Friday, 28 June 2019

Book Review: Hell Has No Limits by José Donoso
Ever since scientists first expounded their theory of evolution, those in power gladly have been taking recourse to the concept of the survival of the fittest to justify even their most selfish actions before themselves. Unquestionably, the urge to exercise power over others belongs to human nature, but often it brings forth the worst in a person. Less settled characters even seem to think that it were their inborn right to bully those who are weaker than themselves and defenceless. In the 1960s Chilean classic Hell Has No Limits by José Donoso the homosexual transvestite living in a small rural brothel is regularly teased and beaten up by the clients because her mere presence provokes them. For nearly twenty years she has been co-owner together with the girl whom he fathered in the night when she agreed to help the Madame win a wager pretending to have sex with her.
José Donoso Yáñez was born in Santiago, Chile, in October 1924. As from 1947, he studied English at the University of Chile and at Princeton University, USA, where he published two short stories originally written in English. Back in Chile, he worked as a teacher for a living, while writing his first book, the short-story collection Veraneo y otros cuentos (1955; tr. Summer Holidays and Other Stories). After his debut as a novelist with Coronation (Coronación: 1957), he undertake extensive travels and wrote for periodicals. For a while, he lived in Mexico and the USA and eventually in self-imposed exile in Spain until 1981. The most notable of his novels are Hell Has No Limits (El lugar sin límites: 1966), The Obscene Bird of the Night (El obsceno pájaro de la noche: 1970), A House in the Country (Casa de campo: 1978), The Garden Next Door (El jardín de al lado: 1981), and Where Elephants Go to Die (Donde van a morir los elefantes: 1995). In addition, he wrote many short stories, two memoirs and a little poetry. José Donoso Yáñez died in Santiago, Chile, in December 1996. His final novel, The Lizard’s Tale (Lagartija sin cola: 2007), appeared posthumously.

For people living in the brothel of El Olivo, a decrepit Chilean village among vineyards off the new highway, Hell Has No Limits. The prostitutes still manage to make a good living although whoever gets the chance moves to the nearby small town of Talca offering beautiful houses with modern amenities like electricity. The eighteen-year-old running the place and generally known as the Japonesita is determined to stay however dilapidated the house and increasingly vulgar their clients. After all, she inherited the business from her mother and, more importantly, she feels at home there although she knows fully well that sooner or later she, too, will have to sell her body like the others. Apart from several prostitutes, some of them old and spent, a withered homosexual transvestite, who happens to be not just co-owner of the establishment but also her father, stands by her side. The drag queen called “La Manuela” arrived in better times to perform her famous Spanish dance at a big feast that the Japonesita’s mother gave when landowner and local wine-grower Don Alejandro Cruz was re-elected for a seat in the senate. In a drunken whim the politician wagered the house that the Madam had rented from him: if she succeeded in luring the funny homosexual into bed with her, he would sign it over to her. La Manuela reacted to the Madam’s sexual advances with disgust, but after much persuasion gave in to pretending the act in return for half of house and business… and quite unexpectedly got aroused by a lesbian fantasy. Since this experience, which she wishes to forget – she even shudders at being called father by the Japonesita –, she has a real home and stays although here, too, men make fun of her and beat her up every so often…

Already the Mephistophelean title Hell Has No Limits quoting (literally in the English and freely in the original Spanish edition) the epigram from Dr. Faust by Christopher Marlow that opens the novel, insinuates the precarious living conditions of the characters, notably those from the brothel, as well as the decadent atmosphere surrounding them. In fact, it’s a poignant social study of people in a Chilean village doomed to vanish because the new highway passes it by in a distance and the powerful owner of the vineyards all around no longer sees a point in its existence. The primary narrative perspective is that of an unconcerned observer who tells their story in third person, but it switches ever again – sometimes without warning – to stream of consciousness showing the points of view of different characters. In several such first-person passages and in many flashbacks “La Manuela” as central figure gradually reveals herself convincingly not just as bullied homosexual transvestite, moreover a passionate drag queen and flamenco performer, but as a transgender person who feels trapped in the wrong, i.e. a male body. All other characters, too, appear entirely authentic in their actions and thoughts, not least thanks to the author’s unpretentious language.

For me it certainly was a somewhat unusual experience to read Hell Has No Limits by José Donoso, but an intriguing one because to my knowledge only few renowned writers ever dared to make a homosexual transvestite the (tragic) hero of a novel. Even considering that the book first appeared in 1966, i.e. at a time when people advocated peace and (free) love, it seems a bizarre choice unless drag queens used – use? – to be a common sight in a brothel. At any rate, I appreciated being transported into the little known world of transgender identity with all problems that it involves in a heterosexual society, including latent homosexuality that turns into overt homophobia leading to violence, even hate crime. Nonetheless, it was the portrait of a dying village and the role of the highly venerated landowner in it that really captured me. In a nutshell: a highly recommendable novel.

If you’d like to read other fiction set in brothels, I recommend:
  • The Red House by Else Jerusalem (»»» read my review), a classical novel from the Austro-Hungarian capital Vienna around 1900 that keeps being out of print in English while the original German edition has been reissued a short time ago, and
  • On Black Sisters’ Street by Chika Unigwe (»»» read my review), a contemporary work from the pen of a Nigeria-born writer that is set in Antwerp in Belgium and in Lagos in Nigeria.

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