JENNIFER B. MCDONALD writes for the New York Times’ blog about Junot Díaz’s favorite books.
Junot Díaz was here for an event at The Times last night, and in the course of the evening he rattled off the names of several authors and books that have greatly influenced his work — or simply flat-out floored him. Among them: “Family Installments: Memories of Growing Up Hispanic,” by Edward Rivera, a 1982 memoir “noisily brimming with life,” as Phillip Lopate described it in the Book Review; “Poison River” and “The Death of Speedy,” two collections of the Love & Rockets comics by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez; “The Keepsake Storm,” a collection of poetry by Gina Franco; and “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa, about a brilliant mathematician whose short-term memory is impaired after an accident, and who develops a close relationship with his caretaker and her 10-year-old son. (Dennis Overbye described it in the Book Review last year as “deceptively elegant,” “written in such lucid, unpretentious language that reading it is like looking into a deep pool of clear water.”)
But the book Díaz returned to repeatedly — “run, don’t walk,” to get your hands on it, he insisted — was “Texaco,” by the Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau, published in the United States in 1997. The novel, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1992 and was one of the Book Review’s Notable Books, traces more than a century of Caribbean history through tales told by Marie-Sophie Laborieux, a descendant of slaves. “Both true and fabulous,” Leonard Michaels wrote in the Book Review, the novel’s stories of Martinique “constitute a personal and communal record of black experience on the island from the early days of slavery through its abolition and beyond — a record more real than ‘history,’ which is a formal, impersonal narrative.”
Díaz alluded to this idea — “a record more real than ‘history'” — in describing his own method for constructing “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which is run through with tales of the fearsome dictator Rafael Trujillo. (“At first glance, he was just your typical Latin American caudillo,” Díaz writes, “but his power was terminal in ways that few historians or writers have ever truly captured or, I would argue, imagined. He was our Sauron, our Arawn, our Darkseid, our Once and Future Dictator.”) Immersing himself in the history (plumbing his memories, devouring written accounts, interviewing people back home) was crucial to getting at the deepest truths of the Dominican story, Díaz said — and to being able to joke about it. Factual correctness was not his main concern, he added: he was after “truth.”
As for “Texaco,” Michaels set it up in the Book Review thus:
Marie-Sophie’s story begins in the present day with an act of violence: “Upon his entrance into Texaco, the Christ was hit by a stone.” Texaco is an “insalubrious” shantytown named for a nearby oil refinery, and the so-called Christ is a city planner who has come to bulldoze this slum in the name of progress. Not surprisingly, he is perceived by the people he encounters as “one of the riders of our apocalypse, the angel of destruction of the modernizing city council.” After he is set upon and stoned, he is carried to Marie-Sophie, an aged matadora — a woman of authority in the community, an “ancestor and founder of this Quarter.” When he explains his mission to her, she realizes that she must “wage … the decisive battle for Texaco’s survival,” and that her word is her “only weapon.” Plying him with rum, she begins to tell her stories: about her carpenter father and her blind mother; about her life after their deaths, living with families for whom she must work to pay her keep. She also tells how, enthralled by music, she was seduced by one musician and raped by another. She tells how she learned to read and to love books.
Chamoiseau has been compared to Joyce and Kafka, Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul, but Michaels declared him more “Rabelaisian: erudite, vulgar, stupendously energetic.” His novel “is driven by an African beat, its syncopation measured like the percussive claves of its music,” and it “returns obsessively to the power, beauty, frustrations and extreme political importance of language.” When the Martinican slaves are freed, Michaels wrote,
Marie-Sophie records in her notebook that “in Creole we know how to say slavery, or the chains or the whip, but none of our words or our riddles can say Abolition. Do you know why, huh?” The former slaves can’t say it or think it because freedom hasn’t been their experience, and what “abolition” means to those who have the word isn’t what it means to those who have suffered in its absence. Having heard of “freedom,” the former slaves go looking for this enticing new entity. There is hysteria in the streets, and soldiers fire on riotous crowds. … Some former slaves think freedom is a palpable thing, others make nothing of it at all. Mr. Chamoiseau puts their spiritual condition succinctly: “Turned mineral, their lives rolled out no carpet for the blinding dice of fate.” He could, of course, describe their shock and anguish by employing a psychological or phenomenological analysis, but then he’d be surrendering to abstraction what belongs to life — or surrendering to the perspective of the oppressor what belongs, in moral principle, in reality and in truth, to the misery, humiliation and outrage of his people.”