For some reason, José Donoso’s work seems particularly susceptible to a reading as national allegory. Perhaps it’s the obsession with houses: Casa de campo (A House in the Country), for instance, as (in Monika Kaup’s words) “an allegorical novel about Latin American history and culture in general and Chile’s national trauma [. . .] in particular” (“Postdictatorsahip Allegory and Neobaroque Disillusionment” 92). Likewise, then, in her introduction to El lugar sin límites (translated into English as Hell Has No Limits), Selena Millares argues that Donoso is “a man of houses” and that “the house encapsulates and represents an entire society and the history that underpins it, just like a cell speaks of the human organism to which it belongs” (74). But the biological metaphor is misleading: it is less the cell itself than its DNA that tells us about the person of which it is a part, and it tells us little if anything about that person’s history. Rather, houses are only like cells in so far as they are part of a larger and more complex assemblage, and in that they may well be affected by changes in the broader environment, if perhaps in unequal and unpredictable ways.
The houses that feature in El lugar sin límites include El Olivo, the farmhouse of local landowner and politician, Alejandro Cruz, and then the various properties that constitute Estación El Olivo, the hamlet that is both dependent upon and threatened by the estate whose name it shares. The village was established to service the needs of Cruz’s vineyards, but the coopers who made his barrels have mostly moved out, and the railway station is practically unused. Everything travels along the new highway, which bypassed the settlement and condemned it to what seems like terminal decline. All that remains are a church and a small brothel that has seen better days. The villagers’ one hope is the promise that electricity will come to Estación El Olivo. Cruz tells them that he’s putting pressure on the authorities to hook them up to the national grid. For the brothel’s part-owner, a young woman known as the “Japonesita,” with the coming of electric power everything would change: “the entire town would come back to life with electricity.” Above all, she would immediately swap her hand-cranked Victrola record player with a flash new Wurlitzer jukebox: “As soon as they brought electricity to the town she’d buy a Wurlitzer. Immediately. [. . .] The most colourful one, the one with a beach scene showing palm trees by a turquoise sea, the biggest machine of the lot” (136-137).
Note that this is a not a case of some kind of organic community faced with the coming of modernity, or of nature replaced by technology. El Olivo is an outgrowth of agribusiness from the start. If this is a village in ruins, these are capitalist ruins, the ruins of modernity itself. And there is nothing particularly natural here: the vines are laid out in geometric patterns, fully part of a social network from the start. Rather, what’s at stake is the replacement of one machine by another: turntable by jukebox, train by truck, while un-needed equipment is cast aside, like the “antediluvian threshing machine” left rusting by the railway track (117).
But one never knows when an outmoded or neglected machine might come in handy again. For the same word that the Japonesita uses of the Wurlitzer, “aparato” or apparatus, is also the term used by her co-owner, a flamboyant transvestite who goes by the name of “Manuela,” when referring to his (her) penis: “This piece of kit [este aparato] is no use to me except to go pee” (168). And it turns out that Manuela’s apparatus is not only surprisingly large (drawing comments such as “What a donkey!” and “Look how well equipped he is” ) but also in full working order. For the Japonesita is in fact Manuela’s daughter, offspring of a bet that landlord Cruz made to the brothel’s previous Madam that she couldn’t arouse him, couldn’t put his equipment to work. Riding on the bet was ownership of the brothel itself, and Manuela agreed to go through with the indignity of being publicly (if briefly) brought back into the supposed sexual norm with the understanding that the property would be split between the two of them. So the house is dependent on well-functioning machinery in more ways than one: Manuela’s apparatus won him his share in it, but for lack of power it’s left lifeless when the Victrola finally breaks: “They no longer make parts for this type of machine [esta clase de aparatos]” (211). Still, the Japonesita is confident she can find a replacement in a second-hand shop in the city. Alongside the trade in novelty and the latest gadget is a parallel economy of refitting or repurposing the ruined detritus discarded along the way.
And it is in this spirit of bricolage and making-do that Donoso puts his (admittedly somewhat disillusioned) faith: in the kids who turn the urine-stained thresher into their playground, in Manuela’s piecing together her ripped rags into a red dress that may once again perhaps seduce even the most boorish of the locals, however briefly and however tragic the final outcome. As the Japonesita reflects, it’s happened before, that after one of his escapades Manuela has come back “with a black eye or a couple of broken ribs after the men, roaming drunks, have beaten him up for being a queer. What am I to worry about? Like a cat, he has nine lives” (214). Grit in the machinery of capitalist development, a cobbled-together apparatus or assemblage of patched rags and reworked ruins, the way of life presented in El lugar sin límites incarnates a corrosion neither fully within nor fully outside of modernity’s grand narrative. And for the same reason, it makes a mockery of the restricted spatiality of houses or households: it makes them spaces without limits.