December 14, 2011
As far I know, he never set foot there. But then a physical journey is not always necessary.
Junot Diaz is not shy about naming names — The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is almost a who’s who of sci fi greats — but he doesn’t name Melville. He does, however, quote Moby-Dick at some length, beginning with this encomium to Jack Pujols, the “school’s handsomest (read: whitest) boy” — “he was proof positive that God — the Great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! — does not love his children equally.”
And Diaz doesn’t stop there. Four pages down, there is also this description of Beli, head over heels in love, who sets out “to track down Jack Pujols with the great deliberation of Ahab after you-know-who. (And of all these things the albino boy was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”)
The whiteness of the whale has a new and literal meaning in a place where color-consciousness is a non-stop obsession. Oscar Wao is a 21st-century Moby-Dick in that sense: the thematics are translatable, even Melville’s sublime language can be stitched seamlessly into Diaz’s goofy prose. Is this a good way to update the nineteenth century? Well, if Melville were writing now, he most probably would have taken on Spanlish (as he once took on Shakespearean English) as the most lively, most energetic language of the day. And he might have something like this: “As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I have a fuku story too, I wish I could say it was the best of the lot — fuku number one — but I can’t. Mine ain’t the scarciest, the clearest, the most painful, or the most beautiful. It just happens to be the one that’s got its fingers around my throat.”
Toni Morrison used to say Bill Clinton was the first black President of the United States. Junot Diaz might have said Melville was the first Dominican author.