In Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926), the template for Robert Antoni's Carnival, a group of young Americans and Britons drift through France and Spain, drinking, brawling and lusting, the emptiness of their lives reflected in disjointed conversations, repetitions and silences. All the modernist features are present: the maiming of the psyche and body by war, the aimlessness, the embrace of self-destruction through alcohol. The bullfight in Pamplona is at the heart of the fiction. There is a sexual element in killing the bull, which reflects on the behaviour of the characters, and yet the ritual and the movements of the matador hold out the promise of an order and a truth missing in their lives. In a world of confusion and uprootedness, the matador "gave real emotion because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements".
The modernist craving for '"purity", applied to race, contributed to the extermination of millions during the Second World War, and continues to destroy lives, as Bosnia and Darfur attest. Antoni's novel is a disturbing account of the destructiveness of those ideas of "purity". Hemingway's characters are given Caribbean colour and vividness, transferred to Trinidad to participate in the equivalent of the Spanish fiesta.
The narrator (a white Trinidadian) is, like Hemingway's, sexually impotent, the result of homosexual rape at the hands of three revengeful Blacks. (Hemingway's narrator had a war wound.) Carnival offers the possibility of healing, or at least camouflage, since in the week's festivities the races and classes of Trinidad don costumes and masks, and gyrate in the streets, rum and ganga inducing a stupor in which differences are blurred in the frenzy of bodies and the freeing of sexual constraints. The Trinidadian expatriates leading deracinated lives in America and Europe fly in to participate in Carnival, in the expectation of a homecoming free of the burdens of race, class and sexual identities.
Antoni replaces the Spanish bull with the Caribbean leatherback turtle in his meditation upon the human condition. In a beautiful and inspirational passage, his narrator describes the determined movement of a leatherback emerging from the sea to lay her eggs in the sand, the utter care and concentration with which she works her flippers to create a hole and, having deposited her eggs, "mask" the nest from predators.
"Now she performed the oddest part of her ritual... Carrying out wide, S-shape turns of her trail in the sand. More than once turning in our direction, coming directly at us again... She kept it up for another half-hour, her dance in the sand. So that when she finished - even though she'd buried her eggs just there at our feet - we had no idea where the nest was."
The carnivalesque motion of the turtle, Antoni suggests, is a creative and redemptive purification of human Carnival - which has degenerated into a drunken party, violence and hatred simmering below the surface. Indeed, as soon as the revellers put aside their masks, they reveal faces of racial and sexual ugliness.
The poor go back to their hovels, the rich to their hotel bars. The novel ends on a tragic note, with a Rastafarian beaten up and castrated by fellow Blacks as punishment for his relationship with a white woman.
The turtle's eggs are dug up and smashed. The expatriates fly back to restless lives in the West. Yet, unlike Hemingway's, Antoni's novel is desperately tender and hopeful. If the killing of the bull is an ambivalent act, speaking of sexual violence but also transcendent order, Antoni's leatherback is a powerful symbol of a beauty always within human reach, however slowly we move towards it, hobbled by the self-inflicted wounds of race, class and gender.
David Dabydeen's 'Slave Song' has been reissued by Peepal Tree Press