NIGHTS IN THE TROPICS
The Washington Post
By: Elizabeth Hand
Imagine listening to a bawdy, laughing Scheherezade whose off-color tales lilt to a calypso beat. That’s the voice of Maria Rosa de la Plancha Domingo, narrator of Robert Antoni’s My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales, a collection of linked stories as surprising and luminous as a hidden tropical waterfall.
Antoni’s two novels, Divina Trace (winner of the Commonwealth Writers prize) and Blessed Is the Fruit, showcased his gift for combining a ripe Caribbean patois with an elegantly stylized island mythos. My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales is a sort of West Indian Nights: tales within tales within tales, told to a grandson by the 97-year-old Maria (known as Skippy or Skip) as she recalls her youth on the bustling island of Corpus Christi during World War II. This is when the American troops appeared, seizing the young widow’s cocoa estate and turning it into a naval base: “Let me tell you every whorewoman in Corpus Christi descended straight away on that place . . . 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 is why the Americans only like to fight wars.”
Like Scheherazade, Skip spins her tales to protect the honor of her daughters and young countrywomen: She runs a respectable boarding house, satisfying her Yankee soldiers with cerveza, spicy food and “The Story of General Monagas’ Pearlhandled Pistol and the Tiger that Liked to Eat Cheese” and “The Tail of the Boy Who Was Born a Monkey.”
Like any heroine worth her salt, Grandmother and her beautiful female charges are beset by unwanted suitors. The framing stories in this collection feature two nefarious con men, the Kentucky Colonel and the King of Chacachacari. Their absurd efforts to bilk the widow of her money include a search for buried treasure and having her invest in Skippy’s Pizza Parlor. The Colonel also starts a radio station, announcing he will henceforth be called Wolfman Jack; this last doesn’t fool the canny widow, since “everyone with sense knows he won’t be appearing on the radio with he big caveman beard for another twenty years!”
Amusing as they are, the misadventures of the King and the Colonel seem labored, their mix of Caribbean folklore and American pop culture like one of those fusion recipes that never quite come together in the cookpot. More captivating are Antoni’s versions of classic folktales. “The Tale of How Crab-o Lost His Head” is an island version of Rumpelstiltskin, wherein a young orphan girl must guess the real name of the most beautiful woman in the village of Blanchisseuse or else go to bed hungry each night, never tasting the island’s wealth — “a pawpaw, or a ripe mammy-sapote fruit. A hand of sweet-plaintains, or little sicreyea-bananas, or soft silk-figs. A few portugals, dillies, julie-mangoes or eden or doudou. Sugarapples, guavas, caimets, or whatever else was in season. . . .”
Antoni’s island dialect begs to be spoken aloud, and one sometimes has the delightful sense of reading a distinctively adult Dr. Seuss — “nobody had never given her no flowers before, not even the blossoms of a stinking-toe bush.” But the narrator’s voice can grow wearying; its rich patois and relentlessly earthy humor make one yearn occasionally for the acidic bite of real life or even tragedy. Despite their title, My Grandmother’s EroticFolktales are less silkily erotic than belly-laugh ribald, often scatological, with humor reminiscent of a Farrelly Brothers movie (and not quotable here).
And then the storyteller gives us “The Tale of How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles,” a lush, sensual account of forbidden love that truly does achieve the timeless quality of myth and folklore for which Antoni obviously strives. By the end of this book, one can believe in almost anything, including Skippy’s instrumental part in the Normandy invasion. Like her Yankee friends, one leaves these tales feeling replete, grateful and slightly dazed by the magic worked by a nonagenarian storyteller who has “remained young and sweet sweet forever!” •
Elizabeth Hand is the author of seven novels, including the forthcoming “Walking in Flames.”