A Review by Shane Joseph
Ben Antao takes a departure from his usual fiction, memoir and travelogue to render all three forms in verse in this entertaining combination of “Dante meets Shakespeare.”
The first part of the book is an adaptation of Antao’s earlier novel, Penance, into an epic poem written in the terza rima format – a rhyming verse stanza form that consists of an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme used by Dante Alighieri- and rendered in 19 cantos. Unlike the novel, which takes a longer time to make its mark, this verse version gets right to the point – the central event – an adulterous affair between a family man and a lesbian, and the tragic fallout. But this is also where Dante leaves and Shakespeare takes over, bringing key themes from his sonnets into the cantos: the brevity of life, the transience of beauty and the trappings of desire; and, like in all of the Bard’s tragedies, littering the stage with bodies at curtain call.
The emotions expressed and explored in Love Triangle rage back and forth across all affected parties, and the form allows for this jumping around, and also accommodates the melodramatic ending with its lyrical verse, something the novel needs a lot more play and objectivity to unravel. The verse version cuts out a lot of non-essential characters and scenes from the novel, and is a gripping read. On the debit side, the search for words that rhyme can sometimes provide levity where it is uncalled for, and, I feel, the form boxes the novelist in.
In the second part, the Sonnets, Antao outdoes Shakespeare by writing 160 of them to the Bard’s 154. In these sonnets, Shakespeare departs and Dante takes over, and Antao roams not the other-worlds but our present one: from Goa to Italy, to France to North America; he explores famous personalities like the Pope, Mother Teresa and the Impressionist Painters to not-so-famous ones like personal friends and mentors, and he reserves a section to honour his Italian mother-in-law by titling her the Princess of Pachino. This second part of the book could have been assembled better for it follows no particular order, and scenes from Toronto suddenly appear next to ones in Goa, and then we jump to Las Vegas and on to Winnipeg and back to the Pyrenees, a Dante on steroids, indeed! I would have liked to have seen distinct sections on People (all those mentioned above and more), Places (separated between North American and European locales) and Home (Goa).
For it is in the Goan sections that Antao comes into his own. Given that these sonnets, each comprising 14 lines of rhyming verse, cannot go further than to record an observation, an impression, a background, or a feeling about the subject, in the Goan pieces Antao does more and reveals the character and psyche of Goa. He outlines how Goans (and writers!) drink, why they migrate, why they gamble; he portrays funeral ceremonies and wedding ceremonies, snake charmers and toddy tappers, the markets of Margao, the rains where grasshoppers among folks rush to the mill to get the paddy dehusked, fishing in Nuem, the sumptuous food, and the language of his homeland – a rich cultural portrait of a once Portuguese colony now being encircled and subsumed by Mother India.
Antao has lived a rich life, much of which he has chronicled in his past work, be they novels, short stories, memoirs and travelogues. Now he has sat back to take that body of work and add music to it and convert his art to a higher form, the one closest to the gods, they say: poetry. I suspect that he is having a lot of fun doing it while he gives his readers the pleasure of sharing in the results.