The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao The Supernatural
By Junot Díaz
Act 1, Preface
They say it first came 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. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú—generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World. (1.preface.1)
This novel talks a lot about fukú, a curse that seems to strike at a number of levels. Fukú can strike one person (our friend Oscar Wao), a whole family (the de León family), a nation (the Dominican Republic), or even an entire region (the New World). In this paragraph, Díaz introduces the idea of fukú. At this point, it seems like the fukú is general to the New World. Later, we'll see how it has affected Oscar in particular.
It's perfectly fine if you don't believe in these "superstitions." In fact, it's better than fine—it's perfect. Because no matter what you believe, fukú believes in you. (1.preface.6)
It seems like a lot of folks in the Dominican Republic believe in fukú. Some don't, however, and consider fukú to be a superstition. Our narrator reminds us that no matter what you believe, fukú still exists. Yunior will spend the rest of the novel trying to convince you that fukú exists. And that it can do some serious damage.
But that's not what I wanted to tell you. It's about that crazy feeling that started this whole mess, the bruja [witch] feeling that comes singing out of my bones, that takes hold of me the way blood seizes cotton. The feeling that tells me that everything in my life is about to change. (22.214.171.124
One way to interpret this paragraph is to say that Lola is restless simply because she's an adolescent. It's a turbulent time for her. She's going through a lot of changes. Or you could point to the supernatural and say, "No. This isn't your everyday pubescent anxiety." It's a "bruja [witch] feeling" that comes over Lola (126.96.36.199). Right. Why call it puberty when you can call it witchcraft?
And now we arrive at the strangest part of our tale. Whether what follows was a figment of Beli's wrecked imagination or something else altogether I cannot say. Even your Watcher has his silences, his páginas en blanco [blank pages]. [...]. So as Beli was flitting in and out of life, there appeared at her side a creature that would have been an amiable mongoose if not for its golden lion eyes and the absolute black of its pelt. This one was quite large for its species and placed its intelligent little paws on her chest and stared down at her. (188.8.131.52)
What? Beli is in real trouble in the canefields, and what comes to save her? A magic mongoose? Or, at least something that looks like a mongoose. We can't fully explain the presence of mongooses in this book (see our "Symbols, Images, Allegory" section for more information). But like La Inca, the Golden Mongoose is clearly a positive supernatural force in the book.
In the days of the Trujillato, Belaguer was just one of El Jefe's more efficient ringwraiths. Much is made of his intelligence (he certainly impressed the Failed Cattle Thief) and of his asceticism (when he raped little girls he kept it real quiet). After Trujillo's death he would take over Project Domo and rule the country from 1960 to 1962, from 1966 to 1978, and again from 1986 to 1996 (by then dude was blind as a bat, a living mummy). (184.108.40.206)
Notice how Díaz mixes references to the supernatural and actual history here. Joaquín Antonio Balaguer Ricardo was a real Dominican dictator, just like Trujillo. Díaz compares him to a "ringwraith". (If you've ever read The Lord of the Rings, you'll know that ringwraiths are these superscary witch dudes.) The point is that Díaz links real, political power with fantastical, supernatural power. Why does he do that, do you think?
There are still many, on and off the Island, who offer Beli's near-fatal beating as irrefutable proof that the house of Cabral was indeed victim of a high-level fukú, the local version of House Atreus. Two Truji-líos in one lifetime—what in carajo [the f***] else could it be? But other heads question that logic, arguing that Beli's survival must be evidence to the contrary. Cursed people, after all, tend not to drag themselves out of canefields with a frightening roster of injuries and then happen to be picked up by a van of sympathetic musicians in the middle of the night who ferry them home without delay to a "mother" with mad connections in the medical community. If these serendipities signify anything, say these heads, it is that our Beli was blessed. (220.127.116.11)
Our narrator, Yunior, summarizes the local gossip here. Some people say that the beat-down Beli received from the two Elvises is clear evidence of a high-level fukú. Other people say that the fact Beli survived provides evidence of something else: a blessing. Whatever you think as a reader about the curse vs. blessing controversy, just be aware that Yunior is nudging you toward supernatural explanations for Beli's troubles.
Let me tell you, True Believers: in the annals of Dominican piety there has never been prayer like this. The rosaries cabling through La Inca's fingers like line flying through a doomed fisherman's hands. And before you could say Holy! Holy! Holy! she was joined by a flock of women, young and old [...]." (18.104.22.168)
In case you thought Wao was all about fukú and evil powers, here's La Inca. In the book, she harnesses the power of good magic. Her version of good magic is prayer.
Sometime in 1944 (so the story goes), while Abelard was still worried about whether he was in trouble with Trujillo, he started writing a book about—what else?—Trujillo. By 1945 there was already a tradition of ex-officials writing tell-all books about the Trujillo regime. But that apparently was not the kind of book Abelard was writing. His s***, if we are to believe the whispers, was an exposé of the supernatural roots of the Trujillo regime! A book about the Dark Powers of the President, a book in which Abelard argued that the tales the common people told about the president—that he was supernatural, that he was not human—may in some ways have been true. That it was possible that Trujillo was, if not in fact, then in principle, a creature from another world! (22.214.171.124)
If Trujillo was, in fact, "a creature from another world," that would explain a whole lot. As Díaz suggests here, it would explain why he was so powerful. It would also explain his cruelty. How else can you explain all the torture and murder and abuse? It makes perfect sense when you say it this way: Trujillo was inhuman.
So which was it? you ask. An accident, a conspiracy, or a fukú? The only answer I can give you is the least satisfying: you'll have to decide for yourself. What's certain is that nothing's certain. We are trawling in silences here. Trujillo and Company didn't leave a paper trail—they didn't share their German contemporaries' lust for documentation. And it's not like the fukú itself would leave a memoir or anything. The remaining Cabrals ain't much help, either; on all matters related to Abelard's imprisonment and to the subsequent destruction of the clan there is within the family a silence that stands monument to the generations, that sphinxes all attempts at narrative reconstruction. A whisper here and there but nothing more. (126.96.36.199)
Our narrator tells us that we'll just have to decide for ourselves whether Trujillo put a fukú on the family or not. Wait a second. Doesn't the narrator spend most of the book trying to convince us that everything that happens to this family is the result of a fukú? Isn't the novel itself a zafa against the family curse? So why does the narrator tell us that we have to decide for ourselves if he's so convinced? Discuss.
It wasn't just Mr. Friday the Thirteenth you had to worry about, either, it was the whole Chivato Nation he helped spawn, for like every Dark Lord worth his Shadow he had the devotion of his people. (188.8.131.52)
Friday the 13this a horror movie franchise—we're guessing it's got about ten sequels and remakes?—that started in 1980. The monster in the films, named Jason, has a few supernatural powers. So not only does Díaz compare Trujillo to Sauron from Lord of the Rings, he also compares him to the very scary and powerful main character of this franchise. We're saying a zafa just typing these words right now.