THE VOICES OF MYTH

THE VOICES OF MYTH

London Times Literary Supplement
By Aamer Hussein

Robert Antoni, the young author of Divina Trace, has his origins in Trinidad, his novel is set in the island of Corpus Christi, and his literary affinities, proclaimed throughout the novel in a web of references and allusions are with Faulkner, Joyce and, to a lesser extent, with Marquez. His deft handling of contradictory narrative strands, his ability to recreate the multiple voices of experience by capturing their exact timbre, and his evocation of a landscape rich with echoes of ritual and legend, all display great virtuosity. His ventriloquistic feats are sustained over 426 pages, as is his story’s compelling aura of fable and mystery, which forms an effective counterpoint to Antoni’s daunting and varied use of Caribbean dialects and Joycean wordplay.

The novel is divided into three sections, with the first and third sections identically constructed in five segments, each one narrated in a different voice, with the order of narration replayed in reverse in the latter, mirror section. The narra¬tors, including an ancient black nurse, represent a cross-section of Caribbean society, allowing Antoni to exploit to the full his knowledge of the different registers of speech and dialect. The dominant voices are those of the Domingo family and their associates; the link is provided by Johnny, Barto’s grandson, whose childhood memories and perceptions echo throughout the novel. Facing the figure of Bartolomeo Domingo (Barto) – remembered with awe and veneration by the performers of Johnny’s family romance-is the intimidating myth-spinner, Maurina, a nun whose improvisations offer alternatives to the colonial legends inherited by the white settlers and their cohorts. Their destinies are intertwined in the retelling of the legend of Magdalena, Barto’s beloved and Maurina’s daughter, first seen as an “East Indian” beauty said to have given birth to Barto’s frog-child and killed herself in the process. The tragic memory of Magdalena is subsumed by the cult around the statue of a black virgin worshipped simultaneously as the Christian Madonna the many-visaged Hindu Great Goddess, and, a host of African and Amerindian incarnations of the feminine principle.

The voice of a myth, recounting a myth, lies at the heart of this chronicle of the creation of a myth. The second, and central, section of the novel is narrated to the dreamer Johnny, by the enigmatic Magdalena Divina herself, and re-appropriates in Caribbean accents the epic of the Ramayana, with a long intervention by one of the epic’s major participants, the monkey-god Hanu man. Hanuman’s voice encompasses the story of the Ramayana and the Hindu interpretation of the cult of Magdalena, employing the recondite manner of the Joyce of Finnegan’s Wake, the feminist cadences of Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva, et al and the bright music of the Caribbean. This tale-within-a-story, both a tribute to the conventions of titerature and an affectionate mockery of them, is permeated with the white laughter that, to paraphrase Tournier, is the only appropriate response to doom and apocalypse.

The scrupulous symmetries of the novel’s structure are disrupted by its narrating voices. In r its third section, the coin of fable is reversed to expose the dark face of history. The testimony, in the penultimate chapter, of Johnny’s maternal grandfather, Pappe Vince, connects the Carib¬bean grand narrative of consecutive colonialisms, slave-ownership and exploited labour that orchestrates the constantly evolving story of Magdalena as both woman and goddess, with the lesser narrative of incestuous unions and binding superstitions that is the heritage of the Domingo clan. The image of Magdalena, requisi¬tioned by colonizing Catholics for their own repressive purposes, emerges as the lasting symbol of the resilience of subject-peoples which is manifested in the annual carnival at Easter, when ethnic, religious and tribal differences are discarded in a tribute to her benevolent force.

Antoni examines, through the mediating voices of Vince and Johnny, the complex and continuous interaction between history and subjectivity, and the conflicting conditions in which seemingly identical myths, those that conquer and those that hold the promise of release, are created. This release, in Vince’s vision, is only achieved after the death of a symbolic second parent, when the phantoms of the past are faced in the quest for national and individual maturity. The living version of each story yields its own truth, remaining, in all its paradoxes and deceptions, truthful to the teller, the listener, and itself.

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