In 1996 Junot Diaz released a book of short stories titled Drown. A few of the stories were published in prestigious magazines, and whilst the collection was far from raising a storm, it was also far from being badly received. 11 years later Diaz finally finished The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Junot Diaz is therefore a big deal these days, because The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao put him on the literary map—a little randomly, for sure, but also deservedly.
In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Junot Diaz writes about a Dominican immigrant family living in New Jersey. Oscar Wao, the book’s namesake, is a young, second generation Dominican who finds life awfully difficult, primarily because of his unnerving infatuation with all females and his complete inability to talk to any of them, let alone progress to the point of actually having a girlfriend.
Dogging the narrative is the idea of “fuku”, a kind of bad luck plague that, in the olden days, was said to be caught by offending the governmental regime of Trujillo.
Trujillo was a truly despicable dictator who ruled over the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961.
Have you heard of this guy? I certainly hadn’t. (Hangs head in shame over Eurocentric history lessons)
Trujillo’s is considered one of the most brutal dictatorial regimes to have reigned in Latin America over that period. He killed a whole bunch of people and essentially abolished civil liberties.
(Head hangs lower.)
Return from detour:
Our poor, girlfriendless, overweight, and unsociably wordy protagonist is convinced that he is plagued by “fuku” and that this is the reason for his unfortunate life.
Dramatic, but not completely far-fetched. One of the best things about this book in my opinion is the way that the Trujillo era and all of its most appalling qualities are shown to have overflown and seeped into the bordering histories of the nation. There is a clear injustice-oriented domino effect that reverberates throughout Dominican history—in this case, Oscar Wao’s family.
It is a deeply moving look at how cruelty and miscarriages of justice spill over to affect more than just one victim—sometimes it leaves a whole nation reeling and wounded. This is the picture that Diaz paints of the Dominican Republic, and it makes for a fascinating read.
Completely at odds with what is a rather heavy subject matter is the breezy youthfulness to the way that Diaz writes. The narrative ebbs and flows with a voice that seems to be chatting at full speed into your ear, sometimes employing the most rudimentary of slang and sometimes curving fluidly into an insightful commentary on our world today with a wordy sophistication reminiscent of Saldana Paris’s Among Strange Victims.
There is no doubt in my mind that The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao will stay on university syllabuses for many decades to come. It addresses more than one issue that is worth out time and attention: totalitarianism, immigration, memory, trauma, family and last but not least, love.
At 335 pages, this is the longest book I’ve read in a while, and it felt like the shortest. I do not hesitate to recommend it to… well, absolutely everybody.