Monday, January 14, 2008

Literary quest

It was Easter weekend, 2006. The majority of the students at my Catholic university--including my three roommates--had packed their bags and left campus to spend the holiday with family or friends. I, on the other hand, was sitting alone in the living room of my university apartment, staring fixedly at the staircase that led up into the shadows of the empty second floor.

I was scared out of my mind, but not of any of the slew of pitfalls (rapists, murderers, carbon monoxide poisoning) that traditionally await college girls spending the weekend alone. I was terrified that dragging footsteps would begin to advance slowly through the upstairs hallway and that a mute, rag-clothed janitor would materialize on the stairs, pulling a rickety cart behind him as he descended toward me.

I´d been working a bit too hard on my thesis. The project, which I had given up my Easter vacation to finish on time, partially centered on El obsceno pájaro de la noche (The Obscene Bird of the Night), a novel which many consider to be the master work of Chilean author José Donoso. The book´s narrator--ironically, as my advisor pointed out--is a mute, rag-clothed janitor that pulls a rickety cart behind him as he winds through the labyrinthine hallways of the crumbling building where he works. In the novel, the building is an old spiritual retreat center that has become a dumping ground for society´s least wanted: orphans and elderly domestic servants that have become useless to their employers but have nowhere else to go. The house´s forgotten residents live amidst garbage as the narrator gradually seals them off from the outside world by boarding up rooms and windows.

Marginalized from the city that surrounds them--a 1950s/1960s Santiago that throbs with radio transmissions and car engines--the orphans, old women and janitor populate their days with imaginary realities and power struggles that make their plight even more grotesque. The characters begin to resemble the dismembered statues of saints that litter one of the house´s many internal patios; they´ve been buried alive inside the house and are decaying along with it.

I had loved the book since I had first read it a year before, but it only when I found myself alone in the dark with it did I gain the appreciation that I have for it now. If a book can disturb you that much without ghosts or gore, it´s good. That may be why I was thrilled to read in an appendix written by Donoso himself that the house in El obsceno pájaro was based on one that the author had visited in Santiago. While writing my thesis, I resolved to set out in search of the building if I ever returned to Chile.

I arrived in Santiago in October, having not forgotten my promise. Donoso had provided a clue regarding the location of the building that had inspired him: It was on Calle Cruz, a street which the good people at Mapcity informed me was in the Independencia neighborhood. Independencia sits north of the Mapocho, the pink-tinted, suspicious-smelling river that slices through Santiago from east to west. The area north of the river has traditionally been referred to as "La Chimba," which means something similar to "the other side" in Quechua. As another Chilean author, Carlos Franz, wrote in his book La muralla enterrada, La Chimba has frequently been associated with death, transgression and chaos in Chilean literature. The zone is home to hospitals, mental institutions, and two sprawling cemeteries. In other words, La Chimba is spooky.


One of the first things I did when I got my bike was head off in search of Calle Cruz and the sprawling, decrepit house I would presumably find there. I had, of course, selectively forgotten the part of the appendix in which Donoso informs his readers that the house has been demolished. Obviously, I pedaled up and down Cruz without seeing anything that resembled what Donoso had described. When the time came for me to head to work, I told myself that I just hadn´t looked hard enough and would go back another day.

That day was yesterday. A few minutes of internet research revealed that a spiritual retreat center had once existed on Calle Cruz. Called La Casa de Ejercicios de San Juan Bautista, it was built by the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century and operated by an order of nuns until it was demolished in the mid 1960s. Coincidentally (or maybe not), El obsceno pájaro ends circa 1960 with the impending destruction of the house. Currently, the patch of Calle Cruz once occupied by La Casa de Ejercicios is home to a series of apartment blocks. Just like in the novel, Santiago won.

Refusing to be defeated, I returned to Calle Cruz with the hope of finding a saint´s severed head or some other remnant of La Casa de Ejercicios. Unfortunately, all I found were gates, parking lots and three stories of concrete. When I asked the owner of a nearby minimarket whether or not a religious building had ever existed on the street, she said that she didn´t know of one but pointed me in the direction of another that ended up being decidedly modern. I bought some chocolate cupcakes from her to help me deal with my disappointment.

Discouraged as I was, there were some aspects of my trip to Independencia that lifted my spirits. First of all, the wooden shutters that many of the apartment blocks´ residents had pulled over their windows reminded me of the boards Donoso´s mute janitor uses to shut out the city. Additionally, the surrounding streets remained true to Donoso´s description of them: To this day, they are lined with one-story adobe houses "with one door and one window each," distinguishable from each other only by the color of their paint. I guess part of the world of El obsceno pájaro still does exist.

Despite the frustrating results of my quixotic quest, I haven´t given up on the prospect of one day returning to Calle Cruz and stumbling across the Virgin Mary´s nose.

1 comment:

Noel said...

A hunt for severed heads that leads to chocolate cupcakes sounds successful to me!