Montague Kobbé: Rambling in Anguilla
Montague Kobbé discusses how readers from various backgrounds have different interpretations of his debut novel, The Night of the Rambler.
Haven’t checked out The Night of the Rambler yet? Download a free epub or mobi file with excerpts from Kobbé’s debut novel and others in Akashic’s Caribbean Debuts Digit.
Whenever I get approached about anything connected to writing—be it a new project or a bit of advice—my first question tends to be: who is the reader? Obvious as it might seem, the people likely to be reading a piece also contribute to the shaping of that piece long before they even have the chance to read it. Almost inevitably, however, the group of readers is diverse—sometimes even contradictory—lending one piece to variable and occasionally unkind interpretations. I was fortunate enough to know this in advance of The Night of the Rambler, although this in no way prepared me to predict the responses from its different readerships.
The Rambler is purposely told with an authoritative voice that constantly warns the reader that the story being told is not actually true. I would never have guessed that these warnings would be universally disregarded to the point where the book would be firmly labeled a historical novel. It reminds me of an old Venezuelan saying: no hay peor sordo que el que no quiere escuchar (no one’s as deaf as he who does not want to listen). I expected this to be the case in Anguilla, however, where the story is so close to home that people, families, friends, and gossipers at large would want to align fiction with fact—whatever that may be.
Because the storyline veers away from Anguilla for much of the novel, this potential alignment has been pinned down to the characters, the majority of whom are, however, just little green men running inside my mind. This is where the resilience of curiosity and the unwillingness to accept the words of the author as true has struck me as extraordinary. Not that I blame anyone for questioning my integrity: someone—I can’t recall who, and it doesn’t matter anyway—once said there is no such thing as a good writer and a bad liar, and I’m not saying I’m a good writer, but you’ve got to start somewhere!
Recently I was reading from The Night of the Rambler in the Third Anguilla Literary Festival when I was asked about a particular review published in a local magazine. A few lines into the piece the “unfortunate” circumstance of the novel’s characters was highlighted as being out of sync with Anguilla’s reality and immediately softened with the reassuring fact that “after a few pointers you’ll be able to think of them by more familiar nomenclature.” To me, this emphasizes the importance of empathy in fiction writing. People in Anguilla need to identify with the characters that carry out the familiar actions—taught in school, told time and again by the elders of the families—that take place in The Night of the Rambler, to the point where deliberate character traits will be dismissed just because a circumstantial feat carried out by one character on the page corresponds with a version of the way some events took place in some person’s in real life (whatever that may be). In other words, if people can’t picture who is carrying out the action, they simply don’t care about what is happening. (Mental note: bear that in mind next time!)
Another issue that has been raised repeatedly in Anguilla in relation to the novel is the notion of appropriation of history: who is this white boy (or who does he think he is) to come and claim ownership of our history, of our heritage, of our tradition, past glories, and accomplishments? This is a subject I feel deeply passionate about and one I tackled consciously, purposely, and perhaps even controversially in The Night of the Rambler. History belongs to no one but he who writes it, he who claims it, he who embraces it. If history is written by the victors, then (that) history belongs to them. But the defeated can—must—write their own history. History can be shaped at will, manipulated, even revised. This happens all the time, and I’m not talking about what goes on in North Korea. History is nothing more than a story: an important story, a transcendental story, a story that must survive to be effective, but a story nonetheless, and as such it must be adapted to the needs of a certain people at a specific moment in time. To me, the absolute notion of History is nothing short of a fantasy, like the Ether or Ptolemaic spheres.
I have willfully distorted, corrupted, and all but abused a key episode of Anguilla’s history for the purpose of placing the ambitions and the frustrations of the most neglected of people in consonance with the ambitions and frustrations of a larger region where, unfortunately, prejudice and bigotry prevail over common sensibilities. Anguillans are understandably disgruntled by my imprudence, but if just a handful of readers take The Night of the Rambler seriously enough to ask themselves why I have done this, I will consider my job done.
MONTAGUE KOBBÉ was born in Caracas, Venezuela. For the past decade he has sought the perfect balance between literature and life, residing at different times in Bristol, Leeds, London, and Munich. He has had close ties to the island-nation of Anguilla for over twenty-five years, splitting much of his time between the “Rock” and Europe since 2008. He maintains a regular literary column in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s Daily Herald and his work has been published in Anguilla, Antigua, Trinidad and Tobago, Argentina, Venezuela, Spain, and the UK, among others. He currently lives in London. The Night of the Rambler is his first novel.
Posted: Jul 16, 2014
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