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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens with the narrator describing a curse. Legend tells that this curse originated in Africa and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean on the screams of enslaved Africans. This curse spelled doom for the Tainos, whose world ended when the Europeans arrived, cracking open the “nightmare door” that enabled the takeover of the Antilles island chain in the Caribbean Sea. The name of this curse is fukú americanus, or just fukú, which the narrator translates loosely as “the Curse and the Doom of the New World.” However, others refer to the curse as “the Admiral,” after the first European to step foot on the island of Hispaniola. This man claimed to have discovered the island, and in so doing, he unleashed the fukú on the world.
Regardless of where it came from, the narrator insists that the curse affects all Caribbean peoples, including those who have moved away from the region and now live in the global Caribbean diaspora. The narrator also emphasizes that fukú isn’t just an ancient story or a harmless legend. People of his parents’ generation truly believed in fukú, and they believed the curse had come to life in the form of a man named Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina.
The narrator inserts a lengthy footnote that offers background history on this political figure. The footnote explains that Trujillo numbered among the twentieth century’s most infamous dictators. He ruled the Dominican Republic between 1930 and 1961 with “a potent (and familiar) mixture of violence, intimidation, massacre, rape, co-optation, and terror.” The narrator continues with a fuller inventory of the many evil deeds Trujillo committed during his reign, then declares the man “our Sauron, or Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator.”
Returning to the main text, the narrator insists that Trujillo had an intimate, supernatural connection with the fukú curse. Dominicans widely believed that anyone who harbored bad thoughts or spoke ill of Trujillo would meet a terrible end. This explains why everyone who attempted to assassinate Trujillo ended up dead. According to the narrator, it also explains the apparent curse on the Kennedys, a prominent American political family. When President John F. Kennedy approved the assassination of Trujillo in 1961, he brought fukú upon his family.
The narrator also proposes that fukú caused the United States’ disastrous military involvement in Vietnam. Prior to shipping young men off to fight in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson had launched an illegal invasion of the Dominican Republic. The narrator posits that many of the men who took part in the invasion went straight to Saigon from Santo Domingo and carried fukú with them as “a small repayment for an unjust war.” This example demonstrates that fukú doesn’t strike suddenly, like lightning, but rather works patiently over time.
The narrator explains that every Dominican family has fukú stories. He reveals that he, too, has a fukú story. Yet he also hesitates, indicating that Oscar, the subject of his book, might not have approved of the designation “fukú story.” Oscar’s love for hardcore science fiction and fantasy would have led him to frame the story in terms of genre fiction. He’d have asked: “What more sci-fi than the Santo Domingo? What more fantasy than the Antilles?”
The narrator concludes his prologue by noting that anytime a Dominican suspected their misfortune originated with fukú, they would utter a single word to counter its malevolent power: Zafa. He then posits that the book he’s written serves as a kind of zafa: “My very own counterspell.”
The as-yet-unnamed narrator of Oscar Wao opens the book with a lesson about the Caribbean’s long history of violence. This history extends back to the end of the fifteenth century when Spanish explorers first set foot on Hispaniola, which is the island now shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Spanish imperialists transformed Hispaniola and other islands in the Antillean archipelago into plantations, and they transported slaves from Africa to serve as the labor force for these plantations. In the process of colonizing the Caribbean and utterly reshaping the islands’ physical landscapes, the Spanish also killed off the Tainos, a now-extinct Arawak community who were the first people to populate the Antilles. Founded on horrendous acts of violence, the Caribbean region symbolizes what the narrator calls, “Ground Zero of the New World.” The foundational violence that defined the Caribbean’s colonial era continued into the twentieth century. For example, the Dominican Republic witnessed the rise of the cruel dictator, Trujillo, who terrorized the nation for an excruciating thirty-year span. Taken together, the narrator’s schematic history of the Caribbean provides the reader with the necessary context for the various types of violence and suffering that will characterize the narrative that follows.
The book’s prologue incorporates elements of legend that transform the narrator’s lesson in Caribbean history into a form of speculative history. As the term “speculative history” implies, the narrator discusses real people and historical events, yet he also speculates about occult forces that may have invisibly shaped those people and events. In this case, beneath the history of colonial violence that defines the Caribbean, there lies an occult force known as “fukú” that has allegedly cursed the New World. The history of the fukú curse parallels the history of the Caribbean. According to the narrator, the curse had its origins in Africa and accompanied slaves on their forced journey across the Atlantic. The fukú curse thus went hand in hand with the violent foundations of plantation slavery in the Caribbean. If fukú continues to exercise its occult force today, that’s because the foundational violence that transformed the Caribbean into a plantation economy continues to have negative effects on the present. In other words, fukú is a kind of ghost that continues to haunt the New World. It symbolizes the unfinished business of a turbulent past that has not yet been laid to rest and still affects people’s lives.
In the prologue, the narrator introduces the theme of the Caribbean as a land of science fiction and fantasy. Many of the defining stories of the science fiction and fantasy genre center on a cosmic battle between good and evil. These stories often depict the forces of evil as enormously powerful and nearly impossible to defeat. As such, the forces of good occupy the position of an underdog, comparatively weak and hence easily dismissed. Yet in these stories, good repeatedly triumphs over evil and inspires hope. When the narrator suggests that the Caribbean is a land of science fiction and fantasy, he does so primarily because Caribbean history initially appears overwhelmingly compromised by evil. In the twentieth century, this evil took the form of Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic with unfathomable cruelty. Trujillo’s single-minded obsession with his own authority makes him uncannily similar to the great genre supervillains, such as Sauron from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Darkseid from the DC Comics universe. Yet in comparing Caribbean history to science fiction and fantasy, the narrator also implies the possibility that Oscar, the protagonist of his book, may play the hopeful role of the underdog.
The narrator’s use of footnotes at once mimics and undermines the traditional usage of footnotes in academic history writing. Academic historians commonly use footnotes to support and expand on the main text. Footnotes support the main text by citing primary and secondary sources consulted in the research process. They also expand the main text by furnishing additional information or context that might not otherwise fit neatly into the primary narrative. The three footnotes that appear in the prologue of Oscar Wao mainly serve to expand the primary narrative. The first footnote discusses Trujillo and his brutal rule over the Dominican Republic. The second offers additional detail about the narrator’s theory regarding the Kennedy family curse. The third glosses the phrase “Morgoth’s bane.” These footnotes give useful context for understanding the main narrative, but they also subvert the academic formality typically associated with footnotes. The narrator’s footnotes are written in the same irreverent tone as the rest of his narrative. Instead of naming specific sources for his information, the narrator indulges in personal speculation. He also quotes without indicating where the cited text comes from. By violating these norms of academic history writing, the narrator subverts academic authority.