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Carnival by Robert Antoni
Dances with bulls and turtles
By David Dabydeen
Published: 19 May 2006
In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), the template for Robert Antoni’s Carnival, a group of young Americans and Britons drift through France and Spain, drinking, brawling and lusting, the emptiness of their lives reflected in disjointed conversations, repetitions and silences. All the modernist features are present: the maiming of the psyche and body by war, the aimlessness, the embrace of self-destruction through alcohol. The bullfight in Pamplona is at the heart of the fiction. There is a sexual element in killing the bull, which reflects on the behaviour of the characters, and yet the ritual and the movements of the matador hold out the promise of an order and a truth missing in their lives. In a world of confusion and uprootedness, the matador “gave real emotion because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements”.
The modernist craving for ‘”purity”, applied to race, contributed to the extermination of millions during the Second World War, and continues to destroy lives, as Bosnia and Darfur attest. Antoni’s novel is a disturbing account of the destructiveness of those ideas of “purity”.…
Sunday Business Post – Dublin, April 30, 2006 – Reviewed by Elizabeth McGuane
Carnival, by Robert Antoni, Faber & Faber, €16.05.
Trinidadian author Robert Antoni won widespread acclaim – and a Commonwealth Best Book Award – for his debut novel, Divina Trace, a lyrical study of the myths underlying Caribbean culture that was written in an approximation of its dialect.
His latest book, Carnival (also nominated for a Commonwealth award), looks at the contemporary travails of a white Trinidadian author who returns home from self-imposed exile in New York during the carnival season to try to reconnect with the innocence of the island. With this act, he hopes to recapture his own lost innocence.
The protagonist, William Fletcher, is a descendant of the first white settlers on ‘‘the island’’ – ostensibly a fictionalized Trinidad. An alcoholic whose intake of rum fuels his frustrated attempts at becoming a published novelist, William’s life is cast further into despair when a childhood friend reappears in New York.
Laurence, his mixed-race former classmate, has always easily outdone William, not to mention everyone else with whom the two boys grew up – in academia, in his career and in his success with women.
Though close, William’s jealousy of Laurence casts a shadow over their renewed friendship.…
*STAR*Antoni, Robert. Carnival. Feb. 2005. 304p. Grove/Black Cat, paper, $13 (0-8021-7005-6).
Celebrated Caribbean writer Antoni excels at confounding expectations. Here his title suggests festivity, but what ensues is a shattering tale of deep-rooted class and racial conflicts erupting into vindictive violence. William, the hard-drinking white West Indian narrator, a floundering New York–based writer, always returns to Trinidad at carnival time, but this year, he is unexpectedly reunited with Laurence, who is black and a gloriously successful, jet-setting writer, and Rachel, William’s second cousin and the love of his life, although their ardor is thwarted by his impotency. Seeking escape from their sorrows, they give themselves over to the bewitching calypso beat and cathartic abandon of the carnival. But when Rachel initiates a brazenly public interracial relationship with the King of the Carnival, all hell breaks lose. A master at simultaneously erotic and menacing descriptions, a choreographer of chaos, a storyteller with a cosmic sense of natural forces and human perversity, and a literary trickster who has boldly recast Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as a harrowing tale of the unhealed wounds of the Caribbean, Antoni considers the crushing cost of survival in a cruelly divisive world and reveals a chilling truth: sometimes love is not enough.…
A darkly suggestive transposition of Fiesta, Hemingway’s book about unhappy moneyed American expats in France and Pamplona, Carnival begins on the tennis courts and in the bars and eateries of New York’s SoHo. William, an aspiring novelist, is our narrator. He’s reunited with two childhood friends: his first love, Rachel, a flighty socialite over from Paris with her fourth fiancé, and Laurence, a handsome, Oxford-educated, successful playwright visiting from London. They are jetsetting, hedonistic, bright young things, and their talk is witty and literary.
Their joint trip to Trinidad Carnival is a return home. All three are West Indian: William is white, Laurence black and Rachel French-Creole. As they succumb to the intemperance and inversions that traditionally come with carnival, the identities that they’ve created for themselves become fragile, their sexuality becomes more fluid, their racial identity problematic. Aspects of the upbringing they’d suppressed, along with a traumatic secret that William and Rachel share, resurface. Their group dynamic becomes unstable, and they are reckless and cruel. After, to recover and perhaps to try and find that sense of belonging they’ve never had, they go with the carnival king to his isolated Rasta settlement in the rainforest. Trauma and violence follow them here too.…