One of the things I love about second-hand bookstores is that you can find things for cheap that you might have been unsure about buying. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was one of these, and after it languished on my pile for a long time, I finally picked it up, needing something a little bit different to all the older, translated stuff I’ve been ploughing through lately.
Oscar de León is the latest in a long line of de Leons whose life is less than stellar. He is overweight, boring, depressed, and unloved by almost every girl he meets. To understand why his life is so terrible, our narrator takes us back to the Dominican Republic, and several decades, and tells us the story of the de León family, and what is was that has caused all this bad luck for the family.
Before reading this, I was deeply ignorant of the history of the Dominican Republic. Fortunately, our intrepid narrator assumes every reader has a similar level of knowledge, and fills in the gaps. Tying a family’s history to that of a country has been done time and time again (see The Stranger’s Child, for example), but when you don’t know anything about the history of the country, it becomes even more of an interesting read. Fortunately, the history lesson never overshadows the story of the characters, which is also nice. Díaz is particularly concerned with painting Rafael Trujillo, the insane dictator of the Domonican Republic for much of the century, as just that – an insane man. This sense of irreverence really works – just as Hitler was made fun of in Doctor Who this year, so too is Trujillo ridiculed through his actions in the novel.
I mention Doctor Who for two reasons. The first is that I watch far too much of it for my own good, and the second being that Díaz has peppered this novel with pop culture references like nobody’s business. Superman, Batman, and a myriad of other superheroes get a look in here – and I don’t know whether to be proud or saddened because I understand almost all of them. Pop culture – and comic culture, in particular – references can be cheesy when used by an author trying desperately to be hip, cool and postmodern – and while Díaz is all of those things, it never feels like he’s trying too hard to portray this image. It flows naturally and logically from the voice of the narrator.
I don’t want to tell you who the narrator is – suffice it to say, it is one of the minor characters in the novel – but there’s a lot to be said for the voice. It is postmodern, complete with self-reflexive moments, as well as copious footnotes and asides. We are constantly reminded of the fact that the narrator is relating to us the story of the de León family as told to us by Oscar Wao. He freely admits that there are things within the story he himself does not understand – particularly the question of the fukú, and whether this curse is real.
Oscar himself is somewhat tangential to the main thrust of the narrative Díaz takes us on. More than anything, this is the story of women – particularly the de León family women. Oscar’s sister, Lola, and their mother, Beli, have a fractious relationship, clashing because neither understands the other. Beli, brought up in the Dominican Republic by her father’s cousin, La Inca, cannot fathom Lola’s American ways. Beli, too, has a turbulent relationship with her guardian, La Inca, and their constant fights mean they do not speak to each other for a very long time.
We then jump even further back, and explore the lives of Beli’s family, and the origin of the curse – Oscar’s grandfather, and the “Bad Thing he said about Trujillo.” Once again, Trujillo’s figure looms large, and his effect on the de León family can be seen as some kind of metaphor for his effect on the Dominican Republic on a larger scale. Clearly, Díaz has a bone to pick – and fair enough, really.
This is not just another ethnic novel about the growing Hispanic and Caribbean population of the United States. Díaz concerns himself with universal themes about the relationships between men and women, about the stories of families and how their history informs their current way of life, and about survival. The characters of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao do not get off lightly. They are put through the wringer again and again, but most of them survive. Whether this survival is worth it, though, is something you will have to work out for yourself.