Book review: Junot Diaz’ “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

I think it was Jessica Zafra who once noted that the Philippines, while very firmly located in Asia, often has more similarities with Latin American countries than its own Asian neighbors. We were under Spanish rule for more than 300 years, after all, and that definitely leaves a mark.

Even Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz made the same observation during his recent visit to the country. From the obsession with whitening products, the incredible leeway given visiting white folks, and just the general chaos one can find here, Diaz says Manila might as well have been his own hometown of Santo Domingo. With a lot less Spanish speakers, but still.

Since I’ve never been to any Latin American country before, these observations only became really apparent to me when I started reading “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”. It didn’t just remind me of my own country, it even reminded me of my own hometown.

Junot DIaz’ novel traces the history of the Cabrals, a family that believes that a curse has been hanging over them since the days of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic. The latest Cabral that the “fuku” has in its sights is Oscar, who the book’s blurb describes as an “overweight sci-fi obsessed introvert who…dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien.”

But the book is more than just a chronicle of the Cabrals. “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” is a tale of the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo era, which with its many killings, disappearances, and corruption, might as well have been our very own Marcos years.

There are a lot of things I could talk about when it comes to this novel. I could talk about how engrossing and hypnotic Diaz’ use of language is, or how the frequent mentions of geek culture just further endeared the story to me. But countless other critics and a Pulitzer Prize have already taken care of that for me.

What I’d rather talk about is how almost everything that Diaz wrote in the novel was familiar to me, even if I didn’t know anything about the Dominican Republic before I read this book and I’d only ever met Junot Diaz a few months ago.

Because it’s not just the tales of terror from the Trujillato that will seem familiar to Filipinos. When Diaz writes about Bani and the speed with which gossip spreads in it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my former neighborhood in Pasay City. Even Paterson and how the people in it interact with each other were all so familiar and real to me, and I’ve never even been remotely close to American airspace.

When La Inca prays for Belicia to be saved, with rosary in hand and the community lending their power, it didn’t feel like magical realism to me. What it did was conjure up the image of my faith-healing grandma and how scenes like these are still such common sights here in the Philippines.

That for me has been the most beautiful thing about reading “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”. It’s managed to accomplish what good books are supposed to do — make you feel that somewhere in the world, someone you don’t know knows exactly how you feel. The fact that Diaz does it with such crackling and magical prose is just a really great bonus.

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