Tripped and falling

Jeremy Taylor on Carnival, by Robert Antoni

Robert Antoni

Carnival, by Robert Antoni (Black Cat, ISBN 0-8021-7005-6, 297 pp)

 

Carnival has the uneasy feel of a book that requires decoding. On the face of it, Robert Antoni’s third novel is the straightforward tale of a group of Trinidadian expats who come home for Carnival in Port of Spain, have a wonderfully debauched time, then chill out on a lonely north coast beach where euphoria gives way to horror. But the interesting question is: how does Antoni intend this story to be read?

There are three main characters. The narrator, William Fletcher, comes from a wealthy white family in Trinidad, and is an unsuccessful writer in New York. Rachel is his second cousin and secret love, a “café-au-lait” beauty, nymphet, and sexual tease. Laurence de Boissière is a childhood friend from Laventille in Port of Spain (read: black and poor) who has made it as a poet and academic; he has published a hit novel on slavery. These three, reunited by chance in a New York bar, agree on a trip home together for Carnival. This escapade is documented in the book’s central section, a congenial fog of mas, music, grog, ganja, sex, jealousy, freeing-up, and mayhem. The full Carnival trip.

In the final section, the three hike to the lonely Madamas beach on the north coast to chill out after Carnival. Nearby are the “Earth People”, an isolated back-to-nature community rejected by polite society. The feeling is mutual. The Earth People, ruled by the volatile Mother Earth, live naked; but one of them, 17-year-old Eddoes, has just made a hit by playing king for the mas designer Peter Minshall in town.

Madamas is a sort of paradise — nesting turtles, cascading rivers, fresh fish, tranquillity, the sea. But it conceals serpents: sinister policemen, bored and destructive kids from a nearby village, racial resentments and sexual jealousies, and a grotesque British vet called Mippopopolous who is teaching the villagers about rearing pigs. Here a sequence of events is set in motion that ends in nightmare, immolation, and a hasty retreat to the safety of New York and London.

It seems that the author of Divina Trace and Blessed is the Fruit intends this to be a straight Carnival-is-bacchanal yarn. Trinidadian readers will enjoy decoding the local fictional celebrities and their entanglements: the distinguished Carnival designer Peter Minshall appears as a character of the same name, and did indeed produce a band called River; prominent members of his entourage appear, thinly disguised.

So the book validates the Carnival ritual and its accompanying theology of social and personal catharsis. What happens at Madamas afterwards becomes a reminder of what Carnival supposedly protects us from: race, hate, heart-of-darkness, the legacy of the violent past.

Or is there more to it than that?

This ecstatic version of the Carnival Trip is reported for the reader by the white Trinidadian expatriate narrator, William. He, his friends, and their local circle are depicted as happy masqueraders achieving the required release. But, perhaps unwittingly, William (or Antoni?) also reveals them as shallow, privileged, adrift, destructive. When they carry their expat values outside the familiar Carnival world, the results are terrifying; and while they escape safely, Minshall’s king pays the price.

This is one aspect of the book that subverts a straightforward reading. Another is the role of the Earth People, who are romanticised by the expats and the River crowd, but are still presented with sympathy. Minshall’s band seems to be trying to enact something of their programme, though Mother Earth reportedly regards this as a “mockery of everything sacred and true”. Certainly, this endeavour seems to be mired in fantasy. A section of River parades topless, and the policeman who tries to intervene is overruled by a government minister in a space alien’s costume (“These ain’t colonial times,” he says. “You can’t lock-up people again for enjoying theyselves!”). But the Earth People themselves, living the life rather than enacting it for Carnival, are dismissed as “bush-niggers” by the local police and brutalised for their nakedness. The reader could well conclude that Mother Earth has a point: but what would that say about the Carnival Trip?

Then there’s sex. Easy sex is part of the Carnival Trip, as all the characters well know. In Port of Spain, Minshallites drool over Eddoes’s “gorgeous” body as if he were a new toy, as indeed he is. Yet sex is also graphically linked with brutality. In a series of flashbacks, William and Rachel’s first teenage lovemaking, some years earlier, is shown being interrupted, with perfect timing, by three “rastas” who break in and gang-rape the two of them. (Incidentally, the word “rasta” is used loosely throughout the book, applied to anything black and alarming, whether it’s the Earth People or three shaven-headed thugs perched in a tree looking for victims. It’s another indicator of the book’s class and ethnic assumptions.)

This trauma seems to cause, or contribute to, William’s impotence, which in turn has pulled the two apart and redirected Rachel’s sexual appetite, with disastrous results. Rich white kids brutalised by the descendants of slaves; sexual vengeance on the gorgeous black body for messing with the white woman.

At Madamas, these dark undercurrents converge. William, skylarking in the river with Laurence, comes to understand that he really may be gay rather than simply impotent, and Laurence’s homophobia is unleashed. But it is Rachel, nicely freed-up, who wanders around topless and actually seduces Eddoes in front of the village boys, thus setting the nightmare in motion. Racial slurs drawn in the empty sand, the destruction of a leatherback turtle’s newly-laid eggs, the vengeance visited on Eddoes, partly inspired by Dr Mippopopolous’s village classes on the castration of swine — all this conveys a sense of how fast the quest for self-liberation can bring down the darkness on everyone. In the same spirit, the whole Madamas catastrophe is reconstructed in the local press to suit the national mythology and to conceal, at every level, the truth. All is well: let the mas continue.

Could Antoni be subverting the whole Carnival-as-liberation idea? The possibility is strengthened by the book’s many echoes of Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. Glossing another writer’s work is currently rather fashionable: Zadie “White Teeth” Smith has just been doing it with E.M. Forster in her new novel On Beauty. Hemingway’s setting was 1920s Paris; it too featured expats in pursuit of catharsis through drink and sex.

With Antoni, the Trinidad Carnival stands in for the Fiesta at Pamplona. In the Hemingway story there is a sense of external reality intruding to test the values and authenticity of the protagonists. Brett, for example, Hemingway’s equivalent of Rachel, gives up the bullfighter she has fallen for, understanding that she will actually ruin him. In Carnival the events at Madamas intrude in a similar way, and all the expat characters are found wanting. There are even signs in the closing pages that could be read as evidence of growth: William, his novel rejected for US publication, decides to go on teaching as a more useful and authentic thing to do; Rachel, having already ruined Eddoes, gives up torturing William (“Oh, William,” she says, “we could have been so good together”).

That rather swooning “Oh, William”, by the way, points to some puzzling aspects of the writing in Carnival. The narrative style is realist, conventional; the language is standard English, quite unlike the over-ripe prose of Antoni’s earlier novels, with vernacular used only in dialogue. But the text is full of odd spellings (what will the casual reader make of “mauvilang” or “toe-tee”?), and sports a surfeit of verbless sentences, sudden bursts of didacticism, and romance-novel passages that should embarrass even Trini expats.

“Hello my love,” she whispered.
“This heaven or hell?” I found that I could talk if I didn’t move. “Or still the Queen’s Park?”
“Queen’s Park, I’m afraid.”
“Then you don’t really love me.”
“You know I do,” her eyes were shining. “Always. Forever.”
“More than the others?”
“Not more, differently.”
“But I don’t want different, I want more. Quantity — not quality.”
“More then. If you come to lunch with me. I’ll give you whatever you want.”
She kissed me again. “I’d give it to you anyway. Already have.”

Ah well. It is probably too much to suppose that Antoni is really subverting Carnival orthodoxy in this book. Take it at face value. Carnival is bacchanal. Free up. Shake yuh bamsee. Leave the burdens of race, gender, and identity on the beach at Madamas, unrelated to the miasma of the mas. As Peter Minshall (the real one or the fictional one?) puts it in the book’s epigraph, “We are all a lost tribe.”

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), November 2005. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.