The book begins as the narrator describes the arrival of “fukú americanus” in the Western Hemisphere. Known by many other names as well, this is a curse brought by Europeans from Africa to Hispaniola. All of the descendants of those living in the Caribbean at the time of the curse are also subject to its touch.
The novel starts with a distinctly Dominican perspective, explaining the fukú that potentially causes all of the hardship and pain in the novel. Díaz has said in interviews that the curse is a metaphor for the damage caused by colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean.
In the 1950s, the first generation of the novel, the curse was controlled by Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic. This explains why all those opposed to the dictator met such horrible fates. A footnote explains Trujillo’s rise to power and the markers of his regime – Haitian genocide, authoritarian control, and narcissistic government. The footnote also disparages Trujillo’s looks and personality, as well as his penchant for sleeping around, and compares him to the worst Nazis and rulers from science fiction dystopia.
The narrator’s irreverent criticism of Trujillo both educates the reader to potentially unknown Dominican history and shows the narrator’s complex relationship to the dictator. He loathes and laughs at Trujillo, but he can’t quite escape the fear his parents felt. The narrator’s slang and strong personal voice alert us to the fact that he is not an unbiased observer (he is later revealed to be the character of Yunior), and he is also possibly a kind of stand-in for Díaz in the novel.
The narrator speculates further about the fukú, now calling it the “Great American Doom.” He says that it killed Kennedy, and caused the American defeat in Vietnam. The narrator says that fukú can strike like lightning or it can slowly drown a person, but it always kills those it has marked. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter whether you believe in the fukú or not, because fukú believes in you.
By introducing fukú as an unstoppable force, the narrator reveals the “Dominican” viewpoint on destiny as a pre-determined and unsympathetic force that controls human lives. He also ties in history that American readers will be more familiar with, ensuring that this is as much an American story as a Dominican story.
According to the narrator, every Dominican family has a personal fukú story. He says that he received a thousand replies when he posted about fukú on an online forum, from Puerto Ricans and Haitians as well as Dominicans. His own mother has a fukú story to tell the narrator, though she never talks about anything else from her past in Santo Domingo. However, the fukú story that interests the narrator most is the story of Oscar de León. The narrator mentions that Oscar himself may not have seen his life as a fukú story, though.
The narrator essentially gives away the tragic ending of the novel here, making it all the more surprising how hopeful Oscar is when we finally meet him. The narrator’s focus on Oscar also sets up the important relationship between Oscar and the narrator, though we will not meet the narrator (Yunior) as a character until Chapter 4. By contrasting Oscar’s own vision of his life with the narrator’s perspective, the narrator admits that his version might not be the most accurate and that we must be careful not to trust him absolutely.
Aside from telling a fukú story, the narrator also wants to tell a story of zafa. The only way to protect yourself from fukú, he says, is through zafa – counterspell. Many things are “good luck charms” that can serve as zafa, but the author wants to use his book as his own personal zafa.
The introduction of the twin forces of fukú and zafa prepare us for the fairy-tale-esque elements of the story to come. Already, the narrator has shown that he likes to make popular references and allusions to other creative works. His purpose for this book also allows him to take further creative liberties with the story in order to fit the ending he would like.