A BREEZE FROM THE WEST INDIES
By ASHLEY WARLICK
So Robert Antoni gets you with the title-“My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales” – and everything unfolds from there exactly as you might imagine. Maria Rosa de la Plancha Domingo, mother of 10, widow of one, sits ensconced before her 13 year-old grandson, Johnny, (perhaps with one of her favorite brandy cocktails) spinning out her famous stories for his tender ears. Occasionally she sings a phrase of Calypso, stands and shakes her bamshee or her tot-tots, which are just what you think they are and hanging a little low these days, and the stories roll on.
This is the folklore of the West Indies, both invented, embellished and traditional, and Mrs. Domingo’s world is populated with slave girls and kings, Ernest Hemingway and Col. Sanders, anthropomorphic euphemisms for how genitalia came to look the way they do, flatulence, sex potions and burlesque dancers in pink panties. It’s magical stuff, outrageous and scatological, sharpened to a fine, funny point, and an entirely charming read.
On the island of Corpus Christi during World War D, when Mrs. Domingo was “young and beautiful just like you mummy there, with beautiful hair and skin and beautiful tot-tots that didn’t used to fall down,” she ran a boardinghouse for American servicemen. Her stories capped off every dinner of pelau, or bull-foot soup, or roasted armadillo. There are five stories assembled here, but buried within are many more, and the book’s table of contents goes like this: “My Grandmother’s Tale of the Buried Treasure and How She Defeated the King of Chacachacari and the Entire American Army with Her Venus Flytraps,” including “The Story of How She Gave Away One and Got Back Two” and “The Story of General Monagas’ Pearlhandied Pistol and the Tiger that Liked to Eat Cheese.”
The tales she spun were entertainment, but also a lesser evil than what was readily available as an erotic outlet Mrs. Domingo tells Johnny, “Half the whores in Venezuela crossed the sea in saltfish crates and cigar boxes, and whatever else they could find to get at those American soldiers fast enough, because it’s true what they say that the Yankees would pay any amount of money because they don’t have no sex in America and that’s why Americans only like to fight wars.”
And Antoni’s language is transportive, magnetic, for all the senses. Lies smell like toejamb, or blanchyfoot. Somebody talks too much, “as if he just ate a parrot.” Women have skin like burned saffron, like musala. Men are constantly preoccupied with their pumpulums, crabos, toetees, standpipes, all versions of the same part.
Mrs. Domingo spends quite a bit of time on parts, she believes in visions mostly other peoples’, and the truth of these can be discerned by the proper identification of the body parts of whomever was dreamed. When the King of Chacachacari says he dreamed of an angel who wanted her to burn $10,000 in sacrifice, she knew he was lying when he said the angel was male, “because in truth, if you’ve ever seen an -an I have seen plenty in my day-the truth is that they are all smooth.”
So not only has she seen angels but seen them intimately, and this is the kind of fully fleshed, frank voice Mrs. Domingo provides us. By book’s end, we are just like her grandchildren, just like those soldiers around the table; if we could reach up and tug her skirt, ask for just one more, it would keep us out of trouble for yet another hour.
Ashley Warlick’s novels include “The Summer after June” and “The Distance From the Heart of Things.” She lives in Greenville, S.C.« TALL CARIBBEAN STORIES  |  POLITICS AND THE BAWDY MERGE IN CARIBBEAN TALL TALES »