I finished reading Junot Diaz’s The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao a few days back; I liked it a lot.
As with Mario Vargas Llosa’s The feast of the goat (about which book, Diaz does not seem to be very happy — at least about the history that is described in that book), the sections dealing with Trujillo’s dictatorship are excruciatingly painful to read — though, unlike Llosa’s book, in Diaz’s, the figure of Trujillo it not so much a presence as a terrifying shadow that looms from the footnotes. Also, unlike Llosa’s book (the vivid descriptions, in which, of astrocities committed by Trujillo and his hench-men left me sickened for a couple of days after I finished reading it), Oscar Wao, is in some sense an elevating book; and, I think Jacob Russell nails the reason for that in his review:
This is not the story of Oscar Wao–it is his life, because his is the life that encompasses all the characters in the book. He is all that his mother has denied. And in the end, frees himself from her, not in rebellion, like Lola, but by affirming the antithetical drives he carries within him. In doing so, he surrenders to the curse, the Fuku… he has to. Amor Fati… and defeats it. The sacrificial victim–who, having lived the life of the victim all his years, frees himself… from the mother of his victimhood, frees her with him. Transforms the curse to a blessing…. and yet… Diaz doesn’t let us forget… such triumphs do not raise the dead, do not erase the scars, do not vanish the shadows…
… of the Trujillos that haunt us still.
I also liked Oscar Wao for the way in which it is written — using a language that is at once profanity ridden, angry, sad, comic, wise, and peppered with Spanish words (that I gave up translating using Google after the first few pages), and socio-literary allusions.
I gave one sample of Diaz’s writing (from the footnotes) earlier; here is another (in the fourth page of the novel):
You want a final conclusive answer to the Warren Commission’s 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 on a lone gunman. It wasn’t the Hunt Brothers of Texas of Lee Harvey or the Trilateral Commission. It was Trujillo; it was the fuku. Where in conazo do you think the so-called Curse of the Kennedys comes from? How about Vietnam? Why do you think the greatest power in the world lost its first war to a Third World country like Vietnam? I mean, Negro, please. It might interest you that just as the U.S. was ramping up its involvement in Vietnam, LBJ launched an illegal invasion of the Dominican Republic (April 28, 1965). (Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq.) A smashing military success for the U.S., and many of the same units and intelligence teams that took part in the “democratization” of Santo Domingo were immediately shipped off to Saigon. What do you think these soldiers, technicians, and spooks carried with then, in their rucks, in their suitcases, in their shirt pockets, on the hair inside their nostrils, caked up around their shoes. Just a little gift from my people to America, a small repayment for an unjust war. That’s right, folks, Fuku.
If the phrase “Negro, please” is something that Diaz uses with great effect elsewhere too in the book, the sentence, “Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq” is Raja Rao-ian in its flavour.
Bottomline: a book certainly worth your time (and a writer to look forward to reading — I have already checked out from the library his short story collection called Drown).
PS: Here is the novella that Diaz published in the New Yorker with the same name as the novel, in case you wanted a longer sample of Diaz’s writing.
Update: From the comment: Jacob Russell recommends this review of Oscar Wao by Mathew Sharpe at Powell’s books.