[Caribbean Literature]

"Our Literature": Robert Antoni's Divina Trace

Part Three: Caribbean Agency

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

Despite Antoni's general minimization of it in his novel, the West does play one important role within Divina Trace. For no work so self-conscious of its textuality, and so aware of its audience, could ignore the question of how it will reach that audience: who will publish this book? Antoni raises this question again and again:

Allday at you writingdesk, lefthandinyoupans, who ga publish dis monksense? garillaorgy! Francoisi Review? (199)

But soon de monkey did pause again,
Something now more to consider:
How might he story be publish abroad?
Where are dere monkeys enough to read it?
Where, in truth, are dere monkeys patient to trudge,
Dis mudthick-mudswamp of monkeylanguage? (215-216)

The narrator and story-assembler Johnny Domingo realizes the unfortunate answer to these monkeyquestions as well as their telling condemnation of the status of the Caribbean:

It was during this fractured moment, in a flash of insight, that I came up with the definition of the Caribbean which I'd been searching for. A definition found in all of our literature, and written between the lines of every tourist pamphlet: it is whatever America wants you to be. (303)

However, the mere fact that this book does exist, put out by an American publishing company, rife with Trinidad's dialect and usage, signalls that the Caribbean -- while still not possessing the money or power to publish and distribute its own works -- now enjoys greater freedom and respect within the confines of First World publishing. Thus even as he acknowledges the superior power of the West, Antoni has brought the Caribbean one step (perhaps several steps) closer to joining it on the world's stage.

As I studied in Barbados, I became aware of the reluctance of people in the Caribbean to join a homogenizing, international postmodern movement which denies the importance of individual history and personal testimony. But here I find perhaps the truest measure of the success of Divina Trace. While the novel does ignore some Postcolonial, and embrace some postmodern, issues, this all comes under the process of gaining great agency for the West Indies. As mentioned above, the sheer fact of the novel's publication, rife with such Caribbean English words as "crapo" or "viekeevie" (and hundreds of others unfamiliar to the First World) signals a new infusion of the Caribbean voice in the global market. But Divina Trace goes beyond conventions of language to access West Indian subjectivity. Papee Vince's background to Corpus Christi Day functions as a mini history lesson -- but a distinctly Caribbean one, one not found in any textbook published as yet. The most obvious clue comes in his use of "we", as in "So now we turned to copra," (374), to signify that his is a history of West Indians told by West Indians. The history focuses not on politics at the macro level, but on the trials of West Indian laborers and the crops they grew. Furthermore, within this Caribbean history Papee Vince attacks those who helped to keep the region in a subordinate economic position:

Because of course, even though Corpus Christi cocoa is known the world over, nobody has never yet heard of a single tin of Ovaltine, or a Cadbury, or a morsel of chocolate coming from this island. Not by a chups. We economy is still dependent on Europe. (373)

Interesting though that Papee Vince blames Africa as well as Europe for the Caribbean's floundering, signalling his intent to not only give a Postcolonial history but a uniquely Caribbean one. Indeed the novel as a whole really traces Caribbean history, as it locates the background of Magdalena Divina not in the bible (nor even in the Indian traditions consistently referenced) but in Corpus Christi and its own history, proving to whom this story belongs:

And I remember thinking even then that the reason is because this story does not belong to this voice. To these voices. This story belongs to that moon. To that black sky and that black sea. This story belongs to the same foul smell of the swamp when the wind blows. (310)

During my time in Barbados, I also attended the launch of (British publishing company) Faber and Faber's Caribbean Writers Series. Great, I thought, yet another western company has found a way to exploit and market the Caribbean at no profit to the region. Why isn't this the launch of a Caribbean publishing company?

Robert Antoni, as it turns out, was one of the keynote speakers at this function (ironically standing in for Wilson Harris). During his speech, he retold the story of the ingested glass eye (click here for story, please) found in the pages of Divina Trace. Although I didn't realize it at the time, this story represented Antoni's feeling that, short of my somewhat naive dreams of Caribbean economic independence, great strides have been taken. Sorting through all the "cacashit" (as his narrators frequently refer to his novel) of Antoni's work, one finds at the bottom: an eye. Or rather one finds an I,a uniquely West Indian I, born out of a Caribbean stomach that for too long had been stuffed with the "Imperial Canon", finally possessing the voice with which it can assert itself.

This Caribbean "I" has managed to incorporate somehow themes both of postmodernity and Postcolonialism. But it cannot be characterized completely within either school. For as Divina Trace asserts, this I belongs to the polyrhythms of the West Indies. This novel signifies a new maturity for the Caribbean, a newfound possession of its voice and its agency. Divina Trace makes its mark as a syncretic force that has filtered the west and the east, postmodernity and Postcolonialism, through the voices and minds of the Caribbean archipelago. It belongs ultimately not to one of these schemas, nor even to Robert Antoni, but to "the same foul smell of the swamp when the wind blows."


Antoni, Robert. Divina Trace. New York: Overlook Press, 1991.

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