Friday, April 17, 2009

Santo Domingo Sci Fi



Literature always provides great insight into a culture. As I've explained before, reading a book by an author representing the destination is an essential part of my travels. Besides Julia Alvarez, Junot D`iaz is the Dominican Republic's most notable author. I snapped up The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao long before it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. I was familiar with Junot's kinetic, brash, writing from his short stories and decided that I would read his first novel on the beach of La Romana. Despite an array of engaging characters,Oscar Wao is not easy-going beach reading. In fact, I would not have been so puzzled and thrown off by Dominican culture if I had read this book before I visited the island.

Junot created his first novel to represent the chaos, fragmentation and romantic illusions of the Dominican Republic. Therefore, Oscar Wao is a chaotic and fragmented read, with characters and history and story lines whipping around with the force of the Caribbean sea. It's not an easy or accessible story but it is brilliant. Oscar,the protagonist, is a "ghetto nerd" from New Jersey. Fat and lacking the requisite Dominican swagger, he's shunned for loving comic books,science fiction and sword and sorcery novels, more than bachata and parties. In fact, the sci fi and comic book references are so deep and obscure, that I had to get my husband, a well-versed comic book, sci-fi and sword and sorcery fan, to translate entire passages. And he could only explain half of them. It's telling that the forward includes quotes from the Fantastic Four and the Caribbean's (St. Lucian) poet laureate, Derek Walcott. As Oscar explains, "What's more Sci Fi than Santo Domingo? What's more fantasy than the Antilles?" Apparently, not much.

Junot weaves the convoluted and brutal history of the Dominican Republic and the entire island of Hispaniola, which Haiti also shares, with the first generation immigrant stories of Oscar, his sister and mother, with colorful skill. Oscar's voice is an authentic mix of Spanglish, street vernacular and sci-fi phrases that manages to illustrate the timeless struggle for identity. We learn in the very first pages of Trujillo's bloody, American-backed regime that reigned over the island from 1930-1961. That infamous dictator's influence still seeps through Dominican culture, from his 1937 massacre of Haitians living along the capitol city of Santo Domingo's border, which fuels the current Dominican/Haitian resentments, to the political system of bribery and intimidation. Even though he appears mostly in the thick footnotes, Trujillo is as significant a character as Oscar. Oscar explains Trujillo this way: "He was our Sauron, our Aawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator, a personaje so outlandish, so perverse, so dreadful that not even a sci-fi writer could have made his ass up."

The fact that the long dead dictator of the Dominican Republic plays such a vital role illustrates the real core of this novel. Even though it follows Oscar through New Jersey streets and the lonely halls of Rutgers University, the essence of the story takes place in DR. Oscar travels to the island to visit his relatives and learns the cruel background of his angry and abusive mother. We see sugar cane fields, Trujillo-affiliated gangsters,a magical mongoose, rusted zinc shacks and plates filled with chicharrones. We see Oscar finally lose his virginity to the retired prostitute living next door to his grandmother's house and we see the cost he pays. We see the DR in all its glory and complexities. There's a devilish sense of humor that laces through the dark passages of the book that I believe personifies Dominican culture. The curse that hovers over the story after all, is called fuk`u for exactly the reason that you think. I learned that a Dominican sensibility is playful and threatening at the same time. And it all goes back to the island's history.

11 comments:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

What an unusual book it sounds!

Fly Girl said...

Jean-Luc, it has enough sci fi going on to mesmerize even you!

A Cuban In London said...

Amazing review. Snappy and yet deep, short and concise and yet thorough. It is true that Trujillo has cast a long shadow over that island. And the novel sounds like one I would like to read myself. About the author, there was a profile in The Guardian some time ago and I know that I put it in my books' wishlist but cannot remember which title. Will have to check out tonight. Many thanks. And I am pleased that you also like Sor Juana.

Greetings from London.

Yvonne said...

Wow, flygirl, that sounds like an amazing book that would probably confuse the hell outta me. But something I will put on my 'to read' list. Great review!!

Fly Girl said...

Cubano, thanks, that Guardian profile was very engaging and really captured Junot and the book. You really must read it because it speaks to the general Caribbean experience, not just DR.

Yvonne,Yes, like I said, it's not an easy read but it's completely intriguing.

Ebony Intuition said...

Thanks for the book title, will check this out.!

kristine said...

i keep picking this book up and then putting it down. It keeps coming up in my amazon.com "people who bought this book also bought XXX" and recommendations. So I am thinking I should read it. I'm interested in learning more about the Trujillo years....although it does sound odd, frakly!?

Fly Girl said...

Ebony, you will find that it's very interesting reading!

Fly Girl said...

Kristine, as I said, it is not an easy read. I didn't get most of the sci-fi and comic book references and Junot is a decidely masculine writer. There's lots of cursing, violence and sex that can be off putting. It's an odd book but I think it's well worth the effort. Keep reading until you get midway when the story of Oscar's mother Beli is the focus. It flows more smoothly there and the Trujillo reign is a major part of that section.

Catherine said...

I left a comment a few days ago but it doesn't seem to have worked so i shall try again... I read this book a couple of weeks ago and really enjoyed it... especially the Spanglish... as I work with so many students totally bilingual in English/Spanish..they love the language. The other great book about the Trujillo era in DR is The Feast of the Goat by peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa..really good..

Fly Girl said...

Thanks for trying again Catherine! Yes, the Spanglish was entertaining, thanks for the book suggestion. I've heard about it so now I'll have to pick it up.