This Side of Paradise: José Donoso at Princeton
I’ve never asked why, but we call my grandmother, my maternal grandmother, “Nana”. Her real name is María Angélica, but we’ve always said it like that: “Nana”, with a capital “N”. I’m telling you this so I can recount an anecdote that has to do with José Donoso—or with the way that I read Donoso.
A long time ago, a very long time, my mother’s family had a house in Las Cruces. And once, speaking with Nana, I can’t remember the topic, she told me about her summer holidays when she was young. To tell the truth, I can’t remember if it was Las Cruces or Cartagena, but that’s not important. At the time Chile wasn’t so different from how it is now: the élites got together in a seaside town and their kids hung out with each other. Nana doesn’t tell me much. José Donoso was part of that scene. And she was younger, but she still remembers him. He talked a lot, he looked slick in his bathing suit and he was the son of the doctor, José Donoso Henríquez. And that’s it. Every time I’ve tried to get more information out of her, she repeats what I’ve just said or returns to an anecdote I’ve heard a million times by now. It turns out that, for a large part of her childhood and youth, Nana was fat. Really fat. And so she spent her adolescence feeling embarrassed, traumatized and afflicted by shyness. During vacations, for example, she didn’t dare to go swimming and would take shelter under a parasol with layers of clothing over her body, as Donoso and the other youths, in all likelihood, were taking a dip.
A long time afterward, at the start of the ’90s, when Donoso was Donoso, in the time of Galvarino Gallardo’s workshops and all the rest, Nana came up to talk to him at a book fair. By then my grandmother had lost a lot of weight. She was skinny. In fact in all the photos I’ve seen of her, she looks skinny, as if her fatness were a lie she used to try and convince me not to eat so much junk food when I was a kid (that’s another story). But this happened at Estación Mapocho. Let’s imagine the situation: José Donoso at the Planeta stand, a line not too long, but even so a good number of people behind her, as Nana approaches with her copy of A House in the Country. Donoso, it’s well known, liked to talk with people at book fairs, ask questions, make comments, laugh, etc., so I imagine that, just as always, on that occasion he took his time with every person. Until my grandmother’s turn came.
“María Angélica!” said Donoso, as soon as he saw her.
“Pepe,” my grandmother answered, “do you remember me? I thought I’d have to remind you who I am.”
“But of course I remember you, woman. How could I forget you, the one who was so fat when we were young?”
Donoso’s comment didn’t help much. Just the opposite. His words reawakened the trauma of Nana’s younger years. And that copy of A House in the Country—now somewhere in my library in Santiago—has no signature, no dedication.
Not long after those summers, in 1949, after almost three years studying to be a teacher at the University of Chile—unhappy years, it seems—José Donoso traveled to the United States to finish his undergraduate degree at Princeton University. According to the university system of his new country, first year students are freshmen, second year students are sophomores, next come juniors and finally seniors. Donoso, at 25 years old, was a junior, an oddity compared to his classmates: most of them hadn’t reached 21. And that’s not all: the Chilean writer had already had certain life experiences that amazed the other students—the majority of whom had never even left the United States—such as his work as a sheep farmer in Magallanes or his trip around Argentina when he met Jorge Luis Borges.
It’s inevitable to link Donoso to some of the themes in his work (which he himself established, and to which he laid claim) such as old mansions, dying grandmothers, aristocratic excesses, monstrosities and the decadence of 19th century Chile. What’s unusual is to talk about a young Donoso. Almost no one talks about or delves into the life of the Donoso in formation, the frequent traveler, the one who tried to find himself at Princeton University. Maybe because I’ve heard that family anecdote so many times, that is, I’ve imagined a Donoso in a bathing suit (and a fat Nana) so often, it’s what first appears in my head when I open any of his books. Or maybe it’s because my experience isn’t distorted by required school readings (I went to a Waldorf school and was saved from reading and studying his work by obligation). Whatever the case, it’s on the basis of this anecdote that, despite the way his books seem to go against the idea, I imagine a young Donoso. The Donoso who at twenty-something hitchhiked around the south of the United States and Mexico (a couple of years before Kerouac and company). Or the one who called his second book of stories The Charleston, an energetic title that shows how in tune he was with Francis Scott Fitzgerald, the North American author of This Side of Paradise, a bildungsroman about a young man with literary aspirations who studies at Princeton: “I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.”
Over sixty years later, Princeton seems to have frozen. Not just because of the harsh winter of the northern hemisphere that doesn’t want to leave, but also because its buildings don’t appear to have changed for centuries. Walking around Princeton is like walking around Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s school. Here students don’t use wands, but maybe because of the Ivy League spirit, or because all things are snow-covered and there are smoking chimneys, everyone looks like young wizards. It’s a typical scene in this part of the United States, where it forever seems to be autumn or the season to celebrate Christmas. Donoso himself, in an article published in El Sol de Mexico (“Brief Encounters with Fame”), says something similar when he remembers the atmosphere of the university in winter: “Neogothic buildings covered in snow. Jugs of cider we left out to cool on our windowsills, so in the afternoon light they looked like amber globules hanging from our schools’ façades. Squirrels. Boys muffled in very long scarves with black and orange stripes, moving through the landscape whose whiteness absorbed all sounds.”
It was thanks to a scholarship from the Doherty Foundation that Donoso was able to enter Princeton. Many Chilean painters and visual artists had or would obtain the scholarship, such as Carlos Faz, Pablo Burchard Aguayo and Nemesio Antúnez. But even if the official version is that Donoso left for the United States thanks to money from the Doherty Foundation, once in Princeton the writer took it upon himself to circulate a different rumor. As Robert Keeley, one of his classmates and friends, recalls in MSS Revisited, a small book he self-published about his memories of those two years: “He said that he was a distinguished student at a university in Santiago, and that he had won the scholarship of a millionaire lady who had married a prominent Chilean. The scholarship consisted of two years of study at any university in the United States, which brought José to Princeton as junior in the fall of 1949, just before he turned 25.”
Beyond the possible exaggerations, what’s true is that, according to Donoso himself, he received some economic help from Inés “Momo” del Río, the famous patroness and protector of a wide range of Chilean artists and literati. The funny thing is that through gestures like these, one can see how Donoso believed that the best way to turn into a writer was to weave a myth around himself. From his first day of classes, Donoso presented himself as an eccentric character, helped out by the fact he was older, came from a country as far away and unknown as Chile, and, despite his impeccable command of English (the work of student years at the Grange School), had an unusual accent. Donoso referred to his father by saying he was a doctor. He elaborated a bit more on his mother: “His mother was a formidable woman who at one time either planned to run for mayor of Santiago or actually did so. When he told me about this eccentric gesture, José attributed it to ‘menopause’,” writes Keeley, who says he heard Donoso on various occasions reminisce about his months in Magallanes tending sheep and reading and rereading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (in French). “I learned to appreciate all of José’s outlandish stories, though never believing them in their entirety.”
José Donoso lived in a room at Edwards Hall, a dormitory for students built in 1879 with a reputation for being a dark, unconventional place. Before going into Princeton’s library and shutting myself away for a whole day to go over papers and manuscripts, I stop at this building. Without student identification, one isn’t allowed entrance, so I wait for someone to come out so that I can slip through. Once inside, I climb the staircase to the South Wing, Room 24, where Donoso and Keeley met. A literary friendship began here. The Chilean and the American had both chosen Literature as their major, but at heart they wanted to be writers. For a time they even planned to write a novel together about the dormitory where they lived, though it would never become a reality. The title would be Edwards Hall and the idea was to construct a fresh narrative about the people who came and went from the dorm, a series of sketches about “the vast array of eccentrics, neurotics and primitives who inhabited the building”.
What did flourish was MSS, the literary magazine where Donoso made his debut as a writer—in English.
At the time, there were several literary magazines at Princeton. The most famous was the Nassau Literary Magazine, which had a long history behind it. MSS, in contrast, had existed for just a short time, a single issue. Robert Keeley was offered a position as editor of the magazine. The first thing he did was to make Donoso his right-hand man, in charge of thinking over possible changes and the writers they’d like to publish. Soon, however, they had to interrupt their plans: the semester was over, and most students went home for the summer. Keeley spent June, July and part of August at Martha’s Vineyard, an island on the East Coast. Donoso left for Mexico, following his globetrotting spirit. On his return, a few months later, as he crossed the border in Texas, he realized he’d forgotten all of his documents in his room at Edwards Hall. He nearly didn’t make it back to Princeton, and in fact passed himself off as a United States citizen to avoid more serious problems such as having his visa revoked and being ordered back to Chile.
Back at the university, Keeley was surprised to see Donoso set up with a table outside the gym, offering subscriptions. The plan was to gather funds for the magazine before the second issue was edited. The goal was to sell 400 subscriptions. Since the take from the gym was underwhelming, they decided to go door-to-door at the buildings where students and professors lived. Donoso, as it turned out, was the better seller. Along with his accent and striking appearance, the Chilean writer came up a foolproof method of persuasion: he introduced himself as a poor student from a remote country, Chile. He also assured potential subscribers that the writers published by MSS would become famous. Keeley: “But the most effective element of his salesmanship was his persistence, his ability to convince wary upperclassmen that they would be making a serious mistake if they rebuffed him. He would invite himself into the room, take any vacant seat, and give the impression that he couldn’t be made to leave until someone in residence had bought him off. One dollar is not a large amount of blackmail to pay to buy some peace and quiet. By himself José sold more than 200 subscriptions, more than all the other MSS members combined. We reached a total of 350 and decided to proceed with the first issue.”
There’s something frontiersman-like in the way Donoso uses English. He doesn’t write American English, but something closer to the fin-de-siècle English tradition. It isn’t strange: these were years of literary discoveries. At Princeton Donoso read Henry James in depth, something that can be perceived in the prose of his two first stories, with their constant use of the comma and subclauses, as well as their focus on the authoritative role of parents and the physical space of houses.
Dated November 1950 in the second issue of MSS, “The Blue Woman” is the first of the two stories that Donoso published at Princeton. It tells the story of Myra, a fragile woman in her forties who works at an advertising agency in New York. Without partner or family, with just a couple of friends who visit her every so often, Myra spends her weekends in a state of Bovarysme: she frequently attends double bills at the cinema to escape reality. Then, bored with her life and her appearance, she decides to operate on her nose. Her changed face, one night she meets a couple of strangers in a bar, starts to terrify her; in different mirrors and windows she sees a blue woman whose face recalls her previous one.
The fact that Donoso’s first published story had a woman protagonist is crucial. “José was enamored of female novelists. He planned to write his senior thesis on Jane Austen,” writes Keeley. Before Austen, true, Donoso played with the idea of researching the work of Virginia Woolf, another of his favorite writers and someone from whom, as he himself recognized in later interviews, he borrowed narrative techniques such as inner monologue. But when he asked permission to work on Woolf, his advisor categorically rejected the idea: “No serious critical corpus about her work exists,” Donoso was told. In the end, the Chilean author wrote about Jane Austen (The Elegance of Mind of Jane Austen: An Interpretation of Her Novels Through the Attitudes of Heroines).
Princeton, like most college towns in the United States, is a finite territory. It’s possible to walk around the commercial streets in a single afternoon and already feel a touristic déjà vu. I begin at the official university shop, which sells Princeton merchandise, where I see several copies of This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, books by Einstein, who taught here, and a volume that celebrates the famous alumni who have passed through Princeton: Donoso doesn’t appear. A couple blocks away is Labyrinth Books, the best bookstore in the whole area. I go to “D” and find only a few books by Donoso, all translations into English: Curfew, The Garden Next Door and Taratuta and Still Life with Pipe: Two Novellas. I open the books and see they are old, with stamps that have begun to fade away, likely from the collections of professors. On the back covers there are blurbs by John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Coover.
A block away I come across Witherspoon Street, where according to Keeley, they washed clothes: “One day I noticed that there was a large pile of shirts in a corner of José’s room, a couple of dozen soiled dress shirts. Whenever he needed a clean shirt José would go to the University Store and buy a new one. After telling him this was wasteful and stupid, I introduced him to my laundry lady, an Italian immigrant who lived on a side street off Witherspoon Street.”
A myth has been created around Donoso’s papers and manuscripts. Years ago, when the collection was opened to the general public, several Chilean magazines and newspapers published articles emphasizing his homosexuality (or bisexuality). Half of Donoso’s papers are today at Iowa, where he taught creative writing, and the rest are at this university. I spend two days looking for information about his relationship with Princeton; letters to friends he met here, notes and other texts. But along the way I entertain myself and get sidetracked. To delve into the personal life of Donoso is to delve into the history of recent Latin American literature. The obvious thing would be to look for his correspondence with other authors of the Boom: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes and Cortázar. They are his friends and colleagues in the years that he and his wife, María Pilar Serrano, lived in Spain, mostly Barcelona, where he wrote many of his most famous works. Instead of doing this, however, I search for links with the generations that came after him.
I uncover letters from Alberto Fuguet and Edmundo Paz Soldán, two authors of the literary movement (or anthology) “McOndo”, in which magic realism is supplanted by modern urban realism. Both of them, however, are close to Donoso’s work and sensibility. In 1994 Fuguet wrote from Iowa, where he was a participant in the famous International Workshop: “Everyone has the best memories of you. In that sense, just to say I was a student of yours raises my status. Logically, I take advantage of it, although I know I don’t deserve it.” Paz Soldan met Donoso in Buenos Aires, in the late ’80s, at a book fair. And shortly after that encounter the Bolivian writer settled in Alabama, where he went to college. He wrote: “I remember the talks I had with you, your advice, and I know those meetings, however small they may have been, mark out a fundamental path in my literary life, that is, my life.”
I also find a letter from César Aira in which the Argentine writer complains about a canceled visit to Buenos Aires: “What a tremendous letdown that you aren’t coming to the Book Fair! I’d built up the illusion of seeing you, and as I take my illusions so seriously, I really did see you in advance, and we were talking... When they told me you wouldn’t come, it was like they’d taken you away from me, and my blood boiled. I don’t adapt well to things like this.”
Likewise a message came from the star NYU professor Diamela Eltit, who in ’92 was cultural attaché in Mexico and complained about the local literary world: “I had to recover from the impact of having been in Chile and now seeing this: mirror mirror on the wall, the one who sells is prettiest of all. Oh well, ni modo as they say in Mexico—naïve and disoriented, I stayed off the catwalk.”
And I come upon several very long letters from an inspired Isabel Allende, long before The House of the Spirits. “I always thought famous people lived surrounded by respectful admirers, preparing lectures or isolated in the silence and solitude of their desk,” she writes in 1971, a year after Donoso’s most acclaimed novel, The Obscene Bird of Night, was published. “Your letter, however, is that of a calm and simple man, who looks a lot, speaks little, listens and exists honestly in a lovely part of Spain, where no one talks about politics and where there’s no smog. In short: something very near Paradise.”
I linger over a folder that contains the originals of the two stories published in MSS, “The Blue Woman” and “The Poisoned Pastries”. There are also two translations of them, although they don’t seem to have been published. The translators are María and Hugo Achar, the latter a Uruguayan academic. In the same folder is the only reprint, to date, of these stories (in Chasqui, the magazine of Latin American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison). The stories thus remain unpublished in Spanish. Apparently Donoso never felt very comfortable with them. In a note at the end of one of the stories, in fact, a commentary to this effect can be read in a handwriting barely legible: “Further deepen the harmony of the prose.”
Along with the papers, there’s a folder full of photos. Lots of photos. I begin with those of the Boom: Donoso with Fuentes, Vargas Llosa and García Márquez in different situations, all smiling and hugging. I find five images from his time as a student at Princeton. In one he is sitting on the ledge of a window, with the haircut that this university made famous (the Princeton cut), white shirt, dark tie, no shoes and arms crossed around his knees. He looks at the camera, but his glasses—thick even then—don’t let his eyes be seen. The back of the photo says: Princeton 1949. Another image from the same series shows him with a pipe, in a university hall, also barefoot. Donoso looks more like a character from a story by John Cheever than a future writer of stately mansions. There’s one more picture of Donoso in those years, sitting in a white T-shirt with a safari hat. The place could well be Mexico, a small dusty town with a dry climate. And, at the end, there’s a photo of a photo. It’s of José Donoso and his mother, Alicia Yáñez. Date: 1926. Donoso has blond hair in a bowl cut (the “Prince Valiant” style). He looks like a girl. He’s holding his mother’s hand, as she, smiling, looks at him.
Fabian Casas had it right: “Couples and literary magazines nearly always last two issues.” In the time Donoso was at Princeton, MSS published three. Two featured stories by the Chilean writer. “The Poisoned Pastries” was included in the May edition, 1951. It starts with a man remembering his childhood and the surrealist dreams he had of his father (a recurring dream in which the narrator swells up like a gigantic pink balloon until he bursts, and a coin fall out of him on the pavement). Following this is the appearance of a strange lady who offers some pastries to the boy and his sister, who refuse to try them. Several elements offer hints about how the narrative of Donoso will move forward, such as the feverishly religious and ill grandmother whom the narrator and his sister must visit every night, and the presence (and absence) of parents. Even at this initial stage, Donoso is Donosian. According to Keeley, the Chilean writer said he’d been inspired by an episode from his childhood.
“It is a well-planned story, but the writer had difficulty developing it, the classic difficulty of intensifying an anecdote and taking control of that tone of reminiscence in which the characters are introduced. It is difficult to evoke the revolting and pathetic woman,” wrote Robert Fitzgerald, a professor at the university, when reviewing the issue of MSS for the Princeton newspaper. The criticism didn’t hurt Donoso much: “At least he didn’t say I was imitating another writer,” he told Keeley.
The author of Coronation was never an exemplary pupil. Neither at school, nor at the teaching institute, and even less so at Princeton (“I turned out to be an appalling student”). He was always less interested in studying than in living. Or reading. Now, to top it off, he had within his grasp all the authors he’d always wanted to read, in their original language. His time at Princeton helped him to confirm he was an inconsistent student, and a born writer. In one of the files at Princeton, an autobiography, Donoso recalls the following:
My supervisor asked about my poor grades. I told him I was in love. He protested that I must not be the only Princetonian in love. When I answered his protest with a “but sir, please understand, I am Latino” he made me leave, no doubt so he could laugh.
In any case, the college system in the United States gave a great deal of freedom to its students. Many exams and evaluations were fairly independent. In January 1951, starting his final semester at Princeton, Donoso wrote to “Momo”:
I’m more interested in painting every day. At the moment I’m taking the most marvelous course in the world, called “The Northern Renaissance”. Three classes and a discussion every week. The final exam is the following: we’re given the quotation by Eckhardt “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”, and each can do with it whatever he truly likes. One friend of mine wrote just a sonnet; another, a story of forty-thousand pages; Waring Bidle made a film; John Elliot painted a modern triptych; Bob Belknap wrote something he called ‘Interplanetary Pastoral’, totally great and insane; Tony Devereux, a dialogue between himself and Luther; Art Windels, a dialogue between three white billiards balls, etc. I wrote something very long called “The Private Collection of J. M. Donoso”, in which I create with words a group of ten imaginary paintings by artists of the Renaissance.
And afterward, he tells of his project’s reception in class:
It was a roaring success, since in English prose style I tried to imitate the style of painting, and the ideas were always mine, not those of the painter; I tried to make every story—really a series of ten mini-stories, each one more or less four pages long—into something timeless.
The end of Donoso’s days at Princeton coincided with the marriage of his friend Robert Keeley. As soon as the last day of class ended, the Chilean writer took a train to New York. His plan was to absorb the greatest number of museums and bookstores possible, or simply to walk around the avenues and parks.
“Donoso arrived late, just in time for the bridal dinner, having traveled by bus from New York City,” writes Keeley about the day of the marriage and appearance of Donoso. “He brought the bride a gift in a department store bag, not having had time to have it gift-wrapped. It was a red aluminum ice-cube bucket in the shape of a huge apple.” Inside was a card with the following dedication: “For Eve, from the serpent.”
That night Donoso didn’t pay any attention to the attractive young women who were dancing and looking for company. Instead, he stayed beside Keeley’s stepmother, then in her thirties. They talked for a long while and toasted a couple of times. “Typical José,” Keeley remembers, since Donoso, in those two years, already had a history in this regard. “He liked females in general. But José did not ‘date’ while in college. He did not need to. He had two steady girlfriends in town, though they were not girls. They were women. One was a widow in her forties, the secretary of one of the academic departments. The other was the wife of a doctor, a psychiatrist actually, in her thirties. José regularly and serially slept with both women, in their own beds, never in his dormitory room. When I asked him why he liked ‘older’ women (he was 25 in 1950, while I was 20) he explained they had three advantages. The first was they were ‘serious’. Second, they were ‘experienced’. And most important of all, they were ‘so grateful’.”
If what Keeley claims is true, it might be at this time that Donoso visited the wife of a married couple living in Princeton, a couple he met at the university that invited him for Christmas. In his article “Brief Encounters with Fame”, the Chilean writer recalls: “I had become friends, in the meantime, with a doctor and his wife who lived in Princeton. That Christmas, when the majority of students left for their homes, I stayed at the university and Doctor Howland and his wife invited me to spend Christmas Eve at their house. They told me I would listen to or take part in a concert of vertical flutes. Around the fire and punch, a group of adults and children gathered, playing the old melodies from that part of the world.”
The night of the wedding, alcohol flowed and there was a great deal of dancing. Hours later, Donoso could hardly walk. Keeley himself took responsibility for bringing him to the hotel and registering him in the lobby. When he finished, he found the future Chilean writer sleeping on one of the sofas.
After that night, and without much time on his side (his visa would soon expire), Donoso prepared his return. He was 26 years old.
When I finished my studies at Princeton, I set off on my return to Chile, slowly hitchhiking across the south of the United States and Mexico, where I stayed for several months. I left from Washington, where I’d gone to say goodbye to Don Juan Ramón Jiménez, whom I saw with certain frequency. He lived in one of those horrible and dark, not to say sordid, little houses that Spanish writers in exile have a special knack for discovering.
But he didn’t intend just to say goodbye to the Spanish poet, but to ask him for a letter of recommendation as well. Donoso’s plan was to go to Mexico, to Xalapa, where Gabriela Mistral lived. Jiménez reluctantly wrote him a letter. And so, months later, the young writer introduced himself to the Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner in Mexican territory: “I told her about my Princetonian departure and my forced return to Chile. I recounted my adventures in Mexico, where I’d been living for almost a month without money, keeping myself afloat with an unusual ‘job’: very skinny (then), with a crew cut and Bermuda shorts, almost black from so much time in the sun, I went in the mornings to the castle of Chapultepec to wait for the arrival of the buses full of North American tourists. I’d approach some lady with a gullible look and in my most educated English accent tell her I was a psychology student (false) at Princeton, and that I was qualified to make a study of her character from the lines of her hands.”
After a few days with Gabriela Mistral (who refused to let the talkative young Chilean read her palm) Donoso continued his journey through Latin America. His return to Santiago would be a harsh blow. After two years abroad, he felt that Chile was narrower and more suffocating than ever. In Princeton he’d felt on the other side of paradise. But now he had to go back. “My return to Chile marked the beginning of two arid, hard years for me, without direction, unsatisfactory, very long, in which I was going to write and didn’t write, in which I taught and didn’t like to teach, in which I thought about returning abroad without managing to set off on the trip, as with nostalgia I remembered Princeton, or Gabriela Mistral in Xalapa.”
Despite his travels, the passage of time and the books published, Donoso never lost touch with Princeton and his college friends. Over the years he exchanged letters with Robert Keeley, who became a diplomat, was posted in different countries and ended up living in Washington DC; he stayed with John Elliot in New York on repeated occasions; and he visited Walter Clemons Jr., another classmate who didn’t write fiction but developed a career as a journalist and reviewed The Obscene Bird of Night for Newsweek (“with this book he has transformed into a novelist of international caliber”).
In 1973, Donoso wrote to Keeley from Calaceite, Spain, where he maintained his family on 300 dollars a month. Life on the Catalan coast wasn’t expensive. But Donoso regretted not being able to offer his family financial stability. Especially now that Pilar, his daughter, was turning six years old:
I don’t want to leave this plain and simple life to get a job on Madison Avenue, although I’d like to spend a year at a university in the United States. We’ll see. I’m talking with your brother, and he told me to write him next year, but God knows what will happen. It’s difficult to leave this solitary, simple life for something that one isn’t sure one will like. Although Princeton, especially Princeton, is tempting. Has it changed much?
Donoso returned to Princeton as visiting professor in ’74 and ’75, thanks to the intervention of Edmund Keeley, Robert’s brother. He already had a career behind him: at Iowa Donoso taught several generations of young North American writers, including John Irving, in addition to striking up a friendship with Kurt Vonnegut. His return to Princeton would also be the time to settle debts. Despite the scholarship from the Doherty Foundation and the help from “Momo”, Donoso graduated from Princeton with a debt of several thousand dollars. Once recognized as an international writer, he came to an arrangement with the university: he handed over papers and manuscripts, and the outstanding balance was forgotten.
I write an email to my mother as I wait for the train back to New York. I attach to the message the photos of photos of Donoso that I took at the library. “Maybe you can show them to Nana,” I tell her, “if you see her soon.” Then I go over my notes and transcriptions. I’m drawn to an essay by Donoso about his childhood and youth. There isn’t much information about where it was published.
Princeton impressed upon me certain ideas, such as the fact that literature wasn’t devoid of charms, and wasn’t the source of guilt and misery that my father had warned me about, saying I’d turn into a pariah. On the contrary, I realized that, for me at least, it held a great pleasure.
The essay continues in a nostalgic tone. Donoso remembers his professors, his classmates, the cultural environment of the university, his weekends in New York and his visits to museums; he repeats that he was a terrible student, although, he clarifies, that doesn’t matter. These were decisive years, not only because they introduced him to authors fundamental to his future work, but also because they kept him full of life, through travels, reading and writing.
There I came to know the great works of universal art, with which I’d always longed to make contact. I saw those works in the company of new and interesting friends, on our weekend trips to New York. During one vacation I set out to make a trip through Mexico on foot, I published my first stories and I realized that, for better or worse, I was a writer.
Translated by Jessica Sequeira
Antonio Díaz Oliva (ADO) is a writer born in Temuco (Chile) and living in Chicago. He is the author of the non-fiction book Piedra Roja: El mito del Woodstock chileno, the novel La soga de los muertos, the short story collections La experiencia formativa, La experiencia deformativa, and Las Experiencias, as well as the editor of the anthologies 20/40 and Estados Hispanos de América: Nueva Narrativa Latinoamericana Made in USA, in which he brings together authors who write in Spanish and live in the United States such as Valeria Luiselli, Rodrigo Hasbún, and Carlos Yushimito, among several others. He received the Roberto Bolaño Young Writers Award and the National Book Award from the National Book Council of Chile, and he was chosen by the FIL-Guadalajara as one of the most outstanding Latin American writers born during the 80s. His journalism and essays have been published in Rolling Stone, Gatopardo, Letras Libres, and El Malpensante. Find him on his personal website, Instagram, and Twitter.
Jessica Sequeira (San José, California) has published the novel A Furious Oyster, the story collection Rhombus and Oval, the essay collection Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age and the hybrid work A Luminous History of the Palm. She has translated many books by Latin American authors, and in 2019 she was awarded the Premio Valle-Inclán. Currently she lives between Chile and the UK, where she is based at the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge.
In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.