Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Ex Libris: Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The foreign is truly a separate country from us, one that needs travel documents like a passport and visa. It has its own language and culture, as well as its own mindset that may be totally alien to ours.

In Junot Diaz's Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he gives us a guide to a number of foreign shores. For most of us, that would be the history and culture of the Dominican Republic, just one of the many South American countries that had been saddled with military/right-wing regimes in an era of a cold war and the possibility of a rain of nuclear warheads.

But under Diaz's hand, he shows us that the Dominican Republic is not just any third-world country south of the US with a tin-pot dictator. Rather, he pens a tragic tale of a magic land under the heavy hand of the evil king Trujillo and a family that flees the king's curse of the fukú.

Unfortunately-- and this is where we visit other foreign shores that are closer to us-- this supposed curse has been heaped on the family of one lonely overweight geek named Oscar de Leon. Oscar, the eponymously named 'Oscar Wao', lives in New Jersey under the shadow of a legacy of a family that had fled to the US to find a better life.

Like a multilingual genius, it is here where Junot Diaz shines as he 'speaks' two different 'languages' or cultures to the reader, i.e. the Dominican culture in which Oscar grows up as well as the geekhood Oscar had adopted in order to understand the world. The latter includes references to comic books, science-fiction movies and fantasy books.

As such, the story-- narrated either by Oscar's best friend, Yunior de las Casas, or Oscar's older sister, Lola de Leon-- is littered with Spanish and geek terms. But despite this heavy usage, the text doesn't drag down the reader's understanding (and flow) of the story. In fact, it even enhances it.

For example, see how Diaz describes Beli had developed into a stunner:
"For the record, that summer our girl caught a cuerpazo so berserk that only a pornographer or a comic-book artist could have designed it with a clear conscience. Every neighborhood has its tetúa, but Beli could have put them all to shame, she was La Tetúa Suprema: her tetas were globes so implausiblly titanic they made generous souls pity their bearer and drove every straight male in their vicinity to reevaluate his sorry life. She had the Breasts of Luba (35DDD)."
If you didn't understand that (and if you're a guy), then you're not human.

All the rest-- the characters like Oscar, Yuniper, Lola, Beli; the generational narrative that's constantly used in these type of stories; the tragic tale of the De Leon family; and even the flowing literary language that somehow melds English, Spanish and geek-- these are spices added to an exotic dish that will intrigue even the most jaded of reading tastes.

What's more interesting is that Diaz uses the protagonist Oscar-- despite never using him as the narrator-- as a bridge to tell his story that spans the three cultures: the US, the Dominican Republic, and the smaller world of geekhood. This is because Oscar symbolizes the misplaced-resident, a citizen of the diaspora of a transplanted culture and life in a foreign land.

It is this that resonates for this particular reader coming from a country whose own people are lost to the world in search for a better life. Whether Dominican or Filipino, Oscar's story is one of ours as well. (Rating: Four paws out of four.)

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