The Night of the Rambler
By Montague Kobbé
[Akashic Books, 2013. 256 pages, $11.96 paperback]
Reviewed by Ben Kramer
Back in 1967, people were growing their hair long and grooving to “Sgt. Pepper,” feeling high from the Summer of Love. While tripped out hippies lazily discussed revolution, a real one was happening in the Caribbean, in the largely unknown island of Anguilla. Exploring the topic through fiction, Venezuelan author Montague Kobbé uses his debut novel The Night of the Rambler as a vehicle in understanding the island’s revolution. Coming off as part narrative, part history lesson, Kobbé’s book guides us through the events that led to Anguilla’s rebirth as a sovereign state. Following the small, fictionalized, rebel crew aboard “The Rambler,” (a tiny little ship) we see this transformation. The crew’s plan is to invade St. Kitts, capital of the British tripartite state St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. Their mission: stage a coup, and demand Anguilla’s sovereignty.
To understand where Anguilla’s problem started, Kobbé describes the island’s state in the 1950’s. “…hopelessly poor, incapable of feeding its own people—jobs an unthinkable commodity in a land where no commodities existed…” The people desperately want aid, but can’t receive it. The reason? Their only resource is St. Kitts, the larger, bully island, who refuses to lend any help to its smaller neighbor. This, in turn, serves as a commencement for the revolution. We witness this through characters such as Alwyn Cooke, a gentle, wealthy man who, along with explosive co-conspirator Rude Thompson, spearhead the movement.
Kobbé sends readers back in time. Early on, we read about an encounter between Alwyn and American mercenary Harry González a week before the invasion. The meeting sets up how Alwyn receives the idea, and weapons, for the takeover of St. Kitts. The genesis of these events drives the action in The Night of the Rambler. Sometimes we travel a couple of weeks, sometimes years, just to see what prior events, decisions, lead to major actions. The problem with these leaps is they can be distracting. A good example would be when we’re abruptly dragged from 1967 to the 1910’s to learn about an eccentric Dutch millionaire and how he met his wife. Annoying as these jumps can be, the backstory leading up towards Anguilla’s revolution in the sixties, informs you why the island makes its decisions, and aids in character development.
History wise, Rambler is (sing it now) a brick house. The book’s mighty, mighty informative and lets all the facts hangout. Lovers of historical fiction should be salivating over this. People who really don’t care for historical fiction, don’t let this keep your mouth dry. While the book meditates on the island’s past, it also goes into Anguillan culture, such as teeth sucking. Kobbé describes this as having, “a wide variety of meanings, most of which display a degree of disapproval.” This may sound quirky, but it’s these amusing insights that relieve the reader from the serious, Ken Burns documentary style that, after while, can become cumbersome.
Kobbé keeps the story animated by writing out dialogue in the unabridged Anguillan dialect. “Woman! Stop aksin’ dat same question over an’ over. I ain’ know why yer child dead but it ain’ got not’in to do wit’ we.” He stays true to the islanders’ voice, providing the reader a more authentic experience, as opposed to watering it down with the words correct spelling or pronunciation. This is a move similar to Zora Neale Hurston’s using of southern Black American dialect in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
While the dialect is prevalent, dialogue is not. Conversations may last no more than two sentences, and the reader may go pages without anyone talking. This can be a bummer, and tedious at points. Kobbé’s characters aren’t interesting so much in what they say, but in what they do. Gaynor Henderson shoving the barrel of a .32 pistol into the Police Inspector’s mouth says more than when he quips, “You ever taste de taste of lead in you mout’?” Remember, Kobbé wants you to concentrate on the events that help make revolution possible. Characters play a secondary role as instruments, demonstrating what leads to significant actions or moments. This, like it or not, renders the dialogue as a secondary feature.
The Night of the Rambler isn’t a book specifically designed for eggheads, though history buffs will find themselves attracted to the story. The subject may not interest all readers, but the writing is vivid, can be funny, and thoughtful. Much like the revolution it covers, it’s compelling. The characters may not be memorable, but the story is, and that alone is enough to give Rambler a read.
Buy Night of the Rambler.