[Caribbean Literature]

"Our Literature": Robert Antoni's Divina Trace

Part One: Outdistancing the Sources

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

Now I was getting angry. "But what about our books? Our literature?"

He took a deep breath. "Well," he said, "I suppose nobody ever found the time to write out those ones neither. Much less the need. Because why the ass would anybody in they right mind want to read a story dead, that they could hear in a hundred different living versions -- each one better than the one before -- on any streetcorner or porchstoop they happen to stumble. Then again, I suppose you have to know youself pretty good before you can write out any storybooks, and that is something we are only now beginning to learn. Because son, I will give you another biological-historical truth. Another one that those historians always seem to forget when it comes to understanding this Caribbean: son, you never truly grow up until the death of you second parent. Whether that death is natural, psychological, or the result of bloody murder. Only then can you come to know youself. And in fact, we only just finish matriciding we mummy-England the other day." (368)

Thus, more than three-quarters through his tangled novel Divina Trace, Robert Antoni has (whether intentionally or not) a kind of watermark for his work to achieve. And indeed, Divina Trace, perhaps more than any other Caribbean novel, pushes its way into the position of keystone for this new tradition. For Antoni's novel simultaneously sheds limiting notions of traditional Postcolonialism, embraces Postmodern themes, all the while remaining perhaps the most essentially "West Indian" novel written yet.

To be fair, other works have paved the way for such a novel. Wilson Harris's Palace of the Peacock, for instance, delves deep into the history of the Caribbean and brings it to life by emodying it literally in the present. And while Harris takes great strides towards the establishment of a new tradition by setting up binaries such as colonizer versus colonized, or past versus present, and then deconstructing them, Antoni takes an important step further. For he has created a West Indian world so diverse, so multifaceted, that no binaries exist to be deconstructed. In his collection of versions of the story of Magdalena Divina, a black Madonna, no voice predominates, no oppressive force exists to be "written back to" or struggled against. Without a center, the peoples of the margin each occupy their own space, without the constant struggle of difference and resistance. And truly, the absence of these binaries of power separates Antoni's novel from the work of so many of his predecessors.

Derek Walcott's Omeros, thirty years later, also figures as a seminal text in developing a new Caribbean literary tradition. For it takes the West Indies, more specifically the island of St. Lucia (where Walcott was born), as its center. and simple Caribbean fishermen as its heroes. Furthermore, Omeros uses the metaphor of the sea swift as link, drawing together different communities -- American Indians, Africans, the Irish, West Indians, etc. -- from different shores, all of whom have struggled against an oppressive, colonizing force. Thus Walcott, like Harris, displays a syncretic vision that seems so necessary to founding a Caribbean tradition from such varied sources. Walcott, in addition to taking on binaries in much the same way as Harris, resorts to the Greeks -- precursors of the Great Canon of Western Literature -- in order to valorize his protagonists. This again sets him apart from Antoni,who instead relies mainly on the stories told by his West Indian characters to elevate Magdalena Divina to saint status -- of which the reader is doubtless convinced despite the rejection by the Western Authority on Sainthood, the Catholic Pope. When Antoni does resort to myth, his sources spring not from the West, but rather Indian lore (a strong influence in Antoni's ancestral home, Trinidad -- for which Corpus Christi is a thinly disguised stand-in) in the story of Rama and Sita. Antoni even goes so far as to invent his own mythology as developed in Hanuman's legend of the Monkey Tribes.

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Last Modified: 14 March, 2002