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from the December 2011 issue

Jose Donoso’s “The Lizard’s Tale”

Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

In many ways, "The Lizard’s Tale" is an exercise in concealment through regeneration, or adaptation

“One life kills another, one death revives another,” writes the Chilean author José Donoso near the end of The Lizard’s Tale. This unfinished novel was itself revived when the author’s daughter chanced upon it after Donoso’s death in 1996. The text, resuscitated by editor Julio Ortega and translator Suzanne Jill Levine, reveals a different side of the revered Boom writer. His best-known novel, The Obscene Bird of Night, is the meticulously structured chronicle of a man’s physical and mental transformation into (among other things) the Chilean mythical figure Imbunche. But this keenness on precision and constructedness disappears in The Lizard’s Tale, which follows the artist Antonio Muñoz-Roa during a six-year period of debilitating anxiety and restlessness.

In many ways, The Lizard’s Tale prioritizes free form; it may be cloaked in a dense and powerful language but its plot structure is fairly straightforward.  Muñoz-Roa is a once-important member of the Informalist movement in Spanish painting, a group whose main idea, according to Donoso’s gloss, was to unveil “total truth.” Yet, Muñoz-Roa struggles to cope with his position as an artist in a stultifying bourgeois existence, and, while he agonizes, the novel blurs the line between art as a way to make meaning of one’s life and as a tool to gain fame and fortune. Through a tangled series of events, Donoso’s protagonist embroils himself in complicated relationships with people and places that inspire fantastic yearnings but simultaneously lack the substance he so craves. In reality, his need to find concrete meaning through artistic creation—which, at times, becomes a venomous impulse that poisons his greatest endeavors—remains constantly unfulfilled. Only by confronting the colors and textures of his past canvases does Muñoz-Roa come to terms with the failure that his growing old presages. Even this realization, though, cannot save him; like words left unedited or paintings unfinished, an artwork, once forsaken by the artist, can only be revived by outside interpretation.

Reflecting upon the shallow ruins of life after having abandoned his art, Muñoz-Roa speaks abstractly about the power of “a truth that one must live together and die for.” Yet, his truth, wrapped in the unrelenting artifice of his art, brings unhappiness. After exiling himself from the world of painting, Muñoz-Roa flees from the life and city he no longer sees as his own. Considering his past work as a mere cog in the grand machine of commercialized art, Muñoz-Roa seeks artistic retribution by renouncing his former movement and colleagues, yet his diatribes are met only with contempt. Publicly disgraced and accompanied by his cousin and lover Luisa, he seeks solace in the small village of Dors, a picturesque town of deteriorating medieval houses and nostalgic people. However, as Muñoz-Roa sets out to begin anew by restoring a house that his fellow townspeople see as unsalvageable, he finds himself at loggerheads with those around him once again; despite a valiant effort on his part, Muñoz-Roa soon realizes that even his most careful maneuvers cannot prevent the modernization of the world around him.

The inclination for escapism, so poignantly symbolized by the novel’s principal metaphor—the lizard’s tail, which is hastily shed when the animal finds itself in danger—is ultimately Muñoz-Roa’s undoing.  Reflecting upon his break from the Informalist movement, he cannot determine what, or who, has been left behind. And this uncertainty is what eventually confounds him, leaving him unable to complete even his most quotidian tasks.  It is no surprise when he finally surrenders to the artificial light of his dingy apartment to avoid the shadows that threaten to consume him.

In many ways, The Lizard’s Tale is an exercise in concealment through regeneration, or adaptation: the painter constantly reinvents himself in the novel’s four successive sections in order to skirt a sense of failure that he perceives as inevitable. Yet, he remains unsure about whether he is shedding his past lives and acquaintances, or whether they are shedding him.
The words of this text tremble with abstraction.  The reader encounters Donoso’s raw doubts to the metronome of Levine’s careful English rhythms. Donoso was evidently conflicted while composing the 200 pages that make up the novel. Some sentences span entire paragraphs, as if the narrator were afraid to take a breath. We are pulled into Muñoz-Roa’s “book-of-hours world,” where the only way to change one’s situation is to abandon it completely and swap it out for another. Not only does Muñoz-Roa turn his back on the art that once sustained him, but he consistently enters into relationships that prove fatal and perplexed, whether he is caught in an incestuous embrace or an awkward telephone call with his ex-wife.

Levine is at once the writer and the interpreter of Donoso’s labyrinthine sentences, and her work is masterful. She traces Muñoz-Roa’s dissolution into an immaterial reality that offers him no relief. There is a blur of images and sounds as Muñoz-Roa slips away into a nightmarish state; there are the bodies he makes loves to and then abandons, the disdainful voices of his unrelenting neighbors, and the crumbling stones of houses that the narrator finds himself stalking.  Amid it all appears the recurring image of a castle: a towering structure that is one of the only buildings in Dors that has withstood the onslaught of progress. For Muñoz-Roa, the palace is a final cause. Despite his longing for the building to remain untouched, he, in his dangerous roundabout, concedes that he will never be complete without breaking through its impregnable walls. His debilitating fascination with the castle echoes his past oppositions to the commercialization of his art; although Muñoz-Roa yearns to achieve a sense of unity with that which inspires him, the possibility of recovering his “primitive soul”—an idea he calls upon to convince himself and others of better times now past—seems impossible. And, in many ways, this sense of deprivation sustains him. Upon secretly encountering the castle inhabited one night, he transforms into an ambivalent watchman:

I was afraid I would be seen and hid in the shadows of the shafts of columns. I heard voices, two voices. Two lovers, I said to myself, who somehow had gotten into the castle and, thanks to the shelter of the walls and their unseen entry, had taken advantage of the magical night and the magic of the privileged space, they, the privileged, to make love in a book-of-hours world, completely avoiding the vulgar reality of the colored paper garlands and lights in the square. And I envied them.


What fascinates Muñoz-Roa, though, is not the magic itself, but the impossibility of his ever participating in the enchanted world around him. Muñoz-Roa’s preoccupation with fantasy is what provides the subtle contradictions that remain the novel’s driving force. He seeks to enter the “privileged” spaces that bring him joy but he remains afraid of what such invasion might bring.  He wants his art to remain authentic, but cannot handle the consequences of such purity. What we find is that Muñoz-Roa’s insatiability is his most salient obstacle; although he constantly gestures to his past missteps, he never departs from the predetermined actions that led him to failure in the first place.

There are times when Donoso’s metaphors are strained. When Muñoz-Roa compares art to prostitution, reincarnation, and the intimacy of lovemaking, for instance, the descriptions feel overwrought. But these moments are rare.  What Donoso, through Levine, has created is a sense of vulnerability fashioned out of the withering preoccupation of the artist at his most dramatic. As Muñoz-Roa contemplates the end of his days—days that once promised at least security if not greatness—he remains empty and apart, thinking, “How long is the lifeline on my palms! Between my legs, my cane falls lifelessly onto the rug.  Is there not an asylum for failed painters?”


This text is but one of many possible readings. Since it was never quite finished, The Lizard’s Tale is a novel that has passed through many hands—scribbles and doubts underlined and erased.  This affords the reader a better sense of the task of reinvention through translation that Levine has undertaken. Much as Donoso has managed to create a character who occupies many curious worlds, Levine has used her nimble, lively translation to capture the idiosyncrasies of Donoso’s unedited mind. We come to trust Levine as she promises in her introduction that Donoso’s voice spoke discreetly in her ears as she worked. As the novel closes, shedding the certainty of its protagonist’s future in its final lines, the reader is never quite sure of whose truth he encounters; as with all work in translation, only the delectable impossibility of exact meaning remains.

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