Inhabiting Territories of [Post]Colonial Space
By Kevin Dupre
Please note that this blog article preludes an appearance by Robert Antoni at Athens State University on November 12 and a book discussion of Antoni’s latest book As Flies to Whatless Boys on October 21.
As Flies to Whatless Boys takes readers on a journey into the Caribbean that few in the United States might ever make. Cruise-line passengers and honeymooners may, on occasion, dip their toes in the warm waters off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago, although still fewer of those explore the space, vicariously or via the history of those exoticized islands so near our shores. Further, a passing look at the history of the Caribbean might prompt limited questions about what [presumably European] languages are spoken there. These would get one no closer to what it might be like to migrate or live in the West Indies. But following Willy, the main character, who journeys there with his family from England, in part on a quest to either to lead or follow his first love Marguerite. The novel takes readers deep into the bowels of the ship on the passage across the Atlantic and deeper still into the island’s colonial culture.
Antoni’s unique book explores Willy’s remarkable story of exploration, of love, of geography and, like all first-rate fiction, into the human condition. Through a touching romance, filled with mystery and intrigue, As Flies to Whatless Boys probes the ways colonial expeditions work from the ground up. The satirical portrayal of Eztler, who organizes the venture, provides remarkable insight into “leaders” of such colonial schemes. But the heart of the novel inhabits the space of conversations: between father and son, between young lovers, between fiction and history, between a researcher and a sensual guardian of historical artifacts.
One aspect of the story’s power lies in the ways it pulls together the tales of the many: the people who organized the voyage, ways they financed and recruited passengers via the Trinidad Exploration Society (TES), from servants to helpers to middle-class families to venture capitalists. All are given voice, and Antoni manages to qualify the complexities of voice in fresh ways. The stories take place at four different points in history, simultaneously. In many ways, it is a remarkable feat, a novel teaming with characters from such varied perspectives, As Flies to Whatless Boys is nuanced, heart-warming, satirical and sexy. And, another remarkable aspect of the book, it leaves readers rejuvenated and mystified.
Named after a line from Shakespeare’s Glouchester in King Lear, the work also evokes images from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (a narrator sitting on dark deck of ship waiting for its departure) as well as Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (also set in Caribbean, although in Dominica and Jamaica, and with a fascination for hummingbirds), two essential works that moved fiction and some say western consciousness, so that we might better understand the multi-faceted ways colonialism plays into the hearts and minds of all Europeans and Americans, at levels seldom acknowledged yet profoundly important.
Its author Robert Antoni, a West Indian writer whose roots are in Trinidad, though he was born in the U.S., grew up in the Bahamas, studied at Duke, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Iowa, from which he earned his Ph.D. His work has garnered considerable critical acclaim, and Antoni was a Guggenheim fellow in 2010. His star and stature have been rising, and this, his fifth novel, illustrates a literary figure continuing to grow and push himself and the novel itself in new and fascinating directions.
Mr. Antoni will read from As Flies to Whatless Boys on Tuesday November 12, 7:00 P.M. in the Parlor of Founders Hall. This new novel, published in September of this year, is available in the campus bookstore.
Also, please join us for a book discussion of As Flies to Whatless Boys on Monday, October 21, at 12:15.