Rawi Hage is not quite sure why he recently bothered to renew his license to drive a taxi in his hometown of Montreal. As one of Canada’s most consistently awarded writers, with two previous novels translated into 29 languages and his just-published third, Carnival, already nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust award, Hage has no pressing need to return to a job that supported him intermittently before he discovered his vocation.
It was mainly sentimental, he says, a renewal of his membership in the only sort of club that has ever appealed to him – a non-club of wanderers and outcasts. “And it was only 100 bucks,” he says, laughing. “I figured, why not?”
But given his bleak view of the future of literary fiction, which he thinks “will go eventually into retreat and take a position as marginal as poetry,” Hage is also hedging his career bets. He is loath to settle down, leery of teaching and emphatically unwilling to compromise his art for the sake of commercial success. So hacking, he admits, could well be a useful “last resort.”
In the meantime, it serves as a central metaphor for Carnival, which chronicles the hallucinatory adventures of Fly, a taxi driver who floats restlessly through an unnamed Montreal-like city in pursuit of perfect existential freedom aboard a “flying carpet” with a lantern on its roof. Wheeling non-committedly through the lives of drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps, fetishists (including a murderous novelist-dominatrix), activists and clowns, Fly dreams of his freakish childhood in care of the Bearded Lady who adopted him after the death of his circus-performer parents.
“I romanticize this nomadic existence to a certain extent,” Hage admits, speaking in an Arabic accent that belies the easy fluency of his English prose. Fly’s adventures are his own, the author says, but the driver’s “restless existence” is autobiographical. Hage was born in Beirut, exiled to Cyprus with his family during the Lebanese civil war, immigrated to New York, where he lived for almost a decade, and finally to Montreal, where he studied visual arts and began a career as a photographer. He was well established in the field, his work collected by the National Gallery of Canada, when he produced his first novel, De Niro’s Game, in 2006 (which went on to win the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award).
At every turn, Fly and his fellow rebels in Carnival struggle against routines and confinement, both literal and psychological. “And these are the champions in my novel,” he says. “But they are also martyrs. Because they choose this seclusion and this self-exile, they always at the end pay a certain price.”
Like Hage, Fly is an improbably literary taxi driver, living in an apartment stuffed hazardously with tottering piles of books. He and his friends identify with imprisoned author Jean Genet, name-check Jean-Luc Godard and argue about the political stance of Albert Camus (a life-and-death discussion, as it turns out). The most “privileged position” in Fly’s unorthodox library is “saved for misanthropic writers,” he says.
Hage shares Fly’s taste. “I can’t deal with happy writers or safe writers,” he says. “I like writers who tend to change things, either linguistically or by taking very different political positions.” Writers who struggle against the system from a position of total autonomy – and often the obscurity that accompanies such a stance.
“I think writers tend to be marginal people and the profession fits perfectly with this necessary solitude,” Hage says. “There’s a deep solitude in the profession and I tend to be attracted to writers who understand this.”
Politically, Hage stands firmly in the straggling camp of the outsiders. “Regardless of whether it’s a worthy cause or not, I’m all for demonstrations,” he says. “Empires and power should always be held in check. You can never trust them. If there is no resistance they go further and further.”
He lives in the city’s diverse Mile End neighbourhood, which he admires as “one of the most liberal, progressive places in Canada,” and expresses “great esteem” for his adopted homeland.
“I cherish the progressive values of this place, but at the same time I fear for it,” he says. “There’s a wave of religiosity and conservatism and corporate greed that is taking a bigger place, and it scares me.”
Like a lot of middle-aged activists, however, Hage, 48, no longer waves the banner so ardently, preferring to channel his activities into art. “I realize that culture could well be a substitute to many ideologies,” he says. “The older I get the more I realize how important it is, and how fragile it is.”
He hasn’t made nearly as much money as all the awards might suggest, according to Hage, and he is one of the few Canadian novelists who supports himself solely with his fiction.
“For the moment I’m very fortunate to be able to do it,” he says. “But I must stress – for the moment.”
Restless as ever, he maintains his magic carpet fully licensed and ready to fly.