The Night of the Rambler is true to its title. It tells a story of a revolution rambling with plans on how to execute a coup d’état on a young government, perhaps too young to transform and reconfigure policies inherited from previous colonial administrations. The transition is mired with problems, which is not unusual: young governments in newly decolonized territories are still learning the ropes of being free. Like youth itself, these fledgling states are high on new-found independence or semi-independence. In this novel, that mindset disables effective government. A territory that such a state governs feels neglected and excluded from basic benefits and services. Ironically, here, the lack of organized surveillance through bureaucratic standards—which gave colonial administrations immense control—becomes a form of oppression: political marginalization, a loss of sovereignty that opens channels for organized protests. However, there is a twist in the revolution Montague Kobbé has fictionalized, which is not necessarily in the protest itself, but what it wants in the end: it prefers direct administration from its original colonizer.
The government in question, in the story, is the tripartite state of ‘sister’ islands in the Caribbean, east of Puerto Rico: St. Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla. Though self-governing to a certain extent, the state is still a territory or an associated state of Great Britain. Its capital is Basseterre, in St. Kitts, less than three miles away from Nevis to the south; Anguilla, on the other hand, is sixty-five miles of ocean-water away from the capital to the north. No doubt geography impacts the relationship between these islands. Physical distance in human affairs often leads to tribalism and isolation. Without proper mandates for inter-island communication and transportation, the state’s ability to govern its territories might be affected. Indeed, Anguilla appears to be a victim of that lack, and feels its distance from Robert Bradshaw’s government; on top of that, the island only has one representative in his government. Thus, Anguilla craves St. Kitts’ attention. As protests fall on shallow ears, Anguilla’s struggle to cut relations with St. Kitts and re-establish direct British administration intensifies in two momentous, mass events that mark Anguilla’s struggle in the novel: a funeral and a meeting. Thousands attend these gatherings. The funeral ritualizes Anguilla’s dead future in Bradshaw’s government, its depressed state. And for two months Anguilla huddles in doldrums of hopelessness, until one of its concerned citizens, Rude Thompson, organizes a mass meeting to ignite new hopes, in which “Anguilla put to practice a concept that for centuries had been studied and analyzed . . . the concept of Democracy.” Kobbé explores Anguilla’s history through Thompson’s life and his childhood friend, Alwyn Cooke, the leader of the island’s peacekeeping committee and also the loudest voice in the gathering: “Fellow Anguillians, is today we mus’ show St. Kitts how bad we wan’ break up wit’ ’em. Is today we mus’ determine how we go split wit’ St. Kitts for good.”
Kobbé’s italicized lines are his approximations of heard Anguillan English, thanks to apostrophes that, I assume, bring us closer to the music of the island’s tongue. In that respect, Kobbé tries to mimic the voice of Anguillan patois, which suits his storytelling style—the kind we hear in a campfire, when the storyteller is a carnival of voices and becomes his characters while trying to distance himself from them. Thus, sometimes I feel the novel’s tone has been transmitted from a gifted, albeit tedious oral storyteller; he widens his eyes or paces his voice a certain way repeatedly. You can feel the drama in the thirty-five foot sloop The Rambler—under Cooke’s command—when it struggled to find its destination at night. Words are thrown among the crew of inexperienced sailors, sixteen would-be revolutionaries trying to topple a regime. Later, three pages before the novel ends, Kobbé tells us: “It’s well past my bedtime, but we cannot allow the words that were left untyped back in page 20 to hang in literary limbo . . .” Kobbé has your attention, indeed, and looks too eager to entertain you with more thrills and surprises, which might turn off some readers.
The Anguillan struggle in the novel appears unusual, since it runs against the tide of what political struggles are about among territories colonized by European powers in the age of high colonialism. Their struggle rejects the dream of decolonization that saturated Caribbean politics in the 1960s, the stars of which were Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who were ruthless in overthrowing Fulgencio Batista’s government in Havana in 1959. The wheel of movements underlines the spirit of that decade anywhere in the world, from the Algerian War, to the Paris protests in May 1968, to perhaps the queen of them all: the Vietnam War. The sixties was a hurricane of anti-imperialist sentiments.
In the novel, Anguilla is in that storm. But whatever the size of that storm is to its revolutionaries, it crashes into them with more comic power than cosmic power, so that its leader—Alwyn Cooke—is surprised when the hundred-man force he expects on the shores of St. Kitts to help him overthrow a government is nowhere to found: “It had not dawned yet on Alwyn Cooke that Dr. Reynolds’s folder full of numbers contained not so much an optimistic overcalculation but rather a vulgar lie based on nothing other than speculation.” Unfazed, Cooke attacks anyway, with less than twenty men, whose knowledge of warfare can be summarized in one of their colleagues’ failure to use an M16, because he couldn’t unlock its safety.
However unusual this revolution is, it is a prelude to Anguilla’s eventual divorce from St. Kitts and Nevis, before becoming a separate British territory; its unconventional LOL factor could diversify an elective college course on revolutions with something bloody peaceful.