(about halfway through “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”)
Debby: Okay, so call me ignorant: I know very, very little about Dominican history. I absolutely love all the footnotes (okay, I’m always a sucker for footnotes) about the Trujillo regime. I feel like I’m getting a dose of a truly gripping history class along with an engaging story. But tell me this– how much of this “history” is true? Is it all Trujillo folklore? Or are some of the details accurate?
Tim: I honestly have no idea, but the first ten pages or so convince you that it is, don’t they? It sets this backdrop for everything that’s been going down that emotionally feels 100% authentic. But then you can’t help but question some given all the high fantasy references. Which I just took to be natural to a narrator who knew Oscar’s life well, but now that I’m a few chapters in and less sure about who the narrator is and where he/she is coming from (as we were talking about elsewhere), it throws it all back into question a little more.
I think its the omnipresence of Trujillo and his regime as factors in the lives of these Dominicanos, the detail which is astounding but never unbelievable, which has kept me from really questioning any of it, though.
Debby: I can see that. The discussion of the “fuku” in the opening chapter definitely involves an evil that has attached itself to the Cabral family. Trujillo is certainly a main source of their early pain and dictates their path of survival.
Tim: I found myself waxing philosophical (to myself) while thinking about this book. The phrase that stuck in my mind was, “Sin perpetuates.” Not, “Sin perpetuates sin,” or some variation thereof. Just, “Sin perpetuates.” The whole idea of “fuku” seems to be that man is cursed – by life, by other men, it doesn’t matter the cause. But bad things happen to people because there are bad things being done in the world. Fuku, as the narrator says, are everywhere. It might even be verbatim, “Every Dominican family has a fuku.”
Debby: Yeah, the introductory chapter, in which the narrator discusses “fuku,” threw me for a loop. I really didn’t understand what it was until I saw it play out through the narrative. And you’re right: there is something different about Dominican fuku in comparison to other cultures’ notions of “curses” or “bad luck” or even “karma”. Usually there is a sense of reciprocity: you do something bad and you will have rough times ahead. In this story, fuku just is. And there’s no end in sight.
Tim: Which, as I’ve continued through the story, is why I think it’s a little funny that they think of these fuku as curses at all. It’s just life as much as anything. I mean, I guess the narrator points at the Kennedy family and some legacies like that as examples of actual supernatural malintent, but yeah, if you want to get super biblical about it, sin is the curse that endures. It keeps going, keeps imposing trials. On that note, what did you think of the sequence after Beli got left for dead and her survival was so largely attributed to La Inca’s prayer – which is physically debilitating itself?
Debby: Definitely an interesting “fantasy” element there– La Inca was able to summon great ‘power’ to help her niece, but it cost her (and her friends) dearly. Again, we can see why the author used so many modern sci-fi/fantasy references in order to draw parallels to Dominican beliefs and experiences. It reminded me vividly of Robert Jordan’s notion of magic in the Wheel of Time series. While any number of characters could wield power, there was a physical sacrifice to doing so, from plain exhaustion to death.
Tim: There are these multiple references to the power of La Inca without any concrete notion of what that entails. Except for her running off the “Elvises” with a machete, I guess. And while we’re on the subject of the mystical, what did you make of the two mongoose appearances? After it shows up at Oscars near-suicide, it felt to me like almost the entire Beli chapter was there just as context for the vague reference to it when it shows up for Oscar.
Debby: Chalk it up as another mythological element?
Tim: Yeah, but one where there’s some meaning attached. I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t show up again at the climax of the book.