Sunday, August 31, 2008

Cockroach by Rawi Hage

I didn't read DeNiro's Game. It was already too stigmatized for me by multiple award nominations (Giller, GG, Commonwealth, Dublin IMPAC - which it won.) And the excerpts I'd read in reviews turned me off. The prose felt excessive and overcooked, which is generally not to my taste. Turns out, if Cockroach is any indication, I was right, Hage writes overcooked prose. But in this novel it generally works well because the narrator is mad, as in nuts, and morally obtuse. It's a madness born of dire circumstances. He's an Arab emigré to Montreal, a refugee from Lebanon, and the novel is set in the dead of winter, an appropriately dire setting. He's also a lowlife (quite literally), a thief and a teller-of-tales who's just tried to hang himself from a tree, and having failed, has been ordered by the court to undergo a psychological assessment. But back to Hage's prose style which reads like English that has been translated from Arabic. It has that fresh flavour. Descriptions vacilate between overheated and raw, lyrical and blunt, wry and spicy, angry and comical. It's a conflicted energized voice that suits the narrator's state of mind perfectly and moves from refreshing to exhausting at times. The unnamed outsider narrator imagines himself a cockroach, a survivor, a primordial creature guided by instinct subsisting on the underside of existence. He exploits his lowly vantage point to observe and mock the bourgeois society that both repulses and attracts him - like a cockroach he owes his very survival to a wealthy, indulgent, wasteful society. In his sessions with the educated middle-class psychologist Genevieve, rather than reveal himself, he tells stories that titillate and fascinate her. It's a manipulation, the power game of the essentially powerless, but also revealing of his own pathology. This is fiction as portraiture and it's hard not to see this as self-portraiture, (if not literally than figuratively) Hage himself as the exotic, clever storyteller stringing us along. There are rants against religion, politics, the fat-cat bourgeoisie. It's also a portrait of the community of refugees from Arab tyrannies. We meet many familiar types who have been forced to flee; the persecuted gay, the exiled professor, the artist/musician, an activist taxi driver, but don't ever really get to know any of them. And we're never even quite sure how well we can trust the narrator himself, which is both the main strength and the principle weakness of the novel. Not much happens in the book until the last quarter. The narrator tries to collect on a debt, frequents a local café, finds a job at an Iranian restaurant, commits petty crimes, fantasizes, flirts, fucks and falls in love with a woman named Shoreh. As I say, it's life lived below society's bottom rung and one day rolls uneventfully into the next. The prose are what keep the reader interested - the flavourful phrasing, sharp observations and social commentary - for a while, anyway. When, in the book's last quarter, something like a plot begins to emerge, a revenge killing, it feels tacked on. I'd already pretty well lost interest. I'm still on the fence about whether I'll read DeNiro's Game any time soon. I guess I'm looking for a storyline that keeps me engaged with tension, suspense, and makes me trust the narrator, and care.


ivan said...

Hi. I'm Ivan.

I wrote something on Cockroach on my blog and someone anonymous who said he/she was in publishing would
"not take any work or submission from you because of your smallness of spirit" or somethig like that.

Sheesh. Touchy.

B. Glen Rotchin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
B. Glen Rotchin said...


You're fortunate to have comments on your blog. Thanks for sharing the wealth by adding one to mine!