Mon | May 22, 2017

Love and privilege unravel in quiet Anguilla

Published:Sunday | September 18, 2016 | 9:00 AM

Title: On the Way Back

Author: Montague Kobbe

Publisher: Akashic Books

Venezuelan writer Montague Kobbe delivers a chequered narrative with enough highs and lows to warrant a dose of Dramamine. Banality follows intrigue like a pestering ghost, and poignancy abruptly surrenders to pools of literary dribble. Kobbe is a brilliant writer, no doubt, but here, he seems out of sorts as he endeavours mightily to spruce up a bland plot that is as predictable as snow in winter.

On the Way Back unfolds in Anguilla, an island that is more than comfortable in its skin. Tranquil and possibly moribund to a fault, it has long survived white privilege and political excess. History, though, repeats itself, like old wine in a new bottle. This time around, Anguilla is the playground for Nathaniel Jones and his son, Dragon, a British family of means. But self-worth is never for sale, as they later discover.

 

AMBITIOUS UNDERTAKING

 

To temper the restless, his wife, native Sheila Rawlingson, the much older Nathaniel embarks on an ambitious undertaking: the establishing of a commercial airline linking routes to Antigua, St Kitts, Nevis, Barbuda, and St Martin. The plan demands all hands on deck. Nathaniel solicits the help of his son, who immediately consents. On arrival, he is stirred by the sensuality of Sheila. His mind and libido rage. He must focus, though, on the work at hand.

Drama unfolds as Dragon, uprooted from his stable British life must reinvent himself as his poise shakes and buckles under naivety, lust, and a strained father-son relationship. Drinking, womanising, and basking in the Caribbean sun become almost therapeutic. The burden of business is lifted if only for moments in time.

The Herculean business venture challenges the wiles of the entrepreneurial Jones clan. On the other hand, Sheila, who is charged with raising capital from local banks, private investors, and well-connected relatives, grasps at a dream that seems more and more elusive.

Other players emerge along the jagged way. Arturo Sarmiento is the likely candidate to pilot Dragon Wings' first aircraft (named after the younger Jones). We are drawn to the quixotic appeal and intensity of this colourful Venezuelan. And it is here that we are treated with the most riveting prose about his birthplace. And Kobbe is at his literary best.

The darkness of Caracas disables the most valiant among us. Yet, the city's macabre spirit is alluring. Our senses are scrabbled, searching for meaning in a place that Sarmiento calls a "hellhole". His words are edgy, literal, and figurative.

"At four thirty in the morning," he recalls, "Caracas is dead. No, not dead. At four thirty in the morning, Caracas lies still, pretending to be dead, for fear of getting killed if caught moving. Life is always on knife's edge here: the wrong move, and zap, you are toasted. Sometimes the wrong move isn't even necessary. Sometimes, it's the knife that moves, and you are still dead."

Sarmiento trades this deathly pulsating bile for the quietude of Anguilla life, where the only chaos is internal.

There is a brief chronicle of Anguilla's uneventful history and a psychoanalytic overview of black Americans and their Caribbean counterparts through the lens of Sheila, who is grounded in both cultures. But there is nothing of veritable interest to convey.

We learn that Nathaniel's proposal to Sheila has led to thorny relations between her family and the foreign suitor. He is the object of scorn as Sheila's family puts up a torrid resistance. Conjugal bonds are discreetly sealed amid spitting tirades, hysterical fits, and threats.

Meanwhile, Dragon Wings is weighed down by ineptitude, rash decisions, and financial turbulence. The fledgling company just cannot be salvaged by a board of directors swimming in uncharted waters. And lurking is the shadowy threat of key players on the island who relish the collapse of this foreign-led venture.

 

WRITING ON THE WALL

 

The writing is on the wall long before Sheila writes to a trusted family member: "All along, the only thing I have ever wanted has been a life of my own. I won't get that in Anguilla. I won't get that in the company of Nathaniel Jones. By the time you read this, I will be somewhere else with someone else." Her old, white husband becomes "the source of her headache". She slithers into another romance assured that her brash suitor will temper her urges. From afar, we accurately guess the identity of this Don Juan.

On the Way Back, like Sheila and the handful of characters, loses its way. As a calamitous end draws nigh, the pain of betrayal is all too palpable. But you only root for sympathetic figures. Nathaniel Jones must drink the bitter brew of his own making.

With lines and paragraphs that surge with vivid originality, Kobbe's authenticity as a writer is without question. However, in his drive to be all things to all readers, he gets mired in his own genius. The result is a laboured tale that gasps for relevance.

Rating: Fair

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