By Melissa Katsoulis, Caribbean Voice

A NINETY-SIX year old Venezualan widow, a Caribbean island torn apart by the exploitation of the west, venus fly-traps, a cheese-eating tiger and lots and lots of sex – My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales, a novel by Robert Antoni (Faber, £6.99; ISBN 0 571 200109; Times Bookshop £5.99) has all the ingredients of the late-20th century Latin-American novel we know so well.

And yet, well as we know it, we also know that it is in crisis. No South American author – not even Màrquez – has experienced the kind of success in Britain that Louis de Bernières acheived by taking the forms and motifs of an ancient narrative tradition and producing something for a popular market. The market forces that destroyed the Macondo of Màrquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude have seen to it that the genre of which he was the first great ambassador, has become too hot to leave in the hands of the native.
Yes, Robert Antoni’s family, as his publicicts’ blurb proclaims, “has a Caribbean history going back hundreds of years”. But it is, and this they keep to themselves, a white family history. Yes, he grew up on a Carribbean island. But it was the Bahamas, land of Piña Coladas and American culture.

Still, My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales should not be dismissed as the plaything of a romantic outsider. You might quibble with Antoni’s appropriation of indiginous dialect, and his readiness to assume the voice of an elderly peasant woman, but in doing so he tells a story that is not only poignant, well-paced and politically subtle but very, very funny. For example, you know you are on to a winner with a title like “Gregoria la Rosa’s Story of the Time She Got the Pin-Cushion Stuck Inside Her Bamsee, and My Grandmother Attempted to Operate and Almost Pulled out Her Whole Asshole”. This is just one of myriad tales-within-tales told by Grandmother Maria Rosa de la Plancha Domingo to her grandson, Johnny – tales that pull together to form a cohesive celebration of sensuality, memory and imagination.

Some of these stories have been told before, by a younger Maria Rosa to the US servicemen stationed on her island in the Second World War. Then, she was telling her tales, Scheherazade-style, to defer a moment in real time. Not, as in 1,001 Nights, the moment of the teller’s death, but the moment when the soldiers succumb to the delights of drinking and whoring on the wrong side of the island.

The tragi-comedy of male desire and anxiety descends to farce as she recalls her stint as landlady, storyteller and self-appointed moral guardian to these young men, whose enthusiasm for her exotic cooking and even spicier after-dinner stories left them sated but begging for more. Her tales, part cautionary, part Just-So, resonate with the music, myth and landscape of “papa God’s golden earth” and its capacity for endurance through transformation. Yet they are delivered from sentimentality by the spirit of uninhibited comedy which informs her voice.

With their first telling, Maria Rosa’s stories succeed in their moral mission. In the mouth of her grandson, and on the pages of this novel, they succeed once again, and generate a literary triumph to be relished.

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