This best seller is considered by critics in a BBC poll to be the best novel of the 21st century so far, in addition it’s won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008 and many other awards. It tells the story of Oscar de Leon, aka Oscar Wao (a nickname and corrupted version of “Wilde”), who migrates from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey and eventually returns to the D.R. and is the latest in his family to deal with the curse of fuku. Oscar is an anti-hero as an overweight nerd who is picked on by bullies at school and avoided by all the girls in spite of his relentless attempts to befriend them. He funnels his energy into writing science fiction, which shows he has writing chops, but fails to gain the interest of publishers. His life seems headed nowhere until he returns to the Dominican Republic where his “brief wondrous life” eventually begins. Much of the novel flashes back to the previous struggles of his family members with the fuku curse in sections about his grandfather, Dr. Abelard Cabral, from the 1920’s to 1960 and his mother, Belicia Cabral, from c. 1946 to c. 2000. Alongside the personal stories of Oscar and his family is the story of the Dominican Republic from the time Christopher Columbus first landed on the island of Hispaniola, the island of The Dominican Republic and Haiti, up through and focusing on the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo 1930-1961, and the subsequent suppressive rule of Joaquin Balaguer. The brutal conditions, comparable to Stalin’s USSR, during the Trujillo dictatorship help perpetuate the curse of fuku which, in the story, is said to originate with Columbus and slavery. Recurring symbols pop up during the scenes in which the curse is playing out, such as a man without a face seen by several characters, a mongoose who aids the victims of the curse, and books with pages left blank which the characters were unable to fill in with their answers to mysteries before dying. Counterbalancing the dark tragedy of most of the story is a fair amount of humor in the narrative voice of Yunior. His slang with a mixture of Spanish, and English along with interjections to the reader, such as; “Negro, please!”, lends a light conversational mood to the narration and draws you into the setting. There are also extensive footnotes relating factual history, often done with a tongue-in-cheek tone.
This book relates to last month’s selection, “Americanah”. Both deal with the diaspora of people of color in America and the countries they come from, Nigeria being the case in “Americanah”. Themes of race and class dominate both books. There are also a couple of references to the author, Mario Vargas Llosa, whose “The Green House” we read back in February.
When I first saw the title of this book I immediately thought of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Hemingway, with its nearly identical syntax, but the similarities don’t end there. In both works the title character makes a transformation near the end by resolving a central problem in the story only to have their lives abruptly and violently cut short.
Many videos of the author appear on YouTube. Here is one in which he discusses “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”