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Junot Díaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This novel was voted the best novel of the century so far by a group of US critics and, while I do not agree with their assessment, I can see why they chose it, as it is a fine novel. The background of the novel is the situation in the Dominican Republic, in particular the Trujillo era but as he was assassinated in 1961, his legacy and his successors also figure highly. Trujillo has already appeared on these pages, as the subject of Mario Vargas Llosa‘s La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), a novel to which Díaz refers on several occasions, not always flatteringly.

The Dominican Republic had two major problems. The first, of course, was Trujillo, the second was fukú (generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World). (The level of humour does improve somewhat but, if you do not mind, the sort of jokes told by eleven year olds then you won’t mind Díaz’s jokes). Fukú started with the arrival of the Europeans and things have been bad ever since. Trujillo and fukú are linked. You want a final conclusive answer to the Warren Commission question, Who killed JFK? Let me, your humble Watcher, reveal once and for all the God’s Honest Truth: It wasn’t the mob or LBJ or the ghost of Marilyn Fucking Monroe. It wasn’t aliens or the KGB or a lone gunman. It wasn’t the Hunt Brothers of Texas or Lee Harvey or the Trilateral Commission. It was Trujillo; it was the fukú. Both of these have an effect on Oscar and his family.

The book is narrated by Yunior, both friend of Oscar and on-off boyfriend of Lola, Oscar’s sister. Nevertheless, the chapters are told from the perspective of various individuals. Oscar de León is growing up in Paterson, New Jersey. His family is from the Dominican Republic. Oscar has two interests in life. The first is science fiction, of which he is an inveterate reader and, later on, writer. The second is falling in love. Oscar is overweight, so getting a girlfriend has always been a problem, even though, as a Dominican, it is his duty to have lots of girlfriends (this is a Dominican kid we’re talking about, in a Dominican family: dude was supposed to have Atomic Level G, was supposed to be pulling in the bitches with both hands.) He did have some brief success when he was seven, with two girlfriends, but one made him choose and she did not last long after he had chosen her. The first chapter is told from the point of view of Oscar and we learn of his failure with girls. The chapter ends up with his going to Rutgers, where, sadly, he will still not have much success. The second chapter is from the point of view of Lola and we learn of her fractious relationship with her mother, which results in her being sent to live with her grandmother in the Dominican Republic.

We then go back and learn about Beli, the mother of Oscar and Lola and the difficult time she had back in the Dominican Republic, not least because she had an affair with a gangster who turned out to be the husband of Trujillo’s sister. It is because of this that she flees to the United States. We then jump back to Oscar at Rutgers, where he is taken up by Yunior, who tries to help him get a girl but, inevitably, matters turn out to be quite complicated and not very successful. The book jumps further back in the history of the de León family and shows how both Trujillo and the fukú negatively affected the family and then jumps forward, with Oscar in the Dominican Republic and falling in love – with the wrong person.

What makes this book is that it is all told with tongue in cheek, with a lot of humour and with numerous political and linguistic references, which, even if you speak Spanish, may baffle you, if you are not familiar with the Dominican Republic, so much so that you may need a guide. Díaz switches from Dominican Republic slang, often vulgar (though not as obviously vulgar to English speakers as fukú) to learned discussions. In addition to a knowledge of Dominican slang, history and culture, a knowledge of science fiction might also be useful. Díaz superbly keeps the pace going and has us switching from laughing at his humour to portraying horrific situations and behaviour by Trujillo and his men (and their successors), which will make you shudder. Moreover, you cannot help but feel sorry for Oscar the fat lonely nerdy kid and his pitiful and often self-defeating attempts to get a girl and sorry for him when it looks like that he might have some success but then it all goes wrong. Indeed, it is the judicious mixing of these two registers – the direct, in your face, Dominican humour and the sad story of various members of the de León family and, indeed, much of the population of the Dominican Republic, where Trujillo and his men have absolute power and can and do abuse it on a regular basis. With some elements of fantasy and science fiction thrown in, it is easy to see why this novel had such success and was voted the best novel so far of the 21st century. It is a happy mixture of styles, which Díaz makes work very well, it has a nerdy but sympathetic hero whose misfortunes we share, as well as several other imaginatively drawn characters, lots of humour, sex and violence, and an obvious bad guy, in the form of Trujillo and the other goons of the Dominican Republic. It is a good book and it is a very enjoyable book, as well, but best novel of the 21st century? I am not convinced.

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by Riverhead Books