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Showing posts with label Junot Diaz This Is How You Lose Her. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Junot Diaz This Is How You Lose Her. Show all posts

Thursday 28 August 2014

Review: Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

This is the second Junot Diaz I have read - his This Is How You Lose Her was the first (it's reviewed on this site 28 December 2013)). It's a weightier book which weaves in and out of the terrible history of the Dominican Republic under the US-backed barbarism of Trujillo and since. It could be read in companion with Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat - a terrifying history of Caribbean dictatorships (reviewed on this site 9 June 2012).

It is verbally spectacular and at the same time very raw and direct. There are no euphemisms. The title is actually a little misleading insofar as there are several main characters whose story is told - the story of Oscar's mother Beli is developed at length and is perhaps the most emotionally powerful of the narratives though some readers might select the story of Beli's father, Abelard.

Written in English, a fair amount of text and dialogue is in Spanish. I am not the sort of reader willing to sit with an urban dictionary or to constantly Google. It may be that English - speaking readers in the United States can handle the Spanish but that won't be true of English - speaking readers in other countries (like my England). Maybe there should have been a separate edition for those readers with glosses or translations to make things smoother - after all, Diaz provides English when occasionally he uses French or Latin and it is not disruptive if done intelligently. I wondered if the Spanish - language edition leaves chunks of text in English. If not, then by parity of reasoning nothing would be lost by making this book more accessible to English readers who don't have (much) Spanish as a foreign language

Saturday 28 December 2013

Review: Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her

This is the kind of book I like to read: under 200 pages of text and double spaced 26 lines to the page - maybe 50 000 words. You have to be a real cool dude for Penguin Books and Faber & Faber to allow you to write so little, like you were a poet or something.

It's an easy read. I don't know more than a few words of Spanish but I know enough French to work out some of the Spanish expressions which are crafted into the text and help give the stories credibility as "street smart" (to use The Financial Times'  dust jacket expression) and as representations of "working-class Latino life" (Daily Telegraph)

The troubles with writing in any street smart urban dialect are considerable. The words on the street change quite rapidly so you risk writing prose which will be dated when published, though not so street smart folks like me may not notice. And many urban dialects are tediously dependent on curses, sometimes to the extent that to the passing pedestrian ear they don't seem much more than permutations of fuckshitwankercunt words.

Diaz tackles both problems ruthlessly and this is where his craft skills as a writer are most in evidence. There are virtually no curse words to block the flow of his narrators' thoughts. And his narrators show distinct lack of interest in Sport and Music and Drugs - things which would date the prose. Instead, they are obsessively focussed on two things: the finer points of ethnic profiling and the precise description of female anatomy. Both are discussed with verbal dexterity, deploying an exuberantly baroque vocabulary. If they weren't so good with words, the guys who tell the stories would be nasty little racists and sexists.

Life ain't fair, but whether life ain't fair to his narrators is a question we are unlikely to ask. If we do, I think the answer is that they deserve most of what is coming to them. They are for the most part young men so full of themselves that they invite their own undoing. That's the moral of the book's title. That said, I find that I bear them no ill-will. They are engaging characters, likeable for the way they are tense combinations of amusing cockiness and painful vulnerability.

There are nine stories here. You can probably read them in a couple of hours. They won't do you any harm. They will make you smile. But the critics quoted all over the dust jacket do seem over-excited.