Worthy Whatlessness

Simon Lee reviews Robert Antoni’s award-winning novel
Published:
Thursday, April 24, 2014

Robert Antoni won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize with his first novel Divina Trace.
The 2014 Bocas Lit Fest Fiction prizewinner, As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni, confirms the promise of his first (Commonwealth Prize-winning) novel of 1992, Divina Trace.

While it can be read strictly as Caribbean fiction (a local setting; Creole voices; an American-born author of Trini parentage) Whatless Boys also functions variously as metafiction (a genre which self-consciously highlights a text’s status as an artefact, foregrounding the fictitiousness of fiction); oral literature; a (postcolonial) critique of Utopian fantasies and the inscription of the New World; a multilayered inquiry into language, silence, talk, and the shifting definitions of literature itself in the digital age.

With a timeline that slides between 1845/6, 1881 and 2010, Whatless Boys incorporates multi-texts: press clippings and archival material, e-mail messages, photocopies, letters, maps (printed and hand drawn), diagrams, recipes, receipts, messages drawn in the sand and a note written on 17 separate notepad pages thrown from a window, which need reassembling for sense. But like a worthy postmodern script, it “literally” moves beyond the page and into other media, with Web site connections to two short films; a play; a literary review and patented diagrams of two inventions, which figure prominently in the novel: German inventor John Etzler’s Naval Automaton and Satellite.…

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Boyd Tonkin: NGC Bocas Lit Fest is in keeping with Port of Spain’s pedigree as a Caribbean writer’s heaven

Boyd Tonkin: NGC Bocas Lit Fest is in keeping with Port of Spain’s pedigree as a Caribbean writer’s heaven

Boyd Tonkin, The Independent, UK, Saturday 26 April 2014

Every year, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature travels to Stockholm to give an address that tells the world about the wellsprings of his or her art. Over the past two decades, one compact non-European city, seldom seen as a global metropolis of literature, has nonetheless loomed large in two separate speeches. To Derek Walcott (1992), it figured as “a writer’s heaven”, a tropical Athens where traditions blended in “a downtown babel … marginalised, polyglot”, but still “a city ideal in its commercial and human proportions”. For V S Naipaul (2001), it served as the place where he began to throw light on the “area of the darkness” that shrouded his origins, watching, recording and imagining: “The life of the street was open to me. It was an intense pleasure to observe from the verandah” the scenes that fed his breakthrough work.

That city is Port of Spain, Trinidad. Famously, Walcott the poet and Naipaul the novelist never agree on anything. But on the nourishment that Port of Spain offered them, they wholeheartedly concur.…

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New West Indian Guide 88

(2014) page 68

Turning to the Anglophone West Indies, As Flies to Whatless Boys (New York: Akashic, 2013, paper US$ 15.95), Trinidadian Robert Antoni’s latest novel, is by turns gripping and hilarious, a wonderful tall tale of a group of nineteenth- century English pioneers in Trinidad, led by a madcap German charlatan- inventor of such machines as a sugar crystallizer that requires neither heat nor labor and a sea-going vessel that operates by wave power alone, all told in wonderful Trini vernacular and with a side-splitting set of fictional emails from the randy director of the T&T archives to the author. It’s pure joy.

 

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As Flies to Whatless Boys: Trini Vernacular and Caribbean Identity

Huffington Post 10/10/2013
By Arlene M. Roberts

“It’s Trini vernacular cell phone text speak,” author Robert Antoni announced before reading an excerpt from his novel, As Flies to Whatless Boys, at a Brooklyn Book Festival bookend event held recently at MoCADA. With each sentence the novel came vividly to life, delighting the diverse audience, not only because of the scenario Antoni described, but also on account of the language he used. Vernacular, previously shunned as something ‘less than’, is now the chosen vehicle of communication for a second generation of Caribbean writers.

The narrator in As Flies to Whatless Boys is a young boy named Willy, who recaps his overseas journey with his father from London to Trinidad circa 1845, as part of a contingent called the Tropical Emigration Society (TES). The expedition is spearheaded by engineer and philanthropist, John Adolphus Etzler, inventor of machines “powered by the immense forces of Mother Nature.” Recruits in this proto-socialist, utopian community include Marguerite Whitechurch sans vocal chords, among others.

En route to their destination, members of the TES traverse varied geographical terrain. However, it is the linguistic landscape that truly resonates with me. As the author reconstructs the journey through family correspondence, anecdotes and emails, references to bazodee, too-tool-bay, assassataps, tabanca, cockspraddle, geegeeree, and maco-eyes are interwoven in the narrative.…

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Publisher’s Weekly

Trinidad is the sultry backdrop for an intricately imagined historical novel from Antoni (Carnival) about voyages of discovery undertaken generations apart. In 1881, William Tucker, soon to return to London, tells his son the story of why their family left England in 1845. William’s father had fallen in with the bombastic German inventor J.A. Etzler, who claimed his Satellite machine could ”save the labouring-masses” and revolutionize agriculture—that is, if he could test it at a new-world colony. Only after sailing to Trinidad aboard the Rosalind did Etzler’s colonists discover the full extent of his “boldface bamboozlement.” Still, the transatlantic pilgrimage nurtured William’s first love, with mute, beautiful Marguerite. The mystery of what happened to Etzler’s colony and to Marguerite incites the present-tense storyline, consisting of e-mails Antoni receives from Trinidad archivist Miss Ramsol, whom he “subjuices” (her word) while researching his Tucker ancestry during a visit. Her bawdily funny, patois-heavy missives showcase Antoni’s superlative ear for the intricacies of language, Caribbean rhythms in particular. And William’s account of young love attests to Antoni’s fluency in the poetry of nostalgia. In words as vibrant as the personalities he creates, Antoni deftly captures unconquered territories and the risks we’re willing to take exploring them.…

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Kirkus

Antoni (Carnival, 2005, etc.) offers up a novel set in 19th-century and modern-day Trinidad.
Some believe that John Adolphus Etzler is a con artist, but the charismatic inventor asserts that his new nature-powered machine, the Satellite, will free men from all forms of labor. Although his claims may be a bit too good to be true—in fact, the machine’s public unveiling and demonstration isn’t exactly stellar—British citizens of all classes are willing to fill Etzler’s coffers and invest in his newly founded Tropical Emigration Society. Their dream: to establish a Utopian society in Trinidad using Etzler’s apparatus. Among the emigrants is the Tucker family, including 15-year-old Willy, who narrates the story. While onboard the Rosalind, Willy contrives to spend his time with socially prominent 18-year-old Marguerite Whitechurch, who communicates through writing because she lacks vocal cords. They fall deeply in love and find creative ways to spend time together—at first furtively and then more openly as few appear to notice or care. Following the long voyage, Etzler (who spent a couple of days tied to the mast for an outrageous claim), absconds to South America and leaves the investors to travel by schooner from Port au Prince to Chaguabarriga, the site of their future community.…

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Metafiction meets history in Antoni’s newest work

A Review by Shivanee Ramlochan

Published in the Trinidad Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section: December 22nd, 2013, page B21

Metafiction is writing that takes a tough look at itself, and in so doing, explores the relationship between author and text. One of its frequent vehicles involves a story wherein, self-consciously, a story is being told, and the reader is made prismatically aware of its telling. This is part of what’s happening in Robert Antoni’s vigorously challenging fifth book, As Flies to Whatless Boys.

Antoni received a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for his first novel, Divina Trace, in 1992. eInIn In 2010, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on As Flies to Whatless Boys.

In 1845, charlatan-cum-visionary John Etzler and his business cohort CF Stollmeyer lead a naval expedition of the Tropical Emigration Society (TES) to the bold new world of Trinidad. On this vessel are 15-year-old Willy Tucker and his family, lodged in the third-class passenger bays. Smitten by the socially elevated, wordless beauty Marguerite, Willy grapples with youthful ardour and adventure on the high seas.

Life takes a decidedly less sanguine tone upon arrival to Trinidad, and the TES’s fumbling, uncertain forays into colony life in Trinidad’s inhospitable, jungle-teeming Chaguabarriga.…

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