His otherworldly advice was too terrible to consider. Exile to the North! To Nueva York, a city so foreign she herself had never had the ovaries to visit. The girl would be lost to her, and La Inca [Oscar’s grandmother] would have failed her great cause: to heal the wounds of the Fall, to bring House Cabral back from the dead. And who knows what might happen to the girl among the yanquis? In her mind the U.S. was nothing more and nothing less than a país overrun by gangsters, putas, and no-accounts. Its cities swarmed with machines and industry, as thick with sinvergüencería as Santo Domingo was with heat, a cuco shod in iron, exhaling fumes, with the glittering promise of coin deep in the cold lightless shaft of its eyes.
Here is one of several novels I’ve come across which have been bestsellers (or even cult novels), which haven’t really grabbed me. When that happens, I tend to blame myself. Maybe it was spoiled by hearing the revelation about Díaz’s personal misdemeanours shortly before starting it, but I didn’t really enjoy this book. I’m willing to admit that maybe I should give it another go. But there are so many great novels still to read and I still have about a hundred to read for this project!
The ‘hero’ Oscar is a fat nerd doomed to unpopularity, one would tend to assume because of his appearance and personality, but he himself thinks it is because he has been smitten by an old family fujú curse. But you can’t help admiring his resilience.
A large part of the story is actually about his hot sister, who is also a real character.
Oscar is a Tolkien fan (the only thing he has in common with me), but for him the DR dictator Trujillo is worse than Sauron. Maybe it was easier for Middle Earth to overthrow the Dark Lord than for the Dominicans to get rid of Trujillo, who was supposed to have created the perfect dictatorship. (Speaking of which, my preferred novel about the DR is La Fiesta del Chivo ((The Feast of the Goat)) by Mario Vargas Llosa, although he is not a Dominican, about this assassination). Trujillo’s sister is a character in Díaz’s novel.
There are lots of Dominican Spanish words, too many of which are not defined, although they certainly add colour to the text! (The unglossed ones in the quotation above are: country, prostitutes, shamelessness, cutie).
But don’t let me put you off – I’m sure many people will love the novel (it’s obvious that many did). It is often funny, the slangy language is alive and the characters are sculpted in high relief. Maybe it’s time to give it another chance myself…
DÍAZ, Junot (1968 – ), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, London, Faber and Faber, 2008, ISBN 978-0-571-17955-8
A long, long time before that, just after [my kid sister] had begun nursery school, she loved to wear a certain kind of checkered cloth skirt. She liked yellow and white, red and white, pink and white, blue and white… in short, as long as there were two alternating colors and the checks were no larger than a fingernail, she would wear it. Mom also liked to wear checks, and the two of them together looked like a couple of perfume bottles from the same factory – one big, one little, but other than the size difference, all the other specifications were identical.
Wild Kids is a sort of double novel, continuing the story of a pair of siblings. (Unfortunately the first part of the trilogy, “Chang’s Big Head Spring trilogy” hasn’t been translated into English yet). It sometimes feels like an Asian version of The Catcher in the Rye, and I’m sure fans of The Catcher will love this one too. It gives a gritty, violent yet funny view of the underbelly of Taiwan. Both are told by the wonderfully named Big Head Spring.
The first half-novel (My Kid Sister) was my favourite, in which he provides a lovely portrait of his slightly weird sister – when she goes through feminist phase (and everything is ‘what’s the point?’). She wants to marry her grandpa (‘yeye’ in Mandarin) and asks why foreigners are always singing ‘yeah yeah’ in pop songs! They live in a dysfunctional family, and, as seen from the kids’ perspectives, their parents are at least as strange as children! Taiwanese (not only Taiwanese) are disillusioned and cynical.
The second half-novel (Wild Kids proper) is rather darker, as Big Head gets involved in Taiwanese gang ‘culture’. He gets mugged after winning at a rigged slot machine. It climaxes in orgiastic rampage with a crane! Just as well it is infused with humour, otherwise it would be a bit depressing.
Obviously, the Taiwanese are just like the rest of us – it’s hard to be an adolescent, and everyone, especially one’s parents, is weird! It is often very funny, sometimes a bit gross!, with a peppering of existentialism.
I’m looking forward to physically visiting Taiwan as my next port of call!
CHANG Ta-Chun (1957 – ), Wild Kids: two novels about growing up, New York, Columbia University Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-231-12097-5
A lecturer (lecher?) commits an ethical crime at his university and is sanctioned by it. He is, we assume, a White, although I don’t think this is ever spelled out. He refuses to admit his guilt but ‘goes into laager’ (as a South African would say), staying on his daughter’s isolated farm where she lives a rather idealistic 1960’s-ish lifestyle (VW Kombi included). While she looks after him, they no longer see eye to eye. She seems to see supine acceptance and resignation as the only way to survive in the new South Africa where Blacks have the power, at least partly as penance for the apartheid that was inflicted on them, and despite her terrible suffering seems more likely to get along in the new world than her fossil father.
“’Aren’t you nervous by yourself?’
Lucy shrugs. ‘There are the dogs. Dogs still mean something. The more dogs, the more deterrence. Anyhow, if there were to be a break-in, I don’t see that two people would be better than one.’
‘That’s very philosophical.’
‘Yes. When all else fails, philosophise.’”
There are two parts to the story. In the first, set in the city, he is in his own world and in control (or so he thinks). In the second, out on the farm, everything is out of his control, the Blacks are taking over, and he is incapable of understanding them. His daughter, on the other hand, is full of forbearance and fortitude, and can adapt to the changing circumstances (which isn’t to say that she isn’t traumatised by them).
The characters brilliantly symbolise the changing face of this fraught land. This is a simply written but insightful novel by a truly great writer.
COETZEE, J. M. (1940 – ), Disgrace, London, Vintage, 2008 (originally published 1999), ISBN 978-0-099-52683-4