Thursday, 5 February 2009

the brief wondrous life of oscar wao (junot diaz)

To start at the beginning of our relationship. Mine and Junot's. There's a certain novelistic circularity. Back in 1994, when I was given the nickname Y&T, and living in Montevideo, a North American friend, who I would never see again, called Chrissie Ehrick, who was studying some aspect of the politics of Battle and its relationship to feminism, I suspect, gave me a book called Drown to read, written she said, by a New Yorker. And although there was plenty going on that year, more than enough to keep me busy, I read it.

Drown was a collection of short stories that propelled Diaz onto the map as a literary prodigy. Apart from the fact it seemed more hispanic than gringo, I can't for the life of me remember a thing about it.  Not a character nor a storyline. I don't even remember if I liked it.

Fast forward fifteen years (that's quite a few years in relationship-time) and I, on the point of returning to Montevideo for my first extended stay since 1994, find myself reading Diaz again. Not that he's been exactly prolific. God knows what he's been up to all this time, but it certainly hasn't been getting books published. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was only published last year. As is the way of relationships, I've changed and so has he. Although how much I can't tell, as I don't remember what he used to be like. But I do know he's grown up into a full-blooded novelist, and whatever stopped him writing novels (or getting stuff published) for fifteen years didn't mean he wasn't working on it. (I'll wikipedia him in a moment and no doubt all will be revealed.)

This book wouldn't have had as much of an impact on me back then, just like I don't think he'd have written it. Why? Because, it is, in large part, about growing up. The pains of. Underneath the book, hidden away in the corners, is a narrator, who grows up alongside Oscar and his sister Lola, his story tucked away in the margins. Maybe that's Junot, maybe it's not, he sure as hell flirts with making us think it might be.

Or maybe Junot has more in common with the tragic nerd, Oscar, the hero of his book. Or one of them. Not every day a book manages to make one of nature's losers into its hero, but Oscar is all these things. Hero, nerd and loser. Cursed by the fate of his family, and the family cursed by the island they come from. An island cursed by Columbus, and maybe whoever else came before him.

Like all the best books, he says with gross generalisation, The Brief Life is about a lot of things: Trujillo; Dictators; The Dominican Republic; girls; boys; sex; grannies; moms; growing up, and its eternally recurring inevitability. Threaded through the book are enough literary references to keep his students happy (the flyleaf tells us Snr Diaz has been teaching). But more importantly, threaded though the book, is a warm skein of what they call, in the places they know it, humanity. Which preserves the nerds and history's losers, in spite of the power of the ones who think they're winning. 

In one of his many footnotes, Diaz mentions Rushdie with reference to the constant clash of dictators and writers. He says that the reason dictators feel threatened by writers is they recognise competition when they see it. Through telling the simple stories of good people who suffered at the hands of the bad guys, with all bad guy roads in the Dominican Republic leading to Trujillo, Diaz adds his shot to the war between writers and dictators, doing his best to ensure that history's last words won't be written by the 'winners'. So, in addition to the fact this is a beautifully written, very funny and kind of moving and all those other key novel-ticking- boxes book... The Brief Life is also deeply political, and that's just another reason why you should be reading it before you go to Montevideo, or the pub, or the succeeding phase of adulthood, or wherever it is you're headed to next.

No comments: