POLITICS AND THE BAWDY MERGE IN CARIBBEAN TALL TALES

POLITICS AND THE BAWDY MERGE IN CARIBBEAN TALL TALES

Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Sun Sentinel
BY CHAUNCEY MABE, BOOKS EDlTOR

When Robert Antoni’s first novel, Divina Trace, was published in 1991, he was hailed by no less than George Plimpton as the newfound James Joyce of the Caribbean. Most readers will be grateful that the classic authors he most resembles in My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales are the infinitely more readable Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.

In these interlocking stories, Antoni channels the bawdy voice of an elderly Spanish-Caribbean woman as she relates ribald stories to her 12-year-old grandson. Born a rancher’s daughter in Venezuela, Maria Rosa de la Plancha Domingo accompanies her husband to the fictional island of Corpus Christi, the setting of Antoni’s previous novels (Divina Trace and Blessed Is the Fruit). The focus of these tales is her life as a young widow in the era of World War II, when Corpus Christi is overrun by the U:S. military, which appropriates Maria’s cocoa plantation – a turn of events that leaves her undaunted.

“Because at that time of the war I was already a widow of several years…and I was still a young woman with nine boys and one girl and Yolanda’s daughter too …but I don’t mind because at that time I was a young woman, and strong, and beautiful, you hear? Young and beautiful just like you mummy there, with beautiful hair and skin and beautiful tot-tots that didn’t used to fall down, and beautiful, beautiful teeth I used to have, big and white like pearls!”

It is the Twain of the tall-tale, the Kipling of the “just so” story, that Antoni imitates here, but with his own brand of wit, energy and imagination. Even the more realistic tales are nonetheless tall, filled with archetypal swindlers, lotharios, randy young American soldiers, and the whores who service them: “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 like to fight wars.”

Chief among Aritoni’s Twainesque characters are the self-styled King of Chacachacari, and the phony Kentucky Colonel of fried chicken fame, both of whom repeatedly try to con Maria out of her $10,000 nest egg with charmingly elaborate schemes, right up to the all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion. Interspersed with these comic adventures are folk tales of wit and inventiveness in the Jungle Book tradition of children’s stories, although these are strictly for adults. One, “How Crab-O Lost His Head,” is the story of a 7-foot-tall Amazon beauty who carries a cutlass in her hairdo for the purpose of cutting men down to size, so to speak. Another, “How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles,” is a tragic love story, a Caribbean gloss · on the El Dorado myth. Both tales seethe with a subtext of sexual and colonial politics, but the main thing is always the story itself.

Maria has the last word on the politics and aesthetics of storytelling: “And Johnny, that is the sure, sure danger of telling stories. That sometimes it makes you lose sight of you own harsh reality you’re living. Because all of a sudden we heard one set of bawling coming from inside the kitchen, so we took off running to find out what it was. And Johnny, that is the
other problem about telling stories, that even when they do manage to help you see you own reality a little clearer, half the time it is in same way that is upside-down and it doesn’t make no sense nor do no good for nobody a-tall.”

Some readers might protest that Antoni, a professor of creative writing and Caribbean literature at the University of Miami, presumptuously appropriates themes more justly the province of black and Latino authors. But Antoni comes by his subject matter honestly: Though white, his family has roots in Trinidad and Tobago, and though born in Detroit, he was raised in the Bahamas. ”
Besides, presumption is always a product of failure; when you write as convincingly as Antoni does here, you earn a free pass to write about anything you want.

Chauncey Mabe can be reached at cmabe@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4710.

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