Junot Diaz’s “Ysrael” is the story of brothers Yunior and Rafa who are spending a typical summer just outside the town of Ocoa in the Dominican Republic. This particular summer becomes a lot more interesting when the boys go on a mission to discover what lies beneath the mask of a local boy named Ysrael, who was horribly disfigured when a pig ate away at his face when he was a baby. This story is told in the first person, with the character Yunior recounting his and his brother’s experience during this summer that ends up making a deep impression on nine-year-old Yunior.
Diaz’s use of the first person creates a unified narrative because “Ysrael” is an uninterrupted retelling of these events from Yunior’s perspective. The reader gets the sense that Yunior is a trustworthy narrator because even though he’s telling the story years after it happened, his retelling is not colored too much by his maturity or by the benefit of hindsight. The way he tells the story is the way his nine-year-old self would have interpreted the events happening around him at the time. This choice on the part of Diaz creates a compelling narrative because the reader isn’t told what to think or what value to assign to Yunior and Rafa’s actions. Such value judgments become irrelevant because older Yunior is not telling the story in order to illustrate a moral or theme, he is just recounting a story from his life. This story shows that life, when it’s being lived in the moment, and even when it’s looked at in hindsight, doesn’t necessarily unfold into larger themes or easily discernible lessons. Sometimes what happened is just what happened, and it makes an impression on the individuals living it and that impression is all they can take away from it. The end of “Ysrael” exemplifies this:
“Ysrael will be OK, I said.
Don’t bet on it.
They’re going to fix him.
A muscle fluttered between [Rafa’s] jaw bone and his ear. Yunior, he said tiredly, They aren’t going to do shit to him.
How do you know?
I know, he said.”
The older Yunior who is telling the story knows why Ysrael won’t get the treatment he needs. Nine-year-old Yunior though, did not understand what Rafa was saying. By not interjecting his present knowledge into the story, older Yunior allows the reader to experience the same ambiguity that nine-year-old Yunior experiences at the end of this story and by doing so communicates more clearly the tragedy of Ysrael. Notes of tragedy underscore this story and the narrator allows them to shine through by not explicitly stating them. That way the reader experiences them the way younger Yunior does: as flashes, as something that is buried in the mind and the heart but every so often darts to the surface. Examples of this are when Yunior does things that remind Rafa of their dad. The following quote occurs when Yunior asks Ysrael about his kite:
“Where did you get that? I asked.
Nueva York, he said. From my father.
No shit! Our father’s there too! I shouted.
I looked at Rafa, who, for an instant, frowned. Our father only sent us letters and an occasional shirt or pair of jeans at Christmas.”
The implications here are that Rafa and Yunior’s father is not only away in the U.S., it’s as if he has forgotten about them. In this moment Ysrael, a disfigured pariah of a small town in the Dominican Republic, is in a better place than Rafa and Yunior, because his father sends him good gifts. And that pisses Rafa off. Older Yunior doesn’t say any of that though, and it is because Junot Diaz made the choice for the first-person narrator to keep his opinion out of the recounting of the story that “Ysrael” can resonate with the reader in such a visceral way.
In regard to Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Junot Diaz’s narrator helps the story achieve the third component, Calvino’s definition of “exactitude” that Calvino mentions in the chapter of the same name. This component says that exactitude is exemplified by “a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.” The language of the narrator in “Ysrael” achieves this precision through what he leaves unexplained and unqualified. By so doing he expressed the “subtleties of thought and imagination.” For example, older Yunior describes how Rafa would describe in explicit detail his exploits with the local girls. At the end of the passage older Yunior describes that at nine years old, “I was too young to understand most of what he said, but I listened to him anyway, in case these things might be useful in future.” Rafa telling him this information he can’t use (information which might not even be true, considering Rafa is a twelve-year-old boy with nothing to do) is ironically a time during which Yunior feels like his brother is treating him almost like an equal. This is a time of bonding for them. The narrator’s word choices are precise in that older Yunior is able to reproduce the way in which his nine-year-old would have described what was happening. In the simple, straightforward and slang-laden language of a nine-year-old, the narrator is still able to communicate the complexity beneath the seemingly mundane events of the story.