Several trustworthy sources, both bloggy and personal, got me interested in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (henceforth, TBWLOW), and I’m glad to report that I wasn’t disappointed. [Disclaimer: the post gets a little academic. Blame it on an already long train journey prolonged by the fun delays Deutsche Bahn likes to introduce in the modern traveller’s life. Even if you can’t stomach my ramblings, do read TBWLOW. It’s fab, funny, sad, smart – yes, all of that – even if you’re not a Latin American lit geek like me!]
The title being as self-explanatory as it is, let me tell you, TBWLOW is about so much more than the brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao. It’s more like the long, even-more-wondrous story of his family. Narrated mostly by Oscar’s only friend (although Oscar’s sister also gets a word in), the backbone of the novel is the life story of Oscar de León, called Oscar Wao by his college mates, a fat, genre-fiction loving nerd with all but bad luck with the ladies. It’s about his quest for reciprocated love (reciprocated because the poor guy has loads of it to give, but he never gets any back) and, of course, sex. As for Oscar’s story, you, dear reader, will need a bit of a strong stomach to brave all the bullying and rejection, but you’ll be rewarded with, let me spoil this much for you, a beautiful if sad ending. I think it’s fair enough to let you know that he dies at the end, but what with the brief in the title, you probably already had a hunch.
To me, however, Oscar’s story paled a bit in comparison to those of his relatives. There’s his sister Lola, who tries to find her feet as the US-born daughter of a stubborn Dominican emigrant mother, between tradition and her desire to break free. She’s such a smart, strong-willed girl you I just wanted her to succeed and be happy.
Then there’s Oscar and Lola’s mother herself, Beli, the “Third and Final Daughter” of Abelard and Socorro, a doctor and a nurse in Trujillo’s Dominican Republic. With both her parents dead, she finds herself sold off to people who use and abuse her as a criada, a servant, until she is finally freed by her aunt La Inca, who tries to resurrect Beli’s parents’ lost glory and honour through the girl. As you may imagine, it doesn’t go that well. Observing the parallels between La Inca and Beli’s clashes and those between Beli herself and Lola was fascinating.
Finally, there’s the story of Abelard Cabral, Beli’s father. A Mexican-educated doctor and intellectual – although he has absolutely no interest in politics – he tries to scrape by and protect his family from the tightening grip of “The Failed Cattle Thief”, the Dominican Republic’s cruel dictator Trujillo, who ruled the country from the 1930s to the 1960s with a combination of unimaginable cruelty, paranoia and, last but not least, an insatiable appetite for young girls. Abelard’s eldest daughter Jacquelyn is beautiful, and the Failed Cattle Thief has set his eyes on her. And so, studiously apolitical Abelard gets into trouble trying to protect not just beautiful but also very intelligent Jackie.
Ascribe this to my general Latin America-geekdom, but this was the part of TBWLOW I loved the most, although it’s incredibly sad. I really suffered with Abelard as he is sucked deeper and deeper into the morass that was Trujillo’s regime of fear and mistrust and, in his struggle, just gets drawn in further and further. All in all, as the discerning reader can probably tell, I absolutely loved TBWLOW. It’s smart, funny and sad at the same time. It’s rich in intertextuality. There are some references to Vargas Llosa’s La fiesta del chivo, which is basically the golden calf of novels about the Trujillo dictatorship. Not just the fact that the story about a father trying to protect his daughter from the Failed Cattle Thief sounds familiar – it’s also unlikely to be an accident that Abelard’s surname is Cabral, like the family in La fiesta del chivo (although TBWLOW’s narrator refuses to be deferential – “The Rap About The Girl Trujillo Wanted is a pretty common one on the Island. […] So common that Vargas Llosa didn’t have to do much except open his mouth to sift it out of the air.”
And there’s more: right at the beginning, my favourite quote of the book, “Zafa.* It used to be more popular in the old days, so to speak, in Macondo than in McOndo.” My little geek-heart jumped with joy. For those not in the habit of obsessively chewing through Latin American literature, Macondo is the town in García Márquez’s legendary One Hundred Years of Solitude, where a great deal of Strangeness happens (people levitate, it rains for years on end, and so on). McOndo, on the other hand, is a literary anthology compiled by a bunch of young writers in 1996 who wanted to break away from what they felt had become a tacky and stuffy obligation for Latin American Literature to be Magical Realist (also, spot the parallels with Bolaño, who was kind of a precursor of the precursors/founding fathers – such as Jorge Volpi – of theMcOndos! Excitement!) One of McOndo’s hallmarks, I’ve learned, is the cultural domination of the US in today’s Latin America.** In TBWLOW we come full circle by taking it – mostly – all the way to the US.
Another thing that I loved about the novel, although this is likely to tick some readers off, is the Spanish sprinkled throughout (it’s like in my head!). Some things are just so much better expressed in Spanish than in English, and even if you don’t speak Spanish I think you’ll get most of it anyway. Another thing that readers might find a bit annoying are the many footnotes. Much of the intertextuality that got me so excited goes on here, so I didn’t mind them, although I’ll admit that some might be on the too-long-to-be-fun side of footnotes. In general though, TBWLOW’s style is so cheeky and fun that at least for me it made even the longest diversion entertaining.
Evaluation: 9/10 – the only reason it’s not getting the full ten points is that Oscar’s story didn’t quite grip me as much as the title would lead you to expect. It wasn’t as quite “wondrous” as I would’ve liked.
Spanish title: La maravillosa vida breve de Óscar Wao
German title: Das kurze wundersame Leben des Oscar Wao
I have my doubts that this will work in any translation – too much depends on the interplay between Spanish and English. But I’m willing to be convinced otherwise. Has anyone tried a translation?
* a counter-spell to lift off a fukú curse, The Worst Curse Alive.
** I suppose the parts of the region where this is the most prevalent are Mexico and the Caribbean, which I’m shamelessly including in the “Latin America” category here. This is of course hugely debatable, especially for the Anglophone Caribbean. But I feel like with the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, I’m on the safe side.