Readers in the English-speaking world are familiar with the word “expectations” (in its sense of having something to inherit) from its usage in Charles Dickens’s famous novel Great Expectations. Readers in the Dominican Republic, however, are surely more familiar with the ironic and witty tale of reversed expectations in Juan Bosch’s short tale “The Beautiful Soul of Don Damian,” which has some plot twist surprises for the reader as well. The tale goes thusly:
Don Damian’s soul, which in passing is shown to be hosted in the body of a miserly and greedy and unscrupulous rich old man, is just preparing to make its final withdrawal from the world and the body as the story opens. It is described as having tentacles, which it is slowly retracting because the temperature of the body in a coma is too hot for it to stand much longer. As it is withdrawing, the nurse becomes alarmed and sends for the doctor and gives an injection, but to no avail, apparently: “At the precise moment that the needle punctured Don Damian’s forearm, the soul drew its last tentacles out of his mouth, reflecting as it did so that the injection would be a waste of money.”
As the body becomes cold and yellowish, the soul flies up to a Bohemian glass lamp in the middle of the ceiling and looks down on the scene below, watching who mourns and who hesitates, meanwhile able to be aware of all their secret thoughts and feelings. The housemaid mourns sincerely; she has served Don Damian “for more than forty years,” and she weeps and wails, and as the priest arrives to give last rites (which he should’ve done the night before, only he was preoccupied with trying to get money for a new church from Don Damian), she says that it doesn’t matter whether Don Damian is shriven or not, because he has a “beautiful soul.” In the meantime, the beautiful but unfaithful young wife and the mother-in-law are crying crocodile tears in order to deceive everyone into thinking that the wife (who has a lover) truly grieves her husband.
Two things happen almost simultaneously, though in the course of the story they are related one at a time–the hypocritical mother-in-law, wife, and priest take up the housemaid’s cry of “beautiful soul” and start to ring changes upon it to prove that they too mourn the passing, and the soul, hearing how beautiful it is from all sides, decides to have a look at itself in the bathroom mirror, to be able to visualize its own beauty. Both sides are in for a shock, however, the soul first: “But good God, what had happened? In the first place, it had been accustomed, during more than sixty years, to look out through the eyes of Don Damian, and those eyes were over five feet from the ground; also, it was accustomed to seeing his lively face, his clear eyes, his shining gray hair, the arrogance that puffed out his chest and lifted his head, the expensive clothes in which he dressed. What it saw now was nothing at all like that, but a strange figure hardly a foot tall, pale, cloud-gray, with no definite form. Where it should have had two legs and two feet like the body of Don Damian, it was a hideous cluster of tentacles like those of an octopus, but irregular, some shorter than others, some thinner, and all of them seemingly made of dirty smoke, of some impalpable mud that looked transparent but was not; they were limp and drooping and powerless, and stupendously ugly….It had no waist. In fact, it had no body, no neck, nothing: where the tentacles joined there was merely a sort of ear sticking out on one side, looking like a bit of rotten apple peel, and a clump of rough hairs on the other side, some twisted, some straight. But that was not the worst, and neither was the strange grayish-yellow light it gave off: the worst was the fact that its mouth was a shapeless cavity like a hole poked in a rotten fruit, a horrible and sickening thing…and in the depths of this hole an eye shone, its only eye, staring out of the shadows with an expression of terror and treachery!” Don Damian’s soul thus has its own expectations reversed when it sees itself truly. Not realizing that it is invisible to others, the soul wonders how it can go out into the street appearing thus, and just as the doctor rings at the front door, it reverses the expectations of the mourners by making a mad jump back into the ice-cold mouth of the body of Don Damian.
The doctor, taking the wrist of Don Damian, grows excited and then opens his bag, taking out a stethoscope and a syringe. He too avows that Don Damian has a beautiful soul, and that he must try to save him. While the simple housemaid rejoices in the next few minutes that Don Damian has been returned to life, the doctor and the priest both plan secretly what they are going to be receiving from him, while the wife and mother-in-law make the best they can of a bad situation, and evidently pretend to be elated. “The soul of Don Damian, tired of so many lies, decided to sleep. A moment later, Don Damian sighed weakly and moved his head on the pillow. “‘He’ll sleep for hours now,’ the doctor said. ‘He must have absolute quiet.’ And to set a good example, he tiptoed out of the room.”
Amid the reversals in the story, the readers’ expectations too may be reversed, especially if they are anticipating a typical “and I felt myself flying toward the white light” sort of tale. The soul not only does not see a white light, but perches on the Bohemian lamp and finds it as much too warm as the body with its fever was. As well, despite the fact that all proclaim the soul as beautiful, the soul when it confronts a mirror sees itself as it truly is, and flies back into the body so as to have the countenance (literal as well as figurative) of the body. This is yet another reversal, because usually when people are physically ugly, some well-meaning sort will come along and say something like “Yes, but I think he/she must have a beautiful soul.” In this story, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a sleek and attractive physique hides an ugly soul.
The author of this story, Juan Bosch, was born of educated farmers in the Dominican Republic, but at one stage of his life attained the office of President. When he was deposed, he turned to teaching, and then began to concentrate on nonfiction as the best way to expose the problems of human existence. Though the tale we have looked at today is necessarily fictional because we cannot know in actuality what happens to the soul after death, the farcical elements yet have a reality of their own, which makes the story persuasive and compelling just as it is. And certainly what some regard as the soul but which could also be seen as the sum total of a person’s actions and emotions in life is part of the human experience, along with its eventual destiny. Thus Bosch’s light touch and gift of humor give to Don Damian’s “death scene” an enduring significance which puts it among the best of the tableaux of this sort, and an ability to affect its readers not only with a smile and a rueful shake of the head, but with some moments of serious thought as well: what will all our souls look like when we no longer have bodies to hide them? Two apposite quotes spring to mind, one from the cynical and witty La Rochefoucauld and one from a medieval nun: La Rochefoucauld said, “Our words are given us to hide our thoughts.” The only person in the story “The Beautiful Soul of Don Damian” who is sincere in her appraisal of his goodness (though mistaken, as it turns out) is the housemaid, who perhaps has not the realistic view we see of the soul, but something even beyond that. The medieval nun said: “God sees us not as we see ourselves, nor as others see us, nor yet as we are, but as we would be.” One can only surmise that when the housemaid sees Don Damian from the point of view of a long-time employee and household dependent, that she is looking with the eyes of God, and that somewhere, sometime, in some way, Don Damian has wanted to be better than he is!
3 responses to “A reversal of expectations for characters and readers alike–Juan Bosch’s “The Beautiful Soul of Don Damian””
Not heard of this one until now but it sounds great, what is it about Latin American writers, they seem to be so visceral in their tackling of death, well most issues to be fair but death seems to have the strongest pull in the writings of such authors. Márquez being another case in point, my education in books once again feels sadly lacking but you keep sharing these books and I will be happy.
I got this one from a big anthology I think you might like. It’s called “Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World,” and features things from all over the (non-Western) globe. It’s edited by Clerk and Siegel, and is quite a hefty volume for its price. All of the stories and poems in it are relatively short, so there’s plenty of time to cover the whole (not that I’ve done so yet, but I have ambitions that way). Lastly, the publisher is Harper Collins. I think that tells you all you need to know if you want to get a copy, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it in a library collectiion of short pieces either. I hope if you want to have a look at it, that you can find it somewhere.
I shall head down to our local library soon and I think the large bookshop in Nottingham will most likely have it as well. I do like non-western writers, there take on life (and death) is so different and it changes my own perceptions which is always a good thing.