Artifacts of No Particular Meaning

February 2017

Robert Antoni, As Flies to Whatless Boys (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2015); 360 pages; ISBN 978-1845232962 (paperback)

Robert Antoni’s critically acclaimed fourth novel, As Flies to Whatless Boys, won the OCM Bocas Prize in 2014 and was longlisted in 2015 for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It is a sweeping work of historical fiction that tells the story of a teenage love affair between fifteen-year-old Willy Tucker and nineteen-year-old Marguerite Whitechurch, in and between nineteenth-century London, Trinidad, and the Atlantic Ocean. Love blossoms between this unlikely pair from opposite ends of London’s social spectrum—Willy is working class, Marguerite is aristocracy—against the backdrop of real-life charlatan John Adolphus Etzler’s hare-brained scheme to establish a utopian society in Trinidad, in which his infamous “Satellite,” a machine supposedly “powered by the forces of Mother Nature” (77), will eliminate all need for physical labor. Marguerite and Willy follow their parents across the Atlantic, but while Etzler’s followers may be taken in by his “boldfaced bamboozlement” and “shameless mongooseocity” (27), Willy and Marguerite are more concerned with building their own utopia deep within the ship’s hold. Whatless Boys is notable for its multiple voices and narrations, similar to Antoni’s first novel, Divina Trace (1991). The story repeats itself, like the narrators repeat themselves, in the history of the Caribbean, which is never truly past.

These voices include the researcher/author "Mr Robot" and the library archivist Miss Ramsool, characters in the novel's secondary narrative, set in the present day. While the common theme of racial conflict is somewhat muted in this novel, Miss Ramsool’s hilarious and timely interruptions do indeed remind us of Trinidad’s deep cultural tensions, both then and now. Perhaps it is not incidental that she is descended from the first “coolies” to have come to Trinidad, three days before the author’s descendants; as we know, these two narratives of migration are vastly different. While much Caribbean “migration fiction” details the struggles of black immigrants in white metropoles, Antoni offers a far less prevalent perspective, that of postenslavement white immigration to and settlement in the Caribbean. These immigrants, despite coming from the imperial center, were not all wealthy. They had similar hopes and dreams to the subsequent Windrush generation and also traveled far and risked much to build better lives. The novel’s historical moment is significant—slavery having been abolished in the British Caribbean only in 1834—and these white emigrants’ experiences contrast sharply to their dreams of social utopia, which ultimately wither and die. It does not occur to these new colonists that their dreams carry their own legacy of oppression and genocide. Mr. Robot’s developing relationship with (and his seduction of and by) Miss Ramsool, which parallels Willy and Marguerite’s own much younger love, returns, with much irreverence, to Antoni’s enduring themes of sex and sensuality.

The reality that Willy and his family discover in Trinidad is far from the “inexhaustible" resources and the “rich plantations and highly elastic atmosphere” (172) they were promised; instead, Willy and a few men from Etzler’s Tropical Emigration Society find themselves stranded in the inhospitable, remote, and ultimately deadly swamp of Chaguabarriga.1 The pioneers barely get a chance to unpack Etzler’s machine before all except Willy are struck down with the “Black Vomit” (199)—the narrative’s term for Yellow Fever—which has no regard for class or social standing. Etzler soon disappears, and it is not so much that Willy comes of age in Trinidad but that he loses his innocence. Antoni’s narrative, with its telescoping chronology and ephemeral “memoryspace” (45), is a story as much about loss as it is about love, but it is also a story about familial bonds, particularly those between father and son. The final (and first) narrator of this story is Willy’s son, R.W., who could indeed be this novel’s author and who is hearing his family history, as told by his father, for the first time. R.W., a reluctant audience and narrator—we forget, sometimes, that he is even present—nevertheless bears witness to his father’s and grandfather’s fight to build their dreams in this “new” country, R.W.’s old home. He may not be ready for his family story, but in the hearing of it, this story becomes his responsibility too. His retelling is in fact a repeating, a remembering of the fragments of his own history. This is a Caribbean story, of indeterminate, ephemeral, Caribbean proportions.

All of these “pioneers” (16) have dreams, be they social or more personal, and their so-called leaders, self-appointed “men of science” who already inhabit the grand narrative of history, give way to the essentially human, much more complicated stories of Willy and his multicultural family (his mother is French, his father English) and their individual sacrifices and contributions to what is now creole Trinidad. Nonetheless, the author intersperses several connected snippets of Etzler into his story—including the supplementary factual and creative material provided on the accompanying website—and intertwines them with tragedy and humor in turn. Antoni’s fiction is well grounded in historical fact, or, rather, in the stories that men like Etzler told about themselves—and those that they do not. This is a story about media, too, combining oral storytelling, e-mails, newspapers, and letters (168 years of technology) to give a different take on narratives of exploring and “conquering the wilderness”; it asks serious questions as to why we choose to follow whom we do and sketches Trinidad’s changing relationship to these various grand narratives.

Willy’s narration begins with him unveiling a mysterious box marked CHAGUABARRIGA, the site of his first West Indian adventure, the place in which he became a man, and the reason for his story coming into being. Yet these “artefacts”—“old papers, smudged and ragged-looking round the edges”; “maps, letters, clippings from some ancient newspaper” (29)—are all unknown to his born-and-bred Trini son. The name functions as an incantation, a symbolic imaginary, and we are treated to recreations of these artifacts, including Willy’s father’s old notebook, a record of his final twenty-three days. On the eve of a journey he knows to be doomed, father says to son, “The only important thing is that we have something to believe in . . . fervent enough to get us someplace else” (86). As Flies to Whatless Boys is a bittersweet meditation on “home” as a country of the mind. Home must be forged and fought for, often with great violence, often with great loss, but it is not innate—it must first be imagined, and that story must be retold and repeated for home to continue to exist. Antoni’s is also a story of grief, love, force of will, and survival in despair. It is both bildungsroman and historical fiction, but this story is contingent, too: toward the close of the novel, Willy hands R.W. the box “as though the gesture had no particular meaning” (314). Memories only have meaning for those who share them—they can be created by voyages but cannot necessarily be recreated by them. Utopia, here, is indeed a destination—one that perhaps can never be reached.


Janelle Rodriques is a research associate at the University of Bremen, Germany, in Caribbean and postcolonial literary and cultural studies. Her research areas include fictions and practices of obeah, black Atlantic speculative fiction, literary tricksters, and literatures of migration. She has previously published in Atlantic Studies, Wasafiri, and the New West India Guide.


Note: This novel was also published as Robert Antoni, As Flies to Whatless Boys (New York: Akashic, 2013); 360 pages; ISBN 978-1617751561 (paperback).

1 Chaguabarriga, as far as I have been able to ascertain, is a fictional place, a utopia that is never realized.