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. This is further exacerbated when William’s second cousin and first love, Rachel, reappears in New York, and the three vow to return home together for the next carnival. The scene is set for William’s relationships with them to spin out of control.

What is first hinted at and then slowly revealed is that William is as impotent sexually as he is creatively. To reveal the cause of his impotence would detract from its revelatory position in the novel; it’s an event that has divided him from happiness since he was a teenager.

But to read this novel purely as a character study would be to miss the point. It is better seen as an exploration of the nature of Trinidadian racial identity and an exercise in fictional subterfuge: its structure, characters and themes are lifted outright from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

Antoni explores to what extent he can tease and trick the reader into believing he knows what’s coming next, through the novel’s relationship with its classic parent. A homage it may be, but it’s a purposely inverted one.

Just as the carnival revelries that form the core of the novel have the characters adopting other faces in an attempt to both hide and reveal their truer natures, the book plays with its own identity as a reflection of Hemingway’s novel by subverting the assumptions arising from that association.

That isn’t to say that Carnival doesn’t work as a simple, outright narrative. The unfolding drama surrounding Rachel, William and Laurence is compelling – despite a certain unreality borne out of their inhabiting of a cosmopolitan, globetrotting universe – and keeps the pages turning.

When the limbo of place, race and sexuality that the three inhabit leads them toward an inevitable violent encounter, we do feel for them; they have become real for us almost in spite of their author’s literary game-playing.

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