Miami Herald
by Cristina Garcia

The vivid immediacy of oral storytelling rarely intersects with narrative fiction. The oral tradition is an art apart, an improvisa¬tional, fluctuating feast for the senses. In his extraordinary first novel, Divina Trace, Robert Antoni beautifully captures the spirit of oral storytelling without compromising the commitment of the written word. Divina Trace is about myth-making, about faith and forgiveness and the spellbinding power of language.

There are seven narrators in this richly embroidered tale, all of whom speak a calla¬loo stew of Trinidadian dialects accented with their own cadences and idiosyncrasies: The tales they tell are all variations of the same story, that of the mysterious and beau¬tiful Magdalena Domingo, who gave birth to a frog-child one spring day long ago, and who, through a series of fantastical circum¬stances, becomes the patron saint of the fic¬titious island of Corpus Christi.

Whether Magdalena was a virgin, a whore, a miracle worker, a ghost, a saint, a suicide – or all of the above – is the source of endless speculation on the island, where she continues to haunt the eerie Maraval Swamp. Her child was equally mysterious.’ Was he the son of the devil? The son of God? A monster or actually part amphibian? Did he die on the day of his birth, as some contend? Or was he still alive, happily swimming in the same putrid swamp his mother haunted?

Trying to piece it together:
Johnny Domingo, now in his 90s, son of Dr. John Domingo and related variously to the narrators, tries to piece together all the disparate parts of Magdalena’s story. He manages to provide the thread, knotted and twisted though it may be, through the morass of history, hearsay and secrets that surround Magdalena and her frog-child, and indeed the narrators themselves.
Among those who tell their versions are Granny Myna, the down-to-earth and com¬passionate matriarch; Maurina Ana Mona¬gas an evil schemer and the mother superior at the local convent; Papee Vince, a voice of historical perspective and profanity; Dr. Domingo, a physician whose scientific incli¬nations do not undercut his faith in miracles; and Evelina, a housekeeper, steeped in ritu¬als and superstitions.

There is no one truth, Johnny Domingo discovers, only a belief in stories. As Papee Vince, his maternal grandfather, once told him: “You see son, it is not so much the tell¬ing of this story. It is the believing in it. Because no story told without faith is any kind of story a-tall. It is windball and air-frit¬ters, and anybody who takes even a taste knows the difference.”

They believe the stories
The characters in Divina Trace all heartily believe in their stories, which take them from the jungles of Venezuela to the gilded chambers of the Vatican to the deep¬est recesses of the minds and imaginations of all the islanders. Their voices are alternately somber, cajoling, hilarious, sublime and obscene. They reinvent the English lan¬guage into an instrument capable of unex¬pected sounds and pleasures. Antoni’s pag¬eantry of language, his bottomless imagination fill the book to bursting. It is mature writing, wise and humane. At its best the novel could be sung aloud.

This is not to say it is always easy to digest. At times, its stream of consciousness requires great patience and perseverance. Sister General Maurina, with her delusions and machinations, goes on obsessively for .long stretches without the relief of punctua¬tion. And the sacred monkeyscribe Hanuman trills with as much jibberish as brilliance. But these are minor annoyances in a dazzlingly realized work.

Divina Trace is a novel to savor, like the oranges the inhabitants of Corpus Christi like to suck on their walks, “because you could not suck an orange properly without giving it your fullest attention, you were compelled to walk at a moderate pace.”
Antoni also offers a fascinating look at the multicultural society that has evolved in the Caribbean, with its legacies of slavery, colo¬nialism and the immigration of indentured worlcers from East Asia and China. It is all here: the phalanx of intermarriages, the syn-cretism of religions that enables Hindus, Muslims, Africans, Catholics and indigenous Indians to worship the same patron saint, the transformation of the land itself according to the whims and fortunes of men in distant lands. Johnny Domingo, in a flash of insight, comes up with a definition of the Caribbean:

“… It is wherever America wants you to be.”
Borrowing from many cultural and liter¬ary traditions, Divina Trace is nonetheless a wholly original work and a remarkable con¬tribution to the growing body of Caribbean literature. Perhaps moot importantly, it reawakens our need for miracles.

Los Angeles writer Cristina Garcia is a former Miami bureau chief for Time magazine. Her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, will be published in March.

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