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Almost incomprehensible English – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Penguin Random House, 2007 (1st ed.)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz (Penguin Random House, 2007, 1st ed.)

Hard to read but worthwhile reading

Some books are hard to read and hard to finish. It could be because of obscure references, bad editing, bad translation, weird printing, etc. But I’ve recently got through two novels that were hard to read and to finish because of the style in which they were written. One is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in which it is literally the language that is the problem – it might as well have been partially written in Klingon for all I understood of it when I read it the first time. Another problem was the subject – it is about immigrants and the persistence of their culture even in their new life, like invisible hands pulling them back to their homeland. The specifics, that of the Dominican Republic, were completely foreign to me until I read this. However, by the time I got it, three, four readings later, the poetry of Junot Díaz’s English/Spanish had completely infused my mind.

Next review: the flipside of this argument; Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. 

Language as an impediment to reading

This is only the second book I’ve ever read, apart from China Miéville’s Embassytown, where the conscious and intended impediment or challenge to the reader is the very words on the page – new words, strange words, a different parole resulting in a foreign-looking langue. Junot Díaz completely mixes up Dominican English/Spanish or Spanish/English slang in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (a.k.a. “Oscar Wao”) and unless you have some grasp of basic Spanish and quite a good grasp of urban slang, dominicano-style, you will miss about I would say a good 30% of the plot and about 80% of the subtleties. For example (problem language and concepts underlined and translations in brackets):

“Maritza, with her chocolate skin and narrow eyes, already expressing the Ogún energy that she would chop at everybody with for the rest of her life. Oscar went home morose to his pre-Korean-sweatshop-era-cartoons – to the Herculoids and Space Ghost. What’s wrong with you? his mother asked. She was getting ready to go to her second job, the eczema on her hands looking like a messy meal that had set. When Oscar whimpered, Girls, Moms de Léon nearly exploded. Tú ta llorando por una muchacha? [you’re crying over a girl?] She hauled Oscar to his feet by his ear. Mami, stop it, his sister cried, stop it! She threw him to the floor. Dale un galletazo [give her a hard slap], she panted, then see if the little puta [bitch] respects you.” (p.14)

I could basically tell his mother wasn’t happy with him. But the translation revealed a whole different picture. The fact that his mother thinks that an arrogant attitude in a woman can be fixed with a hard slap (galletazo) – considering that she herself was abused as a child and almost died – came as a surprise. Oscar is actually crying (llorando) rather than just whimpering, which is seen as weakness in the DR culture which is dominated by machismo, and this angers his mother. That too, was a surprise, but adds to Oscar’s image as an oddity and an outsider.

This language would be normal for readers from the Dominican Republic, but I do not think that was the primary audience that Díaz had in mind for his novel – there are too many explanations in it. It read like Science Fiction to me, and did not contain a glossary. As I was not reading it in e-book format, I could not look up every second word. So I surfed through it, trying to get a feel of the characters and the plot.

“I flip through the book, one of his top three, without question, to the last horrifying chapter: ‘A Stronger Loving World'. To the only panel he's circled. Oscar-who never defaced a book in his life-circled one panel three times in the same emphatic pen he used to write his last letters home. The panel where Adrian Veidt and Dr. Manhattan are having their last convo. After the mutant brain has destroyed New York City; after Dr. Manhattan has murdered Rorschach; after Veidt's plan has succeeded in ‘saving the world'. Veidt says: ‘I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end'. And Manhattan, before fading from our Universe, replies: ‘In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends'.”
Prominent Sci-Fi sub-text: “I flip through the book, one of his top three, without question, to the last horrifying chapter: ‘A Stronger Loving World’. To the only panel he’s circled. Oscar-who never defaced a book in his life-circled one panel three times in the same emphatic pen he used to write his last letters home. The panel where Adrian Veidt and Dr. Manhattan are having their last convo. After the mutant brain has destroyed New York City; after Dr. Manhattan has murdered Rorschach; after Veidt’s plan has succeeded in ‘saving the world’. Veidt says: ‘I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end’. And Manhattan, before fading from our Universe, replies: ‘In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends’.” (Extract from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – rtvd. 2016-07-19, quoted on Comic Convo)

The novel has more than 30 footnotes, which helped explain the history and context, thank goodness, because the Dominican Republic is possibly one of the strangest countries in the world, blighted by the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina and superstition, racism, violence and poverty. And of course, even more weirdly, it is one half of an island, the Island of Hispaniola, the other half of the island being Haiti. Haiti, the fiasco, with the lowest Human Development Index in the Americas and which North Americans mostly know because of the earthquake in 2010, which, despite all humanitarian aid, left the country no better off. The Dominican Republic (DR), however, has the ninth largest economy in Latin America and is the largest economy in the Caribbean and Central American region, and though it is still pretty low on the World Human Development index, it is better off than Haiti.

Dominican Republic vs Haiti

The DR’s efforts to keep their impoverished largely black neighbour at bay and prevent Haitians from crossing the border into the DR, and vice versa, has caused centuries of disputes between the two nations which culminated in the “Parsley Massacre”, when ex-president Trujillo, although one-quarter Haitian, ordered what became known as the “Parsley Massacre” or, in the Dominican Republic, as “El Corte” (The Cutting), directing the army to kill Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border. The army killed an estimated 17,000 to 35,000 Haitians over six days, from the night of October 2, 1937, through October 8, 1937. The soldiers were said to have interrogated anyone with dark skin, using the shibboleth perejil (parsley) to distinguish Haitians from Afro-Dominicans when necessary; the ‘r’ of perejil was of difficult pronunciation for Haitians.

Island of Hispaniola, the border is centre of image, Haiti left, Dominican Republic right, rtrvd. 2016-07-18, Google Earth
Island of Hispaniola, the border is centre of image, Haiti left, Dominican Republic right, rtrvd. 2016-07-18, Google Earth. Interesting how different the land looks on either side of the border.

One contributor to cultural disharmony between the two countries is the language barrier, as Spanish is the primary language spoken in the eastern part of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic) while French and Haitian Creole spoken in the western part (Haiti). Race is another: the ethnic composition of the Dominican population is 73% mixed, 16% white, and 11% black; 95% of the Haitian population is black. Poverty on the one side (Haiti) and less poverty on the other (DR) is yet another.

I confess to not even knowing where on the globe the country is before I read this novel. It caused me to spend days reading about the history and culture of the DR, and the footnotes – very accurate by the way – helped.

The Dominican Republic’s culture in “prose poetry”

Ultimately though, I came away with a feeling more than understanding about the DR, a feeling that it was rich and riotous and beautiful in its own way and sexy and dark and violent and full of music and rhythm and passion. Díaz’s writing is like prose poetry – it’s a riot of tones, inflections, rhythms, dialects and idiolects, and reading it is like getting a mouthful of DR nostalgia in an uninterrupted flow for pages and pages. “Oscar Wao”, of the title, is nicknamed after Oscar Wilde because of his big hair and his constant writing, and because people thought he was gay. The character becomes more complex, more appealing and more doomed as the novel progresses, increasing the dramatic tension.  The DR becomes a new world when seen through his eyes. Here is the description of Oscar returning to the DR after many years in America – not so much “Spanglish “ in this extract:

“The beat-you-down heat was the same, and so was the fecund tropical smell that he had never forgotten, that to him was more evocative than any madeleine, and likewise the air pollution and the thousands of motos and cars and dilapidated trucks on the roads and the clusters of peddlers at every traffic light (so dark, he noticed, and his mother said, dismissively, Maldito haitianos) [cursed Haitians] and people walking languidly with nothing to shade them from the sun and the buses that charged past so overflowing with passengers that from the outside they looked like they were making a rush delivery of spare limbs to some far-off war and the general ruination of so many buildings as if Santo Domingo was the place the crumbled crippled concrete shells came to die – and the hunger on some of the kids’ faces, can’t forget that – but it also seemed in many places like a whole new country was materializing atop the ruins of the old one: there were now better roads and nicer vehicles and brand-new luxury air-conditioned buses plying the longer routes to the Cibao and beyond and U.S. fast-food restaurants (Dunkin’ Donuts and Burger King) and local ones whose logos he did not recognize (Pollos Victorina and El Provocón No. 4) and traffic lights everywhere that nobody seemed to heed. (pp. 273-274).

The text is dense with cultural and historical references, which you can let flow over you or stop to try to figure them out. There are also multiple themes, including fukú, or the evil eye, that is on those living on Hispaniola, including Oscar and his family. No amount of zafa (anti-evil spells and signs) could protect the family against fukú. Fukú is everything bad that happens to you, and in the case of Oscar and his family it is Trujillo, his regime and his legacy. And it’s about love, stupid, passionate, blind love in a dangerous time – love that makes you take risks and just bumble on. Oscar’s end is predestined – like reading about the end of the world starting with the book title. You know he is going to die. The question is how soon and how and whether getting to the novel’s climax will be worthwhile. Trust me, despite or because of the language, it is.

A character that grows on you

Silhoette of Oscar, presumably on the cover. Funny hair.
Silhouette of Oscar, presumably, on the cover. Funny hair. Bird wing? Super-power helmet?

Oscar is a character that grows on you – he is fat, a geek, and a bit ridiculous and yet you root for the guy, you hope he will find love. The language of one of the first person narrators, “Yunior de Las Casas”, a friend of Oscar’s (and possibly the alter ego of the author, appearing in Díaz’ short stories) changes as he grows up and becomes a writer. From a really almost incomprehensible mix of Spanish, English, slang and science fiction references, the novel eventually contains just plain English.

“I know I’ve thrown a lot of fantasy and sci-fi in the mix but this is supposed to be a true account of the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Can’t we believe that an Ybón [Oscar’s amor] can exist and that a brother like Oscar might be due a little luck after twenty-three years? This is your chance. If blue pill, continue. If red pill, return to the Matrix.” (p. 285/352)

Oscar dies for a quest and belief as deluded and pitiable as that of Don Quixote of La Mancha for his Dulcinea. He is thinking, like in his favourite quote from Watchmen, “I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end” – except it didn’t. At the same time it’s a bit heroic, just a bit, and when he dies, I could not help but wince and swallow a lump in my throat. Sure, his motivation is a bit naive, a bit sentimental, a bit stupid and you want to whack him over the head for being such a demented romantic and soppy philosopher. But why then, did it move me so? It’s because we all root for the underdog, we all hope to find true love. I’ve read it three times, and each time I grasp a little bit more of the novel, another layer is revealed, another character emerges. Read it, it will surprise you – it’s worth all those awards.

Awards and recognition

“Oscar Wao” won for Junot Díaz:

  • Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2008
  • John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, 2007
  • Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, 2008
  • National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, 2007
  • Dayton Literary Peace Prize – International Award for Fiction, 2008

About the author – and his love of Science Fiction

“I was part of that group of kids growing up in the ’80s under the Reagan regime, what I used to call ‘living in the shadow of Dr. Manhattan,’ where we would have dreams all the time that New York City was being destroyed, and that that wall of light and destruction was rolling out and would just devour our neighborhood. And I’d always wanted to do something with that image. I mean, if you’re haunted by an image for so long, there’s a part of you that thinks perhaps if I turn it into art, I can at least get a two cents return on this $5 million of trepidation.” – Junot Diaz about his “pseudo-Akira, pseudo-post-dirty-war” unpublished novel called Dark America.

Junot Díaz
Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in JNew Jersey. He is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award. A graduate of Rutgers College, Díaz is currently the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the cofounder, and currently a director of the Voices of Our Nation Workshop. VONA/Voices is the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the USA.

This, amazingly, was Díaz’s debut novel. What a smashing start – and hard to keep up. There is a “book club” type discussion at the back of this edition which I promptly ignored, as I always do, but because of its multiple themes of family, fate, image, etc.,  and the fact that, at the time, it was in an entirely fresh style, it is popular reading in book clubs and discussion groups. Is that a compliment? I wonder. It’s been analyzed to hell and gone and my analysis does not add anything to the discussions. The only different thing that I have to say about the novel is about the way it impacted me, the reader, in terms of its language use and cultural references. This Is How You Lose Her was his next novel, published in 2013, also well received. Drown is his debut short story collection, Riverhead Books, 1996.


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