The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has attained both popular and critical acclaim. The novel is a melange of several interesting stylistic features. It brings social history, science fiction and magical fantasy all together in an experimental narrative form. The copious use of footnotes and imaginative asides are also notable. The novel is also an exposition on Dominican culture, especially with respect to notions of masculinity. It is held in Dominican culture that supernatural curses (fukus) and remedies (zafas) are integral parts of an individual’s life. Sometimes these fukus can get transferred across various generations of a family. While factually speaking these are no more than superstitions, for the natives, they are an integral part of life. Dominicans treats fukus and zafas as if they are divine revelations. This essay will delve into some of the perceived instances of fuku in the story of Oscar Wao and how some of them are resolved through the grace of zafas.
At the very beginning of the novel the omniscient narrator identified as Yunior mentions the idea of a fuku as a curse that runs through family lineage. A steady stream of native Dominicans had migrated to the United States in the twentieth century. Among this community of immigrants, of which Oscar Wao is one, a legend has grown that their entry to the New World had brought upon them a fuku. Every member of the community is hurdled with a handful of fukus, which they seek to overcome through the zafa, which purportedly counters the fuku. For example Yunior notes how angering Trujillo could prove disastrous for the plotter, leading to enduring fukus that remain in effect across generations. Indeed, Trujillo and fuku are almost treated as synonyms in the novel. It is not until the decisive defeat and assassination of Trujillo that Oscar and his lot could feel safe from retributive fukus in the future. The omniscient narrator Yunior hints in the opening pages that the story that is to unfold is analogous to a longwinded zafa. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator tries to understand the curse’s origin:
“They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku-generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” (Diaz 1)
Since the novel liberally uses a magic realistic style, it borrows from a classic of the genre – One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Hence the plot sets numerous fukus for the characters, which they resolve through zafas later in the story. For example, when Belicia and Lola get into trouble, it is the divine mongoose that rescues them miraculously. In Belicia’s case, she was lying in a bad shape in the cane field when the mongoose angelically appears on the scene. It then guides Belicia out of the wilderness and takes her to safety. The mongoose interferes with Oscar’s impending misfortune as well. For example when Oscar jumps off the bridge, his mind cursorily thinks of the Golden Mongoose. This fact would ensure that he incurred no bodily harm. In this vein, we see how the Golden Mongoose is a metaphor for the numerous instances of zafa that the characters are fortunate to enjoy.
“After Oscar survives a suicide attempt at the end of his first year in college, he tells Yunior that it “was the curse that made [him] do it.” When Yunior rejects this explanation by insisting that the fuku is “[their] parents’ shit,” Oscar significantly replies that it belongs to their generation as well (194). When Oscar receives his first beating at the hands of the Dominican police later in the novel, it further convinces him of the reality of all of the rumors: “it dawned on him that the family curse he’d heard about his whole life might actually be true”” (Bautista 41)
In the larger picture, Wao’s own inflated sense of masculinity serves as a fuku in his interpersonal interactions, especially with girls. Suffering from an overexposure to the macho sense of gender identity Oscar often wears an artificial attire of machismo, which is quite contrary to his real personality. The irony is that this does not fetch him any rewards, and only makes him unsuccessful with girls. It is this state of confusion over his masculine identity that pushes the frustrated young man toward other diversions. Science fiction and fantasy are two such which serve as an anodyne to his problems.
Oscar’s individual problems are however perceived to be part of a larger national theme. According to Yunior, a century of Dominican history is plagued by a supernatural curse. Oscar’s misplaced gender identity is just one manifestation of this curse. For example, “I have a twelve-daughter uncle in the Cibao who believed that he’d been cursed by an old lover never to have male children. Fuku.” (Diaz 5) There is a clear element of misogyny in this viewpoint. But looking through the attribution to supernatural causes, scholars such as Katherine Weese have identified an underlying socio-historical construct for the struggle with masculinity: “in the context of a historical and political novel like Oscar Wao, the manner in which the novel incorporates unnatural events prompts the reader to question the natural/unnatural status of ideological constructs.” (Weese 89) Just like how British author Angela Carter uses
“the magical/ unnatural for feminist ends, not to promote belief in the supernatural, but rather to “demythologize” “material human practice”, the same dynamic is at play in Diaz’ work. Here, Diaz demythologes conventions of masculinity that are not ‘natural’ but are constructed by the human practice of European colonization and nationalist dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.” (Weese 90)
An important clarification need to be made with respect to the science fiction and magical elements in the style. While they provide a narrative framework as well as the aesthetic flavour to the novel, they do not detract from the basic socio-historical comment made within that framework. If anything, the juxtaposition of serious socio-historical discourse within a fancy literary construct makes reading quite refreshing. The same is applicable to the ways in which fukus and zafas are presented. While the magical elements aid the vivid imagery, the essential issues of colonialism, political oppression and nationalism are not eschewed. To elaborate, the fukus and zafas are located within acknowledged history and in contesting its claims.