2008/11/18

Dominican tragedy

Rafael Leonidas Trujillo (San Cristóbal, 24 de octubre de 1891 - Santo Domingo, 30 de mayo de 1961), supreme ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination 31 years later, continues to mark the lives of Dominicans, including those brought up far from the island and even those born after his death -- for example novelist Julia Álvarez, born in New York in 1950, and Junot Díaz, born in Santo Domingo in 1968 and brought up in New Jersey.

Junot Díaz's Pulitzer Prize-winning book,The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (New York: Riverhead Books, 2007) is, in its structure, a classic tragedy. Óscar de León, a.k.a. Oscar Wao (an ignorant classmate's pronunciation of Oscar Wilde) is more than a fat, nerdy kid from New Jersey who is also (we are given to understand) an extraordinarily gifted science-fantasy writer. He is also the bearer of a terrible hereditary curse, the fukú, which strikes him down right at the moment when he is on the verge of triumph: he has finally got laid, and he has completed or nearly so his magnum opus -- which however disappears before his survivors can publish or even read it.

The fukú in Oscar's family was unleashed when his grandfather, a cautious but prosperous dark-skinned doctor in a small Dominican city, dared to defend his family's honor by keeping his beautiful eldest daughter out of reach of Trujillo, whose favorite sport was deflowering virgins not so much for the sexual thrill as for the excitement of humiliating their fathers and brothers. The doctor's tremulous defiance leads to a series of disasters, including his imprisonment, the deaths of his wife and two elder daughters and the abandonment of the third, the infant Belicia, who is taken in by a family that so mistreats her that she is left with terrible burn scars on her back and even more terrible resentment against -- well, just about everything. The fukú is powerfully reinforced when Beli turns into an extremely sexy teenager (big ass and tits, combined with dark skin that Dominican men associate with voluptuousness) and falls hopelessly in love with The Gangster, a hit man who, it turns out, is married to a daughter of Trujillo. The furious wife sets thugs on Beli, who try and nearly succeed in beating her to death. Hustled off to New Jersey by her protectress, an aunt she calls La Inca, Beli becomes the angry, embittered mother of Lola and Oscar, transmitting the fukú by belittling her daughter and driving Oscar to retreat into his fantasies, his writing and voracious eating.

When Beli finally Oscar off to La Inca in the Dominican Republic, he too falls hopelessly in love with an impossible partner: a prostitute who is married to a very jealous cop. Trujillo is dead by now, but the fukú of his spirit lives on, in the atrocities of police who know no law can touch them. The fukú is a national curse, taking revenge on anybody who seeks to love freely and generously. In short, the faceless minions of the fukú, dressed and armed as policemen, kill him.

All this is told by Yunior, another aspiring writer who lusts after Lola but can't stop himself from screwing other women (and thus sabotaging his relations with Lola) and becomes an odd-couple companion of fat Oscar. Yunior's speech is a mix of English, Spanglish and weirder locutions from the science fantasy literature that he, Oscar, and Junot Díaz seem to know very well.

This was not a lot of fun to read, however. At least for me. Oscar, until the very end of the book, is a colossal bore: a grotesquely fat momma's boy, so passive you want to shake him -- which is what Yunior tries to do, at least sporadically. And Oscar's inner life, his imaginary world, is populated by science fantasy novels which, if you don't know them, amount to simply puzzling references to what must be imaginary planets, heroes and evil-doers. His older sister Lola, who gets a chapter all of her own, is more attractive, a rebel against her mother, but we don't get to know her well and her rebellions don't much matter to the story. The only truly interesting characters, ones who actually take action and make things happen, are the once tortured and now despotic Belicia, a monster you can sympathize with, and the fukú, a malevolent spirit with a truly nasty sense of humor, tempting and destroying the innocents. The good things about the novel: a strong portrait of the adolescent frustration of a nerd, the gross but sometimes clever Spanglish rap of Yunior, and the reminder of true grotesque brutality bequeathed to that small country by the dictator Yunior persistently calls "the Failed Cattle Thief." The painfully detailed destructions of beatings to near-death or even death by rogue cops are based on real incidents that still occur -- we know, something like that happened to someone close to us.

In Díaz's vision, the fukú seems to have swallowed the whole country in hopeless corruption. For a view of a more buoyant, happier Dominican Republic where people are creating things and finding solutions to problems -- though still watching out for unpredictable and potentially violent cops -- check out my
Estampas dominicanas: pequeño álbum hablado (in Spanish), a report on a week's adventures mostly among architects and writers, in Santo Domingo and La Vega (we were there in 2001 for the IV Seminario Erwin Walter Palm de Arquitectura y Urbanismo de América Latina y el Caribe, at the UNPHU). And then there's all that fiction by Dominicans living and writing within the country, in Spanish -- the fukú, though usually unnamed in those other works, is nevertheless frequently present. No one has been able to escape completely the curse of a dictator who killed so many, stole so much and humiliated a nation for more than thirty years.

Junot Díaz's website.

Other good fiction about the Dominican Republic and Trujillo's long shadow includes:
And the most famous of them all, a novel that Junot Díaz seems to be measuring himself against (his character Yunior frequently refers to it in sarcastic tones),

Photo: Death mask of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, from website
30 de mayo de 1961: Ajusticiamiento del Tirano

3 comments:

Dirk said...

Have you read any Edwidge Dantica? I found her The Farming of the Bones quite thrilling. Some of her autobiogrpahical stuff I fiend less interesting, but then I like fiction better than biography.

gef said...

I did read Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1994. But I was so deeply unmoved that I see I never even wrote a comment on it (very unusual for me). I've never picked up another book by her. Perhaps I'll try again.
Sorry for such a delayed reply -- the last 2 months were hectic. Construction, travel, bureaucracy, etc.

gef said...

P.S. You may find interesting Danticat, Edwidge, and Junot Díaz. "Spanish Doesn't Show Up in my Head in Italics: Conversations with Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz." Brújula/Compass.28 (1998): 15-17.
I didn't.