Academic journal article Chasqui

Disseminating "El Chivo": Junot Diaz's Response to Mario Vargas Llosa in the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Academic journal article Chasqui

Disseminating "El Chivo": Junot Diaz's Response to Mario Vargas Llosa in the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Article excerpt

After publishing in 1996 a well received collection of short stories titled Drown, Junot Diaz burst into literary notoriety in 2007 with the publication of his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which received almost universal acclaim and earned him the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The book was celebrated for its creative use of language (it deftly alternates between, or mixes, English and Spanish), and for the broadness of its references to both popular culture (i.e., constant allusions to characters from comics, fantasy, and science fiction films and books) and the official literary canon (the title alone references both Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway's story "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Cucumber"). It also explores the history of the Dominican Republic, particularly the period dominated by the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, from 1930 to 1961. (1)

The novel chronicles various generations of a Dominican family that is marked directly and indirectly by Trujillo's violence. Oscar, who lives in New Jersey with his mother Beli and his sister Lola, is an overweight young man with two obsessions in life: one is science fiction and fantasy (reading them and writing his own stories), and the other one is finding true love, or at least not dying a virgin, which is exceedingly difficult because Oscar is a stereotypical "nerdand extremely unlucky with women. As the novel progresses, we learn the story of Oscar's mother, who moved to the United States after she was almost killed in the Dominican Republic for becoming, without knowing it, the lover of Trujillo's sister's husband. We also learn that Oscar's grandfather had actually died in one of Trujillo's prisons. A recurrent notion throughout the text is that the family--and perhaps the whole Dominican Republic--might be cursed.

In this essay, I will examine how the novel struggles to articulate a compelling representation of Trujillo's dictatorial power, a process that implies for Diaz a confrontation with previous representations of the Dominican dictator. Specifically, I will focus on the novel's explicit engagement with another novel that became an international success and which also deals with Trujillo's dictatorship: Mario Vargas Llosa's La fiesta del chivo (2000). Vargas Llosa's novel combines two main stories: a reconstruction of the events that led to the assassination of Trujillo in 1961, and the story of a woman, Urania Cabral, who, years after the dictator's death, returns to the island to visit her sick old father, only to relive in her mind the events that led to her original departure: her father, a senator in Trujillo's government, had offered her as a sexual gift to Trujillo in order to gain his favor. As is usually the case with Vargas Llosa, his fiction is carefully constructed around minutely researched historical detail. Dozens of fictional and historical characters interact in a realistic setting, including characters like Joaquin Balaguer, Trujillo's minion and afterwards recurrent president of the Dominican Republic, who was still alive when La fiesta del chivo was published.

In his interviews and in the text of his novel, Diaz has taken an openly polemical position towards Vargas Llosa's text. My purpose is to clarify the nature of Diaz's objections to La fiesta del chivo, to examine how his novel attempts to "correct" the deficiencies in the Peruvian novelist's text, and to comment on the somewhat paradoxical implications of that attempt. Diaz tries to subvert Vargas Llosa's literary strategies--which examine Trujillo's dictatorship through a psychologically realistic portrayal of the dictator and of several fictional and historical characters around him--by recurring to a semiotic frame articulated by references to fantasy and science fiction. The purpose of the re-framing strategy is precisely to more away from conventional realism and to present the novel's characters--particularly Trujillo--as incarnations (nodes or points of encounter) of structures of power so pervasive that their effects and influence cannot be exclusively explained in terms of the decisions or desires of any one single man. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.