The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
By Junot Diaz
Faber and Faber Reviewed :By Jeremy Rose
I can think of no other book – and definitely no other novel – that I would recommend for the footnotes alone. Here’s a taste:
Although not essential to our tale, per se, Balaguer is essential to the Dominican one, so therefore we must mention him, even though I’d rather piss in his face. The elders say, Anything uttered for the first time summons a demon, and when twentieth century Dominicans first uttered the word freedom en masse the demon they summoned was Balaguer…
Oscar Wao is a Tolkien-loving, fantasy-world inhabiting, comic-imbibing, Dominican nerd desperate to get laid. The problem is, in the sexually charged, uber-cool world that Oscar actually lives in a Dominican nerd is an oxymoron. And morons, oxy or otherwise, don’t get laid.
So far, so bad-Hollywood comedy, but although there are more than a few funny scenes in the book it’s a far darker and far more original work than the rootless nerd premise might suggest.
The book’s energy and inventiveness are reminiscent of Spike Lee’s classic Do the Right Thing . Like Lee, Diaz is entirely unconstrained by convention – and more than up to the task of forging new grammars and vocabularies as required.
Narrated, in the main, by Yunior – roommate to Oscar and sometime boyfriend to his sister, the novel tells the story of three generations in the US and the Dominican Republic.
It’s a stereotype-smashing tale of love, tyranny and comic book-obsessing nuttiness set against the backdrop of Trujillo’s murderous dictatorship.
Junot Diaz Illustration: Anthony Ellison.
Peppered with Spanish words and phrases – many of which you won’t find in a standard English–Spanish dictionary the book is a lexicographer’s delight. There’s no glossary to help out – presumably because Diaz assumes either that his readers will understand, or that in context the lack of understanding won’t get in the way of them understanding the story. In some cases a pithy footnote will fill you in:
The pejorative pariguayo, Watchers agree, is a corruption of the English neoglism “party watcher.” The word came in to common usage during the First American Occupation of the DR, which ran from 1916 to 1924. (You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq either.) during the First Occupation it was reported that members of the American Occupying Forces would often attend Dominican parties but instead of joining in the fun the Outlanders would simply stand at the edge of the dances and watch. Which of course must have seemed like the craziest thing in the world. Who goes to a party to watch?….
Then there’s: “Culocracy” [culo = arse in Spanish]: “Whenever I close my eyes and think of the Trujillo regime, or I close my eyes further and think of Thomas Jefferson sneaking off in the middle of the night to rape a slave, I think of Culocracy.”
Here’s to the next episode of Diaz’s Battle with the Culocracy.
Jeremy Rose is a the editor of the Scoop Review of Books and a Wellington journalist.
JUNOT DIAZ will be appearing at the AUCKLAND WRITERS AND READERS FEST. For details see the fesival programme.