Notes on Books: Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Disclaimer: A few plot details have been discussed here. Proceed no further if you want to be surprised when reading either of these two books.

I have fallen head over heels in love with the searing writing of Junot Díaz. I’d like to kick myself for taking this long to read both Drown (which I didn’t know existed) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (which I did). I intend to read This Is How You Lose Her now. Drown is his collection of short stories – a bit of a debate on that one but that’s what the library filed it under and I’m going to call it so for the time being. I know I haven’t posted an entry in sometime and while I’ve been reading, I’ve not been shaken up in a long time. Before reading him, I thought Díaz was a festival circuit author having noticed him appear at the Jaipur Lit fest a few times and several other festivals. You know the ones who appear at literary festivals because they are either good looking or have good connections. I’d put him down as both. No, I wasn’t there but I follow lit fests like football fans follow football. But I am happy to say have been proved wrong.

Let me explain why. I’d picked up Drown at the American Library and couldn’t put it down. Ten short stories so incendiary so luminious and so true I haven’t read in a while. I can’t think of them as separate short stories since more or less the same characters appear in all of them. Yunior could be said to be a central character while the others circle his orbit and sometimes he circles the others’. Almost all the stories appear to be concerned with Yunior either aged nine or older, his brother Rafa, their absent and charismatic/strict father and the long-suffering tragically-beautiful mother. Sometimes the oppressiveness of this set up is lightened by the presence of other relatives usually an abuelo (grandfather) and a few tíos (uncles) and tías (aunts). A sense of oppressiveness is also achieved because nothing is said aloud, feelings are repressed and, sometimes when expressed, are violent. Tipping the balance is the additional factor of poverty. It’s a stark third-world poverty. But their lives are rich in spite of it. It reminds me so much of the Brazilian film Cidade de Deus.

Drown has ten gritty, dark and ravishing stories which appeared to me as ten episodes in the life of Yunior. The tone, texture and insight of all the stories were connected and appeared to be facets of the same stone. Hold up the stone to the light and you will get one kind of story. Put it down and you get another. Turn it around and you get yet another. And no matter which way you observe that stone, the kernel of the story is the same – how a child copes with several lacks (love, money, food) in trying circumstances. While in the Dominican Republic, he has one set of challenges and when he moves to the USA, he has a different set all the while observing the world from the margins. Much later, I read somewhere that Díaz wanted his first collection (published in 1996) to be this genre-bending creative work.

‘Aguantando’ (holding on) is perhaps my favourite of the lot. It’s from the point of view of the absent father. A story that the son reconstructs partly by interviewing his father’s mistress and partly by imagining it himself. Yunior through these stories is trying to understand why his father abandoned him and how this abandonment shapes the life he leads.

Drown attracted me because of the voice. The voice of a mature yet carefree nine year old growing up in the edges of poverty and violence in a corner of the world probably off the map as far as the mainstream narrative is concerned. It’s the voice that Díaz gets so right. Every nuance tells me more than any description ever will. (I try but I cannot resist, I have to say this, Díaz teaches creative writing at MIT. There, I have succumbed to biography.)

What attracted me to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was the title. A title like that is like the first step to a long striptease and indeed reading Oscar Wao is a seduction. The best is kept for the last but the journey is so interesting. It is not just the story of an obese comic-book reading introvert obsessed with love and women and his unsuccessful attempts at losing his virginity, it is also the larger story of a curse that follows the Cabral-de León family right from the days of Oscar’s grandfather, Abelard Luis Cabral during the rule of Dominican Republic’s very own Pinochet, Rafael Trujillo. His all-pervading and terrorising presence in the tiny Caribbean island changes so many lives – many by ending them – including that of Oscar’s family. This curse which Díaz calls fukú goes a long way back when North Americans landed on the small island. It strikes down Oscar’s grandfather, follows Oscar’s mother Beli as she moves from the DR to the USA following the arc of her own story, affects Lola to a large extent and finds its natural home in Oscar. If fukú is a curse, zafa is the force of protection, a blessing, and the most powerful zafa is – remember Harry Potter? – Love. Zafa brings Beli to La Inca, who single-handedly brings up Beli. While fukú makes Beli fall in love with all the wrong sorts, it is La Inca’s intense prayer (zafa at work again) that brings her back from the dead. Lola has a hate-hate relationship with her mother which can be attributed to the same fukú. Even though he is unlucky, Oscar thinks he is fukú-proof but he isn’t and realises the pull it retains no matter how far he is from the motherland. Basically the forces of good and evil pull our protagonists in opposite directions. As you can see, the scale of this book is epic.

Such clear-cut distinction between good and evil can only be born from someone who has a deep and abiding love of comic books. Narrated by Yunior (from Drown probably), who has a humungous crush on Lola, comic book allusions and footnotes abound. Allusions from Watchmen, Fantastic Four and references to Tolkien, E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, H.P Lovecraft and Doctor Who among others which sometimes makes complete sense to the nerd in me. There are a few that slip away but they don’t affect the story.

Most of the footnotes are a historical background to the story. (The last time I came across this detailed footnotes was in Jonathan Stroud’s The Bartemaeus Trilogy.) Long footnotes detail the history that is never found in the text books. It is the untold story which everybody knows but won’t admit.  A parallel narrative, the footnotes, by themselves tell the bloody history of the Dominican Republic. The South American continent’s relationship with violence is well-documented in fiction but violence and the Caribbean – of which the Dominican Republic is a part – is rarely so. Oscar Wao is Díaz’s contribution.

The Spanish-English street patois that the story is narrated in lends a certain rawness and rhythm to the story. I could understand some of them. While it was tempting to search for meaning online, there was just too much of it so I let the language lead me: the context providing much of the meaning.

No matter who does the telling – Oscar, Lola, Beli, La Inca, or Yunior – you get to hear the same patios. Each character tells their own story, Yunior collects them together but it is up to the reader to piece together the narrative. That is another similarity between Drown and Oscar Wao.

Díaz writes this powerful story in a light almost comic-book hero voice. And this voice kind of follows you around even as you go about your day and do your everyday things. I was tempted to add ‘cabrón’ and ‘pendeja’ in my conversations despite not knowing what they mean. (Eventually, I googled.)

Writing, being written and rewritten are a particular focus in Oscar Wao. Oscar wants to pen his magnum opus to be a cross between E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and J. R. R. Tolkien. He also writes copiously to keep his sanity. He also prefers to leave evidence of his last days in writing. Yunior is writing Oscar’s story. He first studies creative writing, then teaches it. Abelard Cabral was hunted because he was rumoured to have been writing a supernatural history of the Trujillo regime. Trujillo, detestable as he is, is also engaged in an act of writing: he writes and sometimes rewrites the history of his country. Unfortunately he writes it in blood and on the people. Trujillo significantly did not leave a paper trail, unlike the Germans, the footnotes say. The women Beli, Lola and La Inca do not write. (Oscar Wao is begging to be analysed. I’d be surprised if it does not have a few master’s theses and dissertations focused on it by now.)

Since we are talking about the Caribbean, there is of course the supernatural. Apart from the fukú, the zafa, Abelard’s rumoured book, there is the appearance at key moments of a Mongoose and a faceless man. Oscar and Beli see it at different times but usually when they are very close to death. This supernatural element is not magic realism by any account. It’s more a Frostian nod to the road that it did not walk on.

I usually read several books at once but while reading Oscar Wao, I couldn’t.  It consumed me and entranced me so much that I was in a zone from which I did not want to leave. Even as I closed the back cover of the book, I refused to break the zafa (and the fukú too) of a book as good as this. It’s been a day since I finished reading it and I haven’t touched another book while I write this. That for me is the mark of a good book. So read it if you want to be blown away by sheer talent.

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