Sunday, September 09, 2007

Spinning magic from tragedy

As the star author of a collection of short stories, Drown, that was released to critical acclaim, Diaz has tried to encompass the magical realist themes of traditional Latin American writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez in his work, even as he maintains a fresh, "MTV-generation" voice. That effort pays off --to some extent-- in his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

It's a cross-generational saga that bounces back and forth in time. Oscar is a slightly wonky kid who uses words like "precipitous" in daily conversations and is the butt of good-humored jokes ("I am copacetic. Everybody misapprehends me"). And there is the omnipresent Yunior, who makes it a point to remind us of his love for Oscar, and his burden--narrating Oscar's life and history.

But this book isn't about the plastic discomfort of an American coming-of-age. No, before all this, before the Dominican experience of America, there was the terrible truth of Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo lords over this story like a giant--a supernatural agent of death who would leave no stone unturned in making the lives of his subjects tales of utter barbarity.

It begins with Belicia Cabral, or Beli, Oscar's mother, "a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her." Her life goes for a toss after she meets and falls in love with the Gangster, a hired gunman and Trujillo's acolyte. In long descriptive passages, straight out of a feminist tome on the plight of the battered wife, we read exhaustingly terrifying details of the horrors perpetrated on Belicia. Strictly speaking, the depressive Oscar is not a match on his family whose ability to survive is exemplary, and it is these latter stories that provide a well-needed fulcrum to an otherwise light tale.

Oscar's grandfather, Abelard makes nearly half of the book, and his journey from respected doctor to deranged prisoner is a dirge for human space within the Dominican dictatorship that Trujillo ran with an iron fist. The details grip you by the neck, challenging you in a convoluted contest of will power. This here is a description of Abelard's first encounter with Trujillo's dreaded police:

He tried to remain the mind-killer--but he could not help himself. He saw his daughters and his wife raped over and over again. He saw his house on fire. If he hadn't emptied his bladder right before the pigs showed up, he would have peed himself right there.

There is a strong mythical element to the book's ongoing consideration of fuku (a curse) vs. its opposite, zafa (benediction). For this is what the stuff of legend is--the shared history of a people, a source of comfort against the unknowable brutality of destiny. Opium for the masses? So be it. Not just Latin American motifs, the book also pays a nod to "Unus the Untouchable" and other such pop culture references. It would be hard to deny Diaz his skillfulness. But a contemporary Marquez? Not yet.


From St. Petersburg Times

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