RAUNCHY FOLKTALES FROM GRANDMOTHER
By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times book critic
When it comes to grandmothers, some people have all the luck.
My sweet but prudish Southern “Mamaw” would judge a book mostly on whether it had “too much dirty” in it. The grandmother in Robert Antoni’s new book (who, to judge from the dedication, is modeled on his own) regales her young grandson with tales of sex-mad American GIs stationed in the Caribbean during World War II, or of island enchantresses whose specialty is carnal havoc.
No Pearl Buck for this kid! Instead, he gets something rowdy, outlandish and “bad.” (“A very good bad story,” as Granny puts it, “that is one of my best.”)
“My Grandmother’s Erotic Folktales” is the third book by Trinidadian-Bahamian writer Antoni, and like his earlier work (“Divina Trace,” “Blessed Is the Fruit”) it’s set on the fictional West Indian island of Corpus Christi.
The grandmother of the title, María Rosa de la Plancha Domingo, grew up on a cattle ranch in Venezuela, married handsome Corsican Barto Domingo at 17, moved to Corpus Christi, had 10 children and was widowed at an early age – which is when all her troubles began.
“I tell you,” she explains, “when you are a young widow with a little bit of money and plenty good looks like I had in those days you’ve got to be careful.”
Besieged by the U.S. Army and a zany line-up of con artists – among them, a gadget-mad “King of Chacachacari” and a Colonel Sanders who’s sick of fried chicken – María reacts with a quick wit and a big heart. She’s both impressionable and conniving: a nurturing mother to everyone, who nevertheless is in dire need of rescue on occasion, especially when it comes to money matters.
Still, no matter how tough things get, she keeps up her courage, even in extreme old age: “Ninety-six years, you know? What a thing! But the head is still good, and the blood is not so yellow.”
Each of the book’s five stories serves as an excuse for María to interrupt herself with stories-within-stories, some more to do with local legend and history than her own experience. Thus, in the middle of her account of how she and Colonel Sanders went into the pizza business, we get “The Tail of the Boy Who Was Born a Monkey.” And in a digression from a wildly kinky explanation of “How Iguana Got Her Wrinkles,” we’re treated to “The True Tale of El Dorado” (in which Sir Walter Raleigh is “always reading he love poetry, even at the moment of he brutal attacks.”).
Antoni’s West Indies encompass every race under the sun – European, Amerindian, African, Hindu, Chinese – and his vision of the region takes into account both its cruel history and its natural wonders.
He revels in language of the place, and while no glossary is provided, most of María’s Caribbeanisms – “vie-kee-vie” (crazy), “blanchyfoot” (suspect) – are easily intelligible in context.
Should an 11- or 12-year-old really be hearing these X-rated tropical answers to the tales of the Brothers Grimm?
Maybe not. Still, they’re so merrily raunchy that they wind up feeling like the product of a long-ago Caribbean Eden, where comical lust and polymorphous perversity were part and parcel of an innocence that most of us have lost. In fact, Antoni’s spicy “folktales,” far from wielding a corrupting influence, may infuse even the most jaded adult readers with a strangely rejuvenating delight.