realism here; in fact the book is quite realistic. I'd compare the writing style to that of Julio Cortazar (the author of Hopscotch). Cold and savage.

The novel takes place over the course of a single day. Manungo Vera, a famous revolutionary singer, returns to Chile after a long absence. Matilde Neruda, the wife of the famous poet, has just died. Vera meets up with his former revolutionaries, including Judit Torre who has herself recently returned from exile.

Torre is determined to seek revenge for crimes that did not occur to her (though they were threatened), but did to her friends under the dictatorship. Vera accompanies Torre on a journey through the Chilean night (after curfew), when she spies the man she believes committed the atrocities. Will she kill him?

I found this book almost unbearably sad. Vera has given up his political visions. Torre is haunted by nightmares from her past. The country is lost in stagnation after a decade of dictatorial rule. Interestingly, Curfew is not the name Donoso gave his book. In the original Spanish, it is titled La Desesperanza. The Despair.