Winner of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award (2007) and The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (2008), and, for what it’s worth, Time Magazine’s #4 rated book of the decade (2000-09), The Brief Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz came to me with a reputation very much proceeding it. And right from the first few pages you know you’re in for one hell of a ride, with rippling humour, narrative pyrotechnics and boundless energy that draws you happily into Oscar’s life and the Dominican world: a world of fukú – the strange curse or doom that seems to plague most families, of the infamous and ruthless dictator Rafael Trujillo whose reign of violence terrorises the country, and the Dominican Diaspora. It tells the story of Oscar de León and his continual failure to find a girl, his sister Lola, their fierce mother Beli – and her traumatic childhood in the DR – and the story of their family’s ‘Fall’ as depicted by the brutal demise of Beli’s father Abelard, a doctor, who tries to keep his family safe from the lecherous Trujillo, whose spies are everywhere. And thus it is very much the story of the Dominican Republic and its fraught history.
Narrated in turns by Yunoir de Las Casas – Lola’s sometime boyfriend – and Lola herself, we witness the childhood of Oscar de Leon, a “fat, sci-fi-reading nerd” growing up in Paterson New Jersey, a unique and very un-Dominican Dominican male. This allows Díaz to explore the theme of masculinity. Oscar is so much of a nerd that he: “Could write in Elvish, could speak Chakobsa, could differentiate between a Slan, a Dorsai, and a Lensman in acute detail, knew more about the Marvel Universe that Stan Lee, and was a role-playing game fanatic.” He is the ultimate outcast, shunned even by those who have similar interests and heartaches: he soon realises “his fucked-up comic-book-reading, role-playing-game-loving, no-sports-playing friends were embarrassed by him.” It is his complete lack of success with girls – as marked by his early ‘golden age’ zenith when he is but seven, and a much slimmer version of the fat adolescent he would become, when he has a short ‘relationship’ with two girls at the same time – that continues to define his search for love in his teenage and college years. In high-school Oscar falls in love with Ana, but she maintains her relationship with her Army boyfriend who continually beats her; Oscar can’t give her up. Getting into Rutger College, nothing changes. Not even the proximity of Yunoir – who volunteers to look after Oscar during college as a means of courting favour with his sister Lola – works. It is this ongoing search for love that ultimately spells trouble for Oscar when he finally gets his girl. He finds that escaping the grasp of history and cultural expectation is a tough and often impossible task.
We also trace the relationship between mother and daughter, Beli and Lola, how Lola finds her mother’s breast cancer. Told from Lola’s point of view, theirs is a troubled relationship, Beli is very cruel, and it is Lola who brings up both herself and Oscar, though only because Beli is working multiple jobs. Eventually, Lola runs off with a dead-end boyfriend to a dead-end town, until Oscar gives her away. Lola is sent to her grandmother, La Inca, in the Dominican Republic as punishment. It is here that we are drawn further into the distinctive Dominican world and the family history: the childhood of Beli and the father she never knew. The portion of the novel that deals with Beli and her relationships, including her pivotal love of ‘The Gangster’, is particularly engaging; it alternates between witty-hilarious and fizzing violence. The story of Abelard’s sorry fate – of being a father to attractive girls in the reign of Trujillo – is also wonderfully depicted though, perhaps if I’m allowed to split hairs, slightly long.
The narration is punctuated throughout by streams of colloquial Spanish and strides atop many various – and often long – footnotes which deal mostly with the terrible nature of Trujillo and his henchmen. These historical notes bubble along beneath the surface of the Dominican story. The Spanish that is liberally dispersed throughout might not be to everyone’s taste. There were many times where I could have done with an English-Spanish dictionary or ready-access to babelfish – I’m sure it would have added to the experience. For example:
And then the big moment, the one every daughter dreads. My mother looking me over. I’d never been in better shape, never felt more beautiful and desirable in my life, and what does the bitch say? Coño, pero tú sí eres fea.
We non-Spanish speakers are left at a loss as to what Beli says to her daughter, though we can guess at its direction given our understanding of her character. (Roughly translated: ‘Coño, but you are ugly’. I’m still not sure what Coño means!). In the very next paragraph we get another helping as Lola reflects:
Now that I’m a mother myself I realize that she could not have been any different. That’s who she was. Like they say: Plátano maduro no se vuelve verde.
Translation: ‘(A/The) mature banana does not become green.’ This is a wonderful little expression, but unless we have our translation handy, we lose out. This gives rise to a debate about how much a writer should demand of their readership. The book would undeniably be lesser had it not contained the Spanish because it adds Dominican flair and personality to the story and its characters. However, it does seem a little excessive at times. But there is so much energy and heart in the writing, so much to admire, that you forgive the excess and are swept along in its dizzying force. Yunoir’s narrative voice is particularly energetic and spirited, and of course, what with Oscar’s sci-fi interests, the literary and cultural references from the likes of: Star Trek, Star Wars, the Watchmen, Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, Ursula Le Guin, Akira & anime, DC & Marvel; the list just goes on and on, the references too numerous to note. Even the title of the book is a nod to Hemmingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, and Oscar’s pet name of ‘Oscar Wao’ is given to him in mock homage of Oscar Wilde.
Another point worth noting is the choice of the name Oscar. It is perfect for the character, and makes me think of other famous fictional Oscars, such as the eponymous Oscar of Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda, and the truly wonderful Oscar, (little Oskarnello!), of Gunter Grass’s mighty The Tin Drum; (apparently Carey loved The Tin Drum so there is no surprise he wanted to create his very own Oscar). There is something in the name Oscar that attaches certain character traits to its owner without, it seems, the need for depiction – a certain amount of pluck and courage, the ability to ‘punch above one’s weight’ – (which for Oscar Wao is saying something!). Of course, that could be just me! What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts – are there any other famous fictional Oscars?
Díaz reportedly took ten years writing this book, and I’m sure during that time there were moments of doubt regarding whether it would ever see the light of day, perhaps even whether a manuscript might be finished at all. It is endurance – an endurance that Oscar’s family and all Dominicans have in abundance as they fight the scourge of poverty and the weight of history. For those of us who love great reads, I thank him for persevering and showing us all what it sometimes takes to achieve a dream, to see a vision come to life. As Díaz himself might write: The beauty! The beauty!
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Faber & Faber
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