Romancing the Archive

A new Trinidadian novel tries a new approach to the traditionally vexed Carribean relationship to history

History, Frederic Jameson wrote, is what hurts. For Caribbean writers of the 20th century, it seemed to hurt with an acute and doubled intensity. In 1977, the Jamaican poet and scholar Edward Baugh identified a longstanding Caribbean “quarrel with history,” and 20th-century writing from the region bears out his claim. For C.L.R. James, Caribbean history “consists of a series of unco-ordinated periods of drift, punctured by spurts, leaps, and catastrophes.” In his infamous screed The Middle Passage, V.S. Naipaul asserts, “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies.” Caribbean history hurts not simply because this history is one of excessive wounding—the painful history of colonization, genocide, slavery, indentured servitude, and so on—but because the trauma of this history is so much that history itself appears as something Caribbean people cannot make or have. History hurts doubly, in other words, when history is just another way of naming historylessness.

Twentieth-century Caribbean literature found its origins in the felt impossibility of claiming stable origins for the Caribbean. The writers mentioned above related to their perceived condition in different ways, but the condition remained the same. James would attempt re-writing this history of modernity, now centered on the Haitian Revolution. Naipaul would attempt recovering alternative axes of Caribbean history in The Loss of El Dorado, only to settle into a kind of postcolonial self-loathing. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Jean Rhys, George Lamming, Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Jamaica Kincaid, Michelle Cliff…
It is hard to find a 20th-century Caribbean writer whose literary production was not in some way quarreling with, or smarting from, history. Or its absence.

Now, the influence of these writers is so pervasive that it is hard to see that things ever could have been different, but they were. Caribbean writing of the 18th and 19th centuries shows few of the anxieties regarding historylessness that would become so characteristic of the 20th-century canon. Eighteenth-century planter-historians such as Edward Long and Bryan Edwards would happily detail traces of the “ancient” in Britain’s colonies, composing multi-volume tomes testifying to slave owners’ membership in a political culture based on the timeless rights of Englishmen. Following emancipation in 1838, writers of color would look back to the region’s overlapping imperial histories in order to develop idioms for claiming rights as imperial citizen-subjects in a rapidly changing empire—Michel Maxwell Philip in Emmanuel Appadocca (1854), for instance, or Richard Hill in Lights and Shadows of Jamaican History (1859). Despite the divergence of their racial and class positions, black, white, and brown Caribbean writers of the 18th and 19th centuries all used historical narration as a means of political identification. They wrote themselves into empire.

It was only with the emergence of national liberation struggles in the early- to mid-20th century that writers would undo the identification of Caribbean history with imperial histories. By attempting to write the islands into existence as sovereign nation-states, Caribbean writers had to write themselves out of imperial histories. British West Indian history, for instance, could no longer be seen as an instance or an extension of a Greater British history—but then what was it?

The Caribbean quarrel with history, and the corresponding anxieties over historylessness, emerged with the problem of grounding national sovereignty in the aftermath of an empire. The black anticolonial concept of time in the Caribbean rested on an idea of the past as violently discontinuous with the present. History was a scene of racialized existential negation from which liberation struggles had provided an escape. At the same time, the problem of historylessness brought with it a dialectical reward. Caribbean liberation struggles grounded their capacities to build new worlds on the region’s supposed historylessness. Essentially, Caribbean nationalism turned from history to locate its origins in a nation-making poiesis—a reorientation visible in Kamau Brathwaite’s landmark 1974 essay “Caribbean Man in Space and Time”.

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As Flies to Whatless Boys
Robert Antoni
Akashic Books
320 pages
Robert Antoni’s new novel, As Flies to Whatless Boys, published last fall, is an extended riff on this literary approach to Caribbean history. Antoni self-consciously engages with this tradition, invoking it through an epigraph drawn from Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight”: “I met History once, but he ain’t recognize me.” But Antoni invokes this drama of historical (mis)recognition in order to transform it and, perhaps, to displace it. For Antoni, history still hurts, sure, but it’s nonetheless there. It accretes and concretes in Caribbean archives. It’s in documents storied with varied forms of ordinariness and fantasy, with the routine and the ridiculous, with utopias forgotten and utopias to come. As Flies to Whatless Boys relaxes the dramatic tension between history and historylessness by sticking close to history’s materiality: old newspapers, yellowing documents, and a stuffed hummingbird.

On the surface, As Flies to Whatless Boys is a historical novel. The narrative centers on John Adolphus Etzler, a German one-time student of Hegel, a utopian socialist of Fourierist stamp, a mad inventor, a wild pamphleteer, and the architect of a failed attempt to found a utopian colony first in Trinidad and then Venezuela. Etzler is the kind of historical personage whom novelists and scholars dream about: if he didn’t exist, a fabulist would have invented him. Antoni’s is actually the second narrative starring Etzler to appear in recent years. (The other is Steven Stoll’s The Great Delusion, which curiously blames utopian socialists for inventing capitalism’s dream of unlimited growth.) Antoni’s novel relates the travails of one boy, William Tucker, who journeys from England in 1845 with his family and the rest of Etzler’s Tropical Emigration Society (TES) to build a post-work utopia in Trinidad. Things naturally fall apart, leaving many dead and others effectively stuck on the island. William will himself stick around, founding a business, raising a family, becoming an amateur ornithologist of some note, and pining after the love of his life—the mute Marguerite, who had traveled to Trinidad with the TES but returned to England after her father’s death. The novel, then, is one of failed utopias and lost loves, of histories that hurt.

What appears to be the main narrative of the novel, however, is itself embedded within two frame narratives. The first frame is rather conventional: William’s son serves as narrator, and he relates listening to his father’s saga on board a ship in Trinidad in 1881 as William prepares to sail to London to give a series of lectures at the British Natural History Museum. The second frame is composed of emails exchanged in the present between “Robert Antoni” and a Miss Ramsol, Director of the Trinidad and Tobago National Archives. Antoni’s correspondence with Miss Ramsol is partly an erotic comedy, partly a detective story. In possession of various documents of his great-great-grandfather, one William Tucker, Antoni knows that there is more to the story then these documents reveal. He travels to Trinidad in a spirit of optimism, hoping that the islands’ archive might contain information about Tucker, Etzler, and the TES that could float a book. Filtered through Miss Ramsol’s perspective, the emails record Antoni’s attempts to navigate the archive, to recover its buried truths, to circumvent its policies, and to negotiate his tumultuous romantic relationship with Miss Ramsol. In between, Antoni offers an ironic guide on how to not do archival research, bits of which were published separately in Trinidad Noir (also from Akashic Books) as “How to Make Photocopies in the Trinidad & Tobago National Archives.”

So As Flies to Whatless Boys is invested in the mediatedness and constructedness of history. Antoni is attuned to the way it is always already storied and narrated, layered thick with multiple perspectives and affects and twice-told tales. It would be wrong, though, to see the novel as just another exercise in metafiction, one equipped with framing devices that are more or less detachable from the real stuff of the story. It would equally be wrong to take these framing devices as merely distancing the reader from the events she encounters and destabilizing her relationship to the truth of the narrative. Antoni neither wants to ironize history away in a play of mirrors or mourn its sublime unavailability. Instead, As Flies to Whatless Boys proliferates layers of mediation because it is invested in the way the past doesn’t stop, and neither do our own attempts at historical sense-making. It resonates with the chattiness of archives and of the subjects who populate, built, and use them. Antoni is an archival optimist. He wants us to see and enjoy just how much history remains to be recovered and constructed, narrated and narrated again.

In many ways, Antoni’s characters are precipitates of their creator’s optimism. They can’t not leave traces of themselves in the world. This inability is literalized in the case of Marguerite, young William’s lover. Born without vocal cords, her communication always leaves a mark through writing. And then there’s William, the taxidermist and naturalist, whose art enables him to preserve the once-alive from decay. His father, meanwhile, is a mechanic who specializes in papermaking. As he is nearing death in the would-be utopia, William’s father lets the boy in on a secret: paper can be made out of anything—“Cloth-rags or chaff-tatter or whatever else you choose to pulp”—provided this anything contains cellulose. “Any wood will pulp if you beat it proper…the day’ll soon come when paper shall be made from trees. Trees, Willy, trees!” It’s a wonderful moment, one in which the text marvels at the happy circumstance that the world provides the very material through which our transactions with it can be inscribed and preserved. Anything can be saved because the material conditions for archivization are all around us, growing beside us with an utterly quotidian plenitude. Even “good old everyday horse chestnut” can become an august repository of history.

Antoni starkly juxtaposes the triumph of ordinary paper to the utter failure of Etzler’s extraordinary machines, the “Naval Automaton” and the “Satellite.” Antoni has little time for Etzler, the utopian who believes that the disasters of the past can be redeemed by inventing an utterly new future. Etzler wants to transform history and so vanishes from it. His vanishing act is a historical fact: no one knows what happened to him after his utopia collapsed. But Antoni pointedly makes clear that Etzler has vanished from archival consciousness as well: in her first email, Miss Rimsol informs the author that she has never heard of Etzler. She does, however, know William Tucker. In the archive, only ordinary life remains, surviving in traces of the quotidian disburdened of the grand historical narratives that once might have animated them.

Of course, not everything we would want preserved is. Gaps exist. As the novel makes clear, archives are frequently one-sided affairs: the reader, for instance, is only treated to Miss Ramsol’s side of the correspondence. Moreover, not all archives are preserved equally or in the same way. Despite the best efforts of projects like the Digital Library of the Caribbean, the digitization of materials gathered in Caribbean archives has proceeded at a snail’s pace. They don’t command the capital—both financial and cultural—necessary for such a project. In many ways, As Flies to Whatless Boys responds to this uneven political economy of archivization by fashioning itself into a repository of historical material.

In addition to archiving Miss Ramsol’s correspondence with Antoni, the novel contains a fantastic array of historical material, including letters, newspaper articles, diagrams of Etzler’s bizarre machinery, and references to print material so obscure that it’s really known only to Trinidadian history geeks like myself. Some of the material is of dubious status—the Ramsol correspondence, for instance, as well as some of the other letters. Some of it is more solid. In any event, the archive that As Flies to Whatless Boys builds exceeds the bounds of the story and even the book itself. The appendix directs readers to a website where they can read some of Etzler’s writing, Henry David Thoreau’s review of Etzler’s The Paradise within the Reach of All Men (1842), and glance through the schematics of Etlzer’s flawed machines. The Akashic website has reproduced an article from an 1846 issue of the Trinidadian Gazette. It’s sad and absurd, but the materials contained in Antoni’s novel and on its webpages have significantly expanded the amount of primary print material from 19th-century Trinidad available to people without easy access to Caribbean archives.

What As Flies to Whatless Boys succeeds at is replacing the vexed dramatics of History with the mundane but lively problems of the archive. But the novel’s archival romance is itself premised on a set of tragic historical transformations. Antoni can maintain a different relationship to history than his Caribbean forebears in part because the critical, imaginative, and freeing resource of anticolonial nationalism has been corroded—if not entirely dissolved. In the handful of decades separating Antoni from Brathwaite and James, new imperial regimes of capital and culture have sapped the liberatory potentials of the Caribbean nation-state. U.S. hegemony, neoliberal globalization, the reanimated plantation complex of the tourist resort…all of these and more have interrupted the dramatic moment in which the Caribbean was supposed to move from a condition of historyless subjection to the position of sovereign maker of History. In David Scot’s phrase, Antoni writes from a historical “problem-space” in which the state-building projects of newly-freed Caribbean nations have petered out. State sovereignty no longer appears to provide an adequate solution to Caribbean dilemmas. If As Flies to Whatless Boys frees itself from the burdens of nationalist consciousness of time with such ease, it does so in part because history has freed itself from the burden of making good on the emancipatory promise that the nation-state not very long ago bore. In other words, Antoni doesn’t situate himself in the conceptual field of history and historylessness because the force that held that field together and imbued it with meaning—the nation-state—has effectively lost its capacity to organize the collective time of emancipation.

It’s not just a transformed historical context, though, that accounts for Antoni’s different relationship to history. Antoni’s distance from an anticolonial politics of history may also come from his personal distance from the existential problems that primed those politics in the first place. A U.S.-born author with Trinidadian parents, Antoni’s comfort with the quotidian availability of a Caribbean history might simply show his foreignness to the everyday world of the Caribbean present—a foreignness that As Flies to Whatless Boys takes care to establish. The author’s relationship with Miss Ramsol, for instance, is charged by various moments of misrecognition familiar to those from a diaspora. But Antoni’s distance from the historical framework of anticolonial nationalism is perhaps best, and most problematically, evident in the outline of the narrative itself. As Flies to Whatless Boys is narrated as a romance between a Trinidadian with South Asian roots and a U.S. citizen of Trinidadian origins funded by a Guggenheim looking for traces of his English ancestors in the post-colony’s archives. Antoni’s desire to foreground South Asian components of Trinidadian history is fantastic and well developed. The novel contains newspaper clippings relating to indentured laborers in Trinidad, and it establishes a parallel between the voyage of Etzler’s ship and the transport of indentured laborers from India to Trinidad. But what does it mean that Antoni’s movement beyond the anticolonial quarrel with history is bound up with a recovery of a white history? And what, in this multicultural restaging of Trinidad’s past, happens to blackness?

In reorienting our view from history to the archive, and in opening up Caribbean history to new stories of mundane encounter, As Flies to Whatless Boys risks foreclosing the productively unsettling force that black subjectivity exerts on all forms of modern historical understanding. It is no accident that Miss Ramsol runs the archive, for in the archive she too finds herself, locating her family’s Trinidadian roots in a ship transporting indentured laborers from Calcutta shortly before Etzler’s group landed. In other words, Antoni’s romance with Miss Ramsol is a romance between people whose relationship to history is assured; they can be archival optimists. As Flies to Whatless Boys’ black characters would have a harder—actually, impossible—time tracing their origins through the archive.

The archive’s refusal to document black origins is in fact a key textual feature of the natal alienation that makes up Caribbean slavery. It was through reckoning with this archival dispossession that black nationalists were able to transform their inaugural loss of origins into an entitlement to invent their origins anew. Antoni’s faith in the archive’s ability to capture the ordinariness of Caribbean history, then, might entail a refusal of the creative negotiation with archival absence and perceived historylessness that anticolonial nationalists thought of as the traumatic but poetic birthright of blackness. His insistent critique of Etzler’s desire to escape history through utopia might even function as a distorted, unconscious critique of a black nationalist dream that tried to transform a history(lessness) that hurt into the basis of a world-making project.

It might. Maybe. Perhaps. The fact that Antoni does not quite share the problem confronting the speaker of Walcott’s poem—that of not being recognized by History—possibly derives from the divergence between their racial, national, and temporal positions. It probably does. But Antoni’s displacement of the problem of being recognized by History in favor of the problem of recognizing and recovering the small histories contained in the archive is a provocation whose force I don’t want to let go of. I want to think of Antoni’s novel as an incitement to recover the lives lived in the gaps between the big dates and big dramas of History, as an attempt to democratize historical ordinariness. For U.S. popular culture and way too much of the U.S. academy, the Caribbean remains a sign of historical catastrophe, of conquest and slavery, of earthquakes and disease, of revolutions that somehow fail even as they are won. In this context, laying claim to a Caribbean archive of ordinary life amounts to a socialist act—a kind of redistribution of historical sense. Antoni’s world is democratically storied; anything, even everyday horse chestnut, can be made to bear the imprint of history. What I want to take from Antoni is this drive to redistribute historical sense, to democratize the ordinary. This work will necessarily entail learning how to navigate, construct, and disseminate archives—figuring out how to locate sources, say, or to sneak photocopies. Small steps, sure. But worth it, as Antoni’s novel shows.