The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao begins not with its title character, a nerdy Dominican boy growing up in North Jersey in the 1980s and ’90s, but with African slaves; exterminated natives; “dictator-for-life Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina,” “also known as El Jefe, the Failed Cattle Thief, and Fuckface,” who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961; and the Italian explorer who planted his first colony on Hispaniola in 1492, and whom the book refers to–so inauspicious in Santo Domingo is the utterance of his name–as “the Admiral.” The white man’s advent, the narrator tells us, released a demon into the world: Fukú americanus, “the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” It is this fukú that drives the story, exerting its power on both the national and personal scale: on the Admiral himself; on America and JFK; on Trujillo’s enemies, who include Oscar’s grandfather; on El Jefe himself; and at last on poor Oscar, all the way up in New Jersey.
In other words, Santo Domingo becomes the site of a kind of colonial Original Sin. Oscar himself will call the place the “Ground Zero of the New World” (and because Oscar dies in 1995, Díaz is reminding us that the phrase referred to Hiroshima before it became a slogan of American victimhood). Díaz isn’t just telling the story of one sad Dominican; he’s telling the story of a whole nation, and ultimately of a whole region. In Puerto Rico, the narrator discovers, they call the curse fufu, and in Haiti, he hears, they have some other name. Cuba and Mexico become frequent points of reference throughout the novel. But Díaz’s compass is wider still: “Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq” and “Trujillo was Mobutu before Mobutu was Mobutu.” For all its vivid Dominican particularity, Díaz’s story aims to stand for that of an entire imperium. Fukú americanus, indeed.