The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz

January 1, 2010 § 13 Comments

052

That’s life for you. All the happiness you gather to yourself, it will sweep away like it’s nothing. If you ask me I don’t think there are any such things as curses. I think there is only life. That’s enough.

Oscar Wao is a book about the life of a Dominican family. And like all Dominican families, this family had their share of fukú (loosely interpreted as ‘curse’). From way back, starting with Oscar’s grandfather, right down to his sister and himself, all sorts of evil come their way.

It’s perfectly fine if you don’t believe in these “superstitions.” In fact, it’s better than fine – it’s perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you.


There was so much about the book that I found immensely intriguing. For one, this is probably the first fiction book I’ve come across that came with such extensive footnotes. With parts of the story set during the Trujillo era (military dictatorship), and parts of it post-Trujillo, the footnotes, I have to say, came very much in handy, elaborating on some of the finer points of that period in history for the Dominican Republic.

But that doesn’t in the slightest way imply that this is a dry dull book. If anything, it is the direct opposite. The writing was very conversational, with generous splashes of Spanglish sprinkled everywhere. That, and when you have phrases like:

In the end I didn’t have the ovaries. (Lola, Oscar’s sister)

you just can’t help but like the writing style.

It was so easy to just love the characters, be it the fat nerdy Oscar, or his sister Lola who loved Oscar fiercely, their scary-as mother Beli, their abuela (grandmother) La Inca who sort of seemed to have some sort of weird power or whatnot.. I just loved every single one of them. I particularly liked Yunior, who was Oscar’s roomie for a while.

*

I have to say, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if I knew at least a little bit of Spanish, but as it is, I understand no Spanish whatsoever. Some of the phrases got me completely lost.

However, I’m so so glad I found this webpage HERE, which provides most of the annotations needed to make this book completely understandable. It’s not the best way to read any book, but it’s better than nothing.

Even with my zero knowledge of the Spanish language AND science fiction (there were a lot, and I mean a lot, of references to science fiction and fantasy stories, such as Tolkein’s LOTR, Marvel comics and the like), and despite the fact that I had to read the book with my computer right next to me, I did very much enjoy it.

It explored the complicating relationships and prejudices that coloured people have of other coloured people. Even with all the prejudice and discrimination heaped onto coloured people on the whole, they themselves indulge in their own prejudices. A slight difference in skin tone or accent could determine how well you could survive in that given community. And heaven forbid that you should be fat, and a nerd. That could spell hell on earth.

*

I liked the book and how it was written. Definitely showed me a part of history that was lost on me. I’d love to give Díaz’s debut book, Drown, a try some time.

But like I said, I would have enjoyed this book so so much more if I knew *some* Spanish, and *some* science fiction. Otherwise, this would have gotten a much higher rating.

Rating: 4

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§ 13 Responses to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz

  • mee says:

    Interesting info about the Spanish and the scifi. I’ve been sort of pondering whether I want to read this book or not. The insight into Dominican culture definitely intrigued me. But what you said about the “hurdles” put me off a bit.

  • su says:

    @ mee: The “hurdles”, as you put them, can be quite cumbersome. But overall, I’d say it was definitely worth it.

  • charley says:

    I hope to read this book at some point, and I’ll make a note of the website you linked. I have a hard time guessing what words mean.

  • Mark David says:

    Interesting. I’ve seen this book before but I only got acquanted with Diaz when I listened to a reading of his story in The New Yorker. Apparently he’s a respected figure in short stories as well. Last month’s reading in the New Yorker Fiction Podcast featured him discussing the story of another Hispanic writer. You should try listening to their podcasts. I find them very insightful especially when it’s the more classical authors that they talk about, like Nabokov and Cheever 🙂

    By the way, you just convinced me to read this book. Excellent review!

    • su says:

      Glad to know you’ll be picking it up. I really did enjoy the book.

      Will try to take a look (or listen) to those podcasts you’re talking about. I’ve hardly done any, to be honest, and it might be interesting to start now, with the new year. =)

  • claire says:

    Thanks for the very helpful insights. I was supposed to read this in 2009 but bummed that I didn’t get to it. Must do so in 2010. Hopefully my Tagalog and Visayan (both Filipino dialects) help in understanding the Spanish. 🙂

    • su says:

      I’m not too sure, but since most Filipino dialects have Spanish roots, they should help some way or other. Will be looking forward to your thoughts on it.

    • Sasha says:

      Filipino (Tagalog) is my first language, and it helped a little, but only a little. A very very very little. :]

  • Am glad you enjoyed this book – I did as well. My main complaint was the Spanglish, and the guesswork that went with it. Other than that, I thought it was a captivating story, written very well.

    I loved the fact that Oscar was an out and out geek in the opening chapters, and that he wanted to be the next Tolkien. It just added a certain charm to his character.

    Great review.

  • Mel u says:

    I liked this book and also his collection of short stories “Drowned”-great review

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