Writing that’s raw, unfettered and cruel in its cold-eyed reality, yet so moving.
It’s as if a man jumped out of the dark, flashed you, kicked you in your gut, hurled some expletives at you, unexpectedly and tenderly caressed you, cried briefly and left.
This is writing so raw, so unfettered, so cruel in its cold-eyed reality and so moving in its refusal to ask for empathy that experiencing it is an epiphany of sorts: Can a writer be so profane and yet so good? So spare and yet so rich? So unmindful of whether you understand but able to sweep you along his tormented journey? Junot Diaz leaves you shaken but stirred.
His Pulitzer prize-winning talent is in irresistible form in his latest, This Is How You Lose Her, a loose, non-chronological collection of short stories linked by recurring themes of infidelity, alienation and the permanent otherness of the immigrant. All told in a polyglot patois that throws Spanglish, street slang, Boston college style and an unending stream of expletives and startlingly sexual terminology at you at a dizzying speed. It’s the verbal equivalent of a cinematic love scene in which the actors don’t bother to hide any body parts. It’s overtly, matter-of-factly sexual but it’s not porn; it’s expression left free.
Diaz rarely stops to translate the Spanish words — and there are plenty of them — leaving you to figure them out as you go along (Indian writers in English, please note). The result is a constant sense of discovery, guesswork and being challenged. ‘Don’t have the patience for my writing? Leave, you sucio,’ you can almost hear him say. That’s one of the few words he translates for you: ‘a sucio, an asshole.’
It’s what Magdalena, of the “wide-ass mouth”, large hips and “dark curly hair you could lose a hand in” thinks of Yunior, the protagonist of most of these stories. Yunior is a Dominican-American who was transplanted to the US of A from his native Santo Domingo when he was too young to tie his shoelaces properly. By the end of the book, he is a middle-aged writer and professor in Boston; he and Magda meet at Rutgers. The autobiographical flashes are hard to ignore (Diaz, who was born in Santo Domingo, is now a professor at MIT) and that gives these stories the hard edge of an uncomfortable truth.
Yunior has a bleak childhood. His Papi baffles him: “I didn’t know what to make of him. A father is a hard thing to compass.” His mother pines forever for the motherland; she has few friends in the new life. And she works unbearably and silently hard. His elder brother Rafa, whom his Mami is partial to, dies of cancer while in college. And Yunior inherits his father’s compulsive womanising.
A stream of women, mostly Latino, come and go; Yunior cheats on most of them with increasingly painful consequences. As he ages, so does his ability to recover from the after-effects of infidelity. By the time we reach the end of the book, and he is ready to write The Cheater’s Guide to Love, he is a physical and emotional wreck. “You keep waiting for the heaviness to leave you. You keep waiting for the moment you never think about the ex again. It doesn’t come.” Latin Lotharios can lose their fire like gringos after all.
This Is How You Lose Her; Junot Diaz, Penguin, Rs.499.