Friday, 18 December 2009

Brief and Wondrous

Junot Diaz was scheduled to speak at the Festival of Ibero-American Literature hosted by Foyles bookshop a few weeks ago and I read his 2008 Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in preparation. Regretfully his talk was cancelled due to travel issues and I was disappointed not to hear him speak but enjoyed the book nonetheless.

Oscar is an unconventionally overweight and nerdy Dominican Republican teenager living in New Jersey with his mother, Belicia, and punk runaway sister, Lola. Oscar dreams of becoming the next Tolkien and is continually falling hopelessly in love. Their story is predominantly narrated by Yunior de Las Casas, who was a friend of the Cabral family, although he remains unidentified for the first half of the book. This is a narrative not just concerning the "brief and wondrous life" of Oscar but an epic that spans the Cabral's tragic past in the Dominican Republic under the rule of dictator Rafael Trujillo and a study of the fukú, or curse, that has plagued the Cabral family.

From the irreverently-told prologue explaining fukú, I was enthralled. Yunior is a witty and pithy narrator who tells the story as if he is sitting down in a coffee shop recounting it to you; I enjoyed the conversational style of the story-telling, the everyday colloquialisms and language and dialogues. However, be warned that some of the narrative is peppered with colloquial Spanish and, more often than not, I was reading without my babelfish to hand.

In honour of Oscar, much of the text alludes to and cites science fiction and fantasy, with Tolkien references and analogies prolific and a love for footnotes that are as amusing as those by Terry Pratchett. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel concerning big themes of identity, of the Dominican Diaspora, of family, of masculinity, of dictatorships. I was unaware of The Trujillo Era in the Dominican Republic, of the bloody tyranny of Trujillo, El Jefe, until his assassination in 1961; embarrassingly, it wasn't until towards the end of the book that my brain processed that this Dominican Republic with its bloody history -one of the bloodiest of the twentieth century- was the same Dominican Republic of all-inclusive holiday resorts in the twenty-first century. The tragicomic novel uses its fantastical and familial narrative to historically educate and now that I am more informed I am seeking out another Dominican novel cited, In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, a fictional account of the real-life Mirabel Sisters, who Trujillo had murdered for resistance. This type of fictionalised history that Diaz and Alvarez utilise works for me; I respond better to history in the form of fiction, when I can empathise with fully-fledged characters rather than facts and statistics and Diaz blends well the facts with the fiction.

The style of
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is unique and the reader has to be paying attention to its narrative leaps in time, narrator and jumps from story to footnotes; the linguistic lapses into Spanish, the footnotes and the dependence on knowledge of the genres Oscar's life revolves around may be offputting but this is a highly enjoyable, absorbing and rewarding novel from an original voice. From its opening pages I was immersed in this humorous, heartwarming but ultimately tragic story; Oscar Cabral is indeed a wondrous protagonist.

Some favourite passages:

These were Oscar's furies, his personal pantheon, the girls he most dreamed about and most beat off to and who eventually found their way into his little stories. In his dreams he was either saving them from aliens or he was returning to the neighbourhood, rich and famous-It's him! The Dominican Stephen King!

Shrugging of her weariness, she did what many women of her background would have done. Posted herself beside her portrait of La Virgen de Altagracia and prayed. We postmodern plátanos tend to dismiss the Catholic devotion of our viejas as atavistic, an embarrassing throwback to the olden days, but it's exactly at these moments, when all hope has vanished, when the end draws near, that prayer has dominion.

To say I'd never in my life met a Dominican like him would be to put it mildly.
Hail, Dog of God, was how he welcomed me my first day in Demarest.
Took a week before I figured out what the hell he meant.
God. Domini. Dog. Canis.
Hail, Dominicanis.


farmlanebooks said...

I'm really pleased to hear that you enjoyed this one. I've got a copy here, so hope to read it at some point in the next few months.

Caitie F said...

I am one of the few people that I know of that could not stand this book. I thought Oscar was annoying and I just wasn't rooting for him at all...I liked his sister a lot more and would have wanted to see more of her story.

I really think my main reason for not liking this book is that I am Trujilloed out. I took a history course where we read literature and learned the history of Trujillo. I read four books on him and I think that was enough. Most Americans don't know about the horrible things that he did - so this book was a good way to learn about it, but I just couldn't handle anymore!

That said, I see WHY people enjoyed this book so much, it just wasn't for me.

Vivienne said...

Can't wait to read this one now. I picked it up a couple of months ago and have yet to read it. Shall bump it up my list now.

Steph said...

I have a copy of this one and am hoping to eventually get to it (well, clearly, since I bought it! ;) ). I have been a bit concerned because I had previously heard about the peppering of Spanish throughout the novel, but hopefully that one year I took in highschool and my knowledge of French will help out in that regard! I must confess I'm not all that well-versed with sci-fi either, so I suspect there are going to be large parts of this book that I don't get, but hopefully I'll still enjoy it!

Anonymous said...

You know, I've picked up and put down this book in the shops so many times it's ridiculous. Maybe it’s because I try to stay away from popular books, maybe it's the historical background... Anyhow, I'm glad to hear that you've enjoyed it. I agree about learning about history through fictional characters as a way to relate to the story and not become distanced by dates and facts. And I love that Oscar wants to be a writer your first favorite passage is great :) I have never read In The Time of the Butterflies but I did enjoy the film. I think I will give this one a try now.

Anonymous said...

Oh I have this on the TBR and you have made me even more excited to read this. One I must read in the beginning of 2010. I want to read his collection of short stories too, in fact I might do that first. Fab review.

Anonymous said...

I had meant to read it this year but didn't get to, so next year most definitely. I'm awfully glad you liked it, as chances are I'm also going to (because you know I trust you). Makes me look forward to it even more.

claire said...

P.S. That was me with the previous comment, I don't know why it came out as anonymous.

~Claire (kiss a cloud)

Paperback Reader said...

Jackie, I'll be very interested in your thoughts once you read it.

Hi Caitie, thanks for commenting. Lola was a great character but my heart did warm to Oscar; I liked that he was an aspiring writer and so passionate about the things he liked.

I can understand why you would have been Trujilloed out; I found it overwhelming even in the one text and that was without knowing any of the history (here in the UK we're probably even more oblivious to events than the United States).

Vivienne, I hope you enjoy it. It's a very interesting and memorable book and one that I couldn't compare with anything else I have read.

Steph, I think you will enjoy it without the knowledge of Spanish (and you have more than me!) or Sci-fi/fantasy; it isn't crucial to the plot and most of it can be garnered from the context.

Danielle, I do love that first quote and Oscar's writing aspirations are a big part of the book and something I really enjoyed reading about; it plays its part in the narrative well. I hope that you do enjoy this if you give it a try and that whatever made you cautious of it in the past doesn't hinder the reading experience.

Simon, I fancy reading Drown now. Diaz's writing is exceptionally good and I love his voice. I think you'll enjoy this as it is an original and special book.

Claire, I was wondering who the anonymous person who trusted me was! I trust that you will like it in 2010!

Nadia said...

I bought the book when it first came out and I have yet to read it. It is just sitting on my shelf waiting to be picked up. From your review, I can tell I am going to really enjoy reading it. This will be on my TBR list for 2010. Thanks for the great post!

Aarti said...

Wow, this sounds great! I have seen it everywhere, but never really knew what it was about. I love that it alludes to fantasy and sci fi. Must look into it!

Jo said...

I don't know what it is, but something makes me keep avoiding this. I read good reviews, think I'd like it, but when it comes to it, I buy something else! And the library doesn't have it. I'm not sure what it will take for me to pick this up!

Karen said...

This sounds like such an amazing book and even though I have heard so much about it I never actually knew exactly what it was about so thank you for your fantastic summary. I'm not sure if it is the book for me but I think I will give it a go and see.

anothercookiecrumbles said...

Most of the reviews I've read about this book have been pretty negative. Been really apprehensive about starting it... your review makes it slightly more encouraging.

Am planning on finishing it before the year is out, so, wish me luck!

naida said...

Hi Claire, thanks for the wonderful holiday gifts! Love the book, bookmark and wonderful cd!
thank you!

Paperback Reader said...

Nadia, you're welcome! I hope you have a great year of reading in 2010 and enjoy this one.

Aarti, being a fan of fantasy and sci-fi, you will definitely appreciate Oscar Wao. I highly recommend looking into it now you know what it is about.

Jo, there seems to be something that is deterring you from reading it so perhaps it isn't for you? I knew hardly anything about it when I bought it a few months ago except that it had won the Pulitzer and came recommended by Nymeth.

Karen, you're welcome! It is amazingly original and even though it may not be suitable for you I definitely suggest giving it a try.

anothercookie, I have only read one review of this and it was glowing! I knew little about it before reading, which is sometimes an advantage. Good luck!

Naida, I am so glad that they arrived and that you are happy! Enjoy and Merry Christmas xx

Nymeth said...

I knew nothing about Trujillo either until I read this book. Like you said, the Dominican Republic is prominent in people's imaginations as a dream holiday destination, yet so little is known about its history. Thank goodness for books like this.

And what a pity that his talk was cancelled! Fingers crossed that he schedules another date.

Paperback Reader said...

Ana, I found this book educational and I am so glad that I now have an insight into the country's turbulent history.

I really hope that I do hear Diaz speak on another occasion; apparently his visits to the UK are rare but I live in a city that is more likely to have a repeat literary event where he appears.

Rebecca Reid said...

I love it when a novel teaches me something about a place and time. I think I'll get to this some day but I actually want to read Tolkein first, since I heard that might help :)

Paperback Reader said...

Rebecca, apologies for the delayed response. It would help to have read Tolkein but isn't essential! I love being educated about numerous and diverse subjects through reading.