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.
Shakespeare’s King Lear provides an inspirational springboard for the book’s title, in the line “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport”. Swapping “wanton” for “whatless”, this allegory of human fortunes at the mercy of divine orders remains potent. The characters of the novel are hurtled, insect-like, against daunting odds: the reader must see whether the destinies of Willy, his family and Marguerite augur ill or well, by journey’s end.
The recorded past collides repeatedly—and often hilariously—with the novel’s modern day insertions, delivered in epistolary content from one Miss Ramsol, director of the T&T National Archives. These letters see Ramsol responding in her own salacious, unbridled local vernacular (replete with “text-message speak”) to a character modelled upon Antoni himself, whom she refers to with equal parts exasperation and ardour as “Mr Robot”. Miss Ramsol’s voice works best when considered as an autonomous lingo unto itself, infused with both small island bureaucracy and surprising sexual permissiveness alike.
(Antoni’s short story, “How to Make Photocopies in the Trinidad and Tobago National Archives” contains parts of these Miss Ramsol letters. It was published in Akashic Books’ 2008 Trinidad Noir anthology.)
Told with all the open-eyed wonder of a young man in the first bloom of his journeys to adulthood, Willy’s story – delivered in a long, retrospective ramble to his own son – demonstrates Antoni’s keen understanding of personal resilience and despair as entwined agents of human growth.
Consider Willy’s endearing frustrations, at being unable to pen a convincing love letter to Marguerite, one in which he hopes to convince her to join him on the voyage to Trinidad: “Till inevitably, unavoidably, I came to understand the truth: writing is impossible. It’s unbearable. The difficulty of writing down anything a-tall. With any kinda accuracy, or meaning, or any kinda worth.”
Indeed, the weight of building a complex history, of imbuing it with both gravitas and levity, cannot be lost on anyone who makes deep inroads into Whatless Boys. Antoni has primed the text to withstand a series of introspections on differing levels, both symbolic and immediate. The story is infused, subtly, with symbols that link back to artfully-framed online resources: maps; recipes; video explorations of sea and silence, of coastline and jungle thicket.
The hoodwinker Etzler, his Tropical Emigration Society initiative, and his allegiance with the socialist Stollmeyer: all these are historical accuracies. The author has used these comparatively obscure origin stories as a series of launching pads for an inquisitive, witty fictionalising. While Willy’s recounted story is largely a creation of Antoni’s own talents, the events that surround it – the improbable machineries; the sea voyages; the publications of Etzler: these things are true.
As Flies to Whatless Boys cultivates, with near-unerring precision, matching moments of searing intimacy and catastrophe, lining them up to limbo uneasily in juxtaposition. It is what the best fiction purposes to be: a bridge to another world, a beacon illuminating how we lived then, and now.
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