Friday, February 3, 2012

Oscar Wao, Whatever That Means

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is probably most obviously described as the story of a family, the de Leons, and their struggle to defy a fucu or curse, that was put on the family during the Truijllo reign in the Dominican Republic.  Oscar is an awkward character, who is more comfortable with his science fiction books and action figures than with real life, but is constantly looking for a woman who will love him.

Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.  So, it is a book that has received a great deal of critical acclaim, but it's really not a favorite of mine.  The story is told from the perspective of an all knowing narrator, who is not identified until about half way through the book.  I won't tell you who the narrator is, because that would spoil a little of the story.    Like the narrator(s) in The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, the narrator in Oscar Wao references research and old photos as the basis of his (or her) knowledge.  The narrator is a very likable character, despite obvious flaws, who speaks with a truly distinctive voice.  Part of my problem with relating to Oscar Wao, however, is that the narrator slips in words in Spanish throughout his speech, to the extent that it limits the English reader's ability to understand the story.

I have helped my son with his Spanish vocabulary words for the past 6 years, but even with that (limited) Spanish knowledge, I was often feeling like there was an inside joke, and I was on the outside.  My hunch is, that even if I knew Spanish, I would be left wanting to know Dominican slang in order to truly understand the novel.  For instance, I was able to figure out based on context that the word "toto" referred to a woman's genitalia, and my guess is that it would translate closely to "pussy". However there were several times when the context did not give any clues to the Dominican meaning, such as when the character Jenni is introduced, and we are told that her friends call her "La Jablesse," with no indication as to what that means, or why they call her that.  Likewise, Oscar's last name is not really "Wao", it's de Leon.  The sentence where it is explained why Oscar's friends start calling him "Oscar Wao" offers few clues to the English reader as to why they would call him that.  In my perfect world, Oscar Wao would include a glossary in the back, so that when the reader thinks it's worth their effort, they can look up the word in question.

In the end, it is clear that the story in Oscar Wao is about more than defeating the fuku.  The narrator is ultimately more affected by his relationship with Oscar than he (or she) ever expected.  Looking for the lesson here, it seems that the moral is that sometimes being a friend to someone who is "different" is of greater value than a thousand easy relationships.

As for the challenges, this one is a double countsie.  It has been in my nightstand waiting for me to read it, so it counts for the Off the Shelf Challenge, but I listened to it on CDs which I checked out of my library.  So that's 3 down for the Support your Library Challenge, and 2 down for the Off the Shelf Challenge.  Lots more to go.

Next Up on CD:  The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain by Brock Eide.  Now speaking of different learners . . .

Still Reading:  London Train  by Tessa Hadley

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