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South America has given birth to great authors and great dictatorships. It has also created for itself a hype – an image of a vast land of experiences, a culture immensely different from Europe or the USA, a place to be visited not for just a couple of weeks, but for months, maybe years. I have been there only once, for just a week. And I doubt that my one week of sunbathing and drinking on a cruise around the Guadeloupe accounts for “experiencing” the continent. But I have been there in other ways – through Gabriel Garcia Marquez, through Mario Vargas Llosa and now through Junot Diaz.

Poor Oscar Wao. Born Dominican, but living with his sister and cancer-sick mother in a ghetto in Paterson, New Jersey, he is expected to be a macho man all of his life. You know, one of those guys that just enters a bar/a restaurant/the school and has all of the girls eyes fixed on him. The guy that has sex even before he has fully comprehended what sex is. But poor Oscar is not only not successful with women (excluding his childhood and only one time for that matter), he is the utter and most brilliant image of a nerd. Overweight. Weird. Passionate about computer games and science fiction. Obsessed with Marvel, Tolkien, you name it. His high school years are terrible, but his college years are even worse. Pressed by everyone around him to be more sociable, to talk to girls, and to lose weight, Oscar falls even deeper down into his misery. He rejects company, he confesses his love for the girls when he first meets them and he gains even more weight. The only thing that sort of saves Oscar from suicide, lets say, are his books, his writings, and his dreams of becoming one of the greatest fantasy writers. Like the Dominican Tolkien.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is as much about him as about his family and as much about the history of the Dominican Republic (something I must admit I was largely ignorant about). Chapters alternate. Oscar’s battle with overweight and weirdness. His beautiful sister Lola’s troublesome relationship with their mother, her love affairs, and eventually her reincarnation into a dependable woman. Her troublesome boyfriend Yunior (also Junot Diaz’s alter ego, appearing in other of the author’s works). Their beauty mother, Belicia Cabral, her troublesome relationship with one of Trujillo’s men and what eventually drove her to leave the DR and move to the US. It goes back even to Belicia’s father and his offence towards Trujillo.

But wait. Who the hell is Trujillo? The ignorant question I asked myself after reading even two pages. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as I said, goes beyond the story of a single family. It goes on to encompass the story of a whole nation. Rafael Trujillo, nicknamed EL Jefe, ruled the Dominican Republic for a little over than 30 years, marked by unprecedented tyranny, violence, and torture. You know the drill – personality cults, persecutions, propaganda, etc. Oscar and his family’s lives are irrevocably tied to Trujillo’s rule and to the destiny of a whole continent. The fukú (a curse or a doom) and the zafa (a counterspell of a doom) interact in a perfect harmony to determine the destiny not only of a family, but of a whole nation. Magical realism once again strikes, but have we expected anything less from a South American author?

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won Junot Diaz the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. And it won the hearts of its readers (at least mine). A tale of a boy and a country, fighting the constraints their history has placed on them, whether it be dictatorship or virginity. I get to love and pity Oscar and the Dominican Republic at the same time. And I get to enter a world of which I know a lot about – a world of hopelessness and repetitiveness, of which the only escape is to do what you have never done before. Rebel. Or have sex. 

Favourite quotes: 

I seem to be allergic to diligence, and Lola said, Ha, What you’re allergic to is trying.

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…you can’t regret the life you didn’t lead.

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Success, after all, loves a witness, but failure can’t exist without one.