Monday, January 26, 2009

A tour de force ... I think

I have not read Drown, the much acclaimed collection of short stories which was Junot Diaz's first book. So when I started reading his (Pulitzer prize winning) first novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, it is fair to say that I was not quite prepared for the assault that is Diaz's writing style.

I read somewhere once that 'language is the liquid we are all dissolved in'. Not quite pithy and poetic, but you get the point. The language someone uses in their writing is probably the best window we have into the world they inhabit (or the world they want to immerse us into). The world that Junot Diaz presents here is so different from the one I inhabit, that it might as well have been another planet. But here's the thing - I could feel in my bones that this world is much the America of today as my own sedentary suburban existence. It is a world that is completely, almost unbelievably, dark, and yet is vividly, starkly real.

On surface, Oscar Wao is the story of three generations of a family from the Dominican Republic, the youngest of whom is Oscar Wao, the tragically overweight nerd living in a New Jersey ghetto. This is the Dominican Republic during the brutal 1930-1961 reign of 'dictator-for-life' Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. In the first of many footnotes in the book - Really? Footnotes? In a novel? Just one of the many ways Diaz shows in his writing that he doesn't care about conventional writing conventions - Diaz gives us the quick bography of the dictator whose presence is going to haunt the rest of the book, though he actually appears only once. 'Trujillo (also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief and Fuckface) came to control nearly every aspect of the DR's political, cultural, social and economic life through a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, rape, co-optation and terror; treated the country like it was a plantation and he was the master. ... He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our once-and-future dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful, that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up.'

The other constant presence is the book is something equally outlandishly magical - a fuku, a curse that haunts one's family 'for the seventh generation and beyond'. And the most powerful fuku is released when you cross Trujillo. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao shuttles back and forth between three fuku-doomed generations of the de Leon family, between Santo Domingo and New Jersey. And through multiple narrative voices, we slowly learn of the fuku that hovers over the family, and of the tragedy that befalls everyone touched by it.

One of the great things about Oscar Wao is that it is almost impossible to categorize into any particular genre. The most I could say is that this is super-contemporary fiction, but anything more precise severely limits the soaring prose that is Oscar Wao.

Ah, the prose! America is a land of many tongues ... and here we see the high octane, shotgun tongue of the Dominican in Jersey. If you get goosebumps when you come face to face with a powerful new sub-culture revealed by an accent or a dialect, this is the book for you. Think The Clockwork Orange, only replace the Russian with Spanish. The language took me on a wild, rollercoaster ride, and when it was all said and done, I felt rattled, and gasping for air.

Which brings me to the one problem I had with the book. Oscar Wao is unapologetically bilingual. And I don't mean a few Spanish words thrown into the mix of an Engligh narrative. Neither do I mean a few pieces of dialogue in Spanish that are followed by an Engligh explanation of what the characters said. I am talking full-blown bilingual here. Large parts of the narrative are in Spanish, and Diaz makes no attempt to 'make it easy' on his English-only audience. I whole-heartedly admired his ability to remain true to his characters, and his refusal to compromise on his language. But here's the thing - my Spanish sucks! For the first half of the book, I found myself reading with Google Translator open on my computer right next to me. But there is only so much reading you can do with an open laptop next to you. So that fell by the wayside somewhere along the way. So when I closed the final page of the book, I felt like I had just sat through what seemed like a historically great movie ... only it was in 3D, and someone forgot to give me the glasses!

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