When he accepted the $160,000 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his first novel, De Niro's Game, this past June, Rawi Hage said, by way of concluding his speech: "The history of mankind is full of wars, divisions, the flow of blood, the flight of refugees and misery. I long for the day when an African child will be able to roam the world as if it is rightly his; I long for the day when Palestinian, Guatemalan, Iraqi and Afghan children will have homes to keep and build upon. I long for the day when we humans realize that we are all gatherers and wanderers, ever bound to cross each other's paths, and that these paths belong to us all."
- Cockroach, by Rawi Hage, Anansi, 312 pages, $29.95
And then he quoted Amin Maalouf, a fellow novelist born in Beirut and exiled by the civil war but one who has chosen Paris rather than Montreal as his place of residence, French rather than English as his literary language: "You will hear Arabic, Turkish, Castilian, Berber, Hebrew, Latin and common Italian from my mouth because all languages and prayers belong to me. But I do not belong to any. I belong to God and to the earth, and one day, I will go back to them."
Cockroach, Hage's second novel, amply confirms that, as the IMPAC jury said, "luck" has little to do with this award (or with the other honours De Niro's Game racked up: it was short-listed for the Giller Prize, the Governor-General's Award, the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the Prix des libraires du Québec).
The things that make Rawi Hage a major literary talent - and Cockroach as essential reading as its predecessor - include freshness, gut-wrenching lyricism, boldness, emotional restraint, intellectual depth, historical sense, political subversiveness and uncompromising compassion. Cockroach's clarity of prose and purpose, as well as its ferocity of judgment, might remind older readers of the books Mordecai Richler wrote before he turned to satire.
Like the early Richler (and the Richler of Barney's Version), Hage's writing is hyper-energized by the smaller and larger indignities of immigrant experience, the existential anxieties of the second half of the 20th century, a righteous indignation as old as the prophets, and an up-to-the-minute ink-black humour that's utterly unwilling to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the troubled and dispossessed but equally insists on calling their deeds and words to account.
Cockroach spans one month of bone-numbing winter among restaurant workers, taxi drivers and welfare-fed intellectuals-in-exile in Montreal's Lebanese and Iranian communities as achingly experienced from beneath the belly of these underdogs. The unnamed narrator, a petty thief with a large imagination, has tried to commit suicide by hanging himself from a tree in Mount Royal Park. Rescued by policemen on horseback, he's ordered to meet regularly with a court-appointed therapist, Genevieve, who insists casually on a first-name relationship and firmly on probing the childhood sources of his "hidden anger."
His response to her naiveté (she knows nothing of the world of De Niro'sGame, where boys become men in war zones without boundaries and women are pawns in the games militiamen play) is to tell her intricate but compelling tales of his youth as an insect, a cockroach, a contemptible thing with no power except the power of personal survival in unwinnable skirmishes to protect his beloved sister from her brutish husband, a militiaman whose viciousness is beyond whatever laws are enforceable in their war-torn country. What this Kafkaesque bug tells the reader, and hides from his therapist, is his love for Shahran, a victim of less domestic conflicts: the religio-political ones in Iran.
Unable to trust his emotions, "repulsed - not embarrassed, but repulsed - by slimy feelings of cunning and need," feeling all too often "like a hunchback in the presence of young schoolgirls," he develops an insatiable appetite to discover everything he can about Shahran and everyone else (especially the restaurateur who employs him as a busboy) who plays any part at all in the collision of worlds his love for her makes inevitable. Whatever he discovers, he reacts against with the unpredictability of a bred-in-the-bone anarchist. The stories set in motion on the first page kept this reader transfixed to the very last. Hage owes something to Camus and more to Kafka (and possibly even more to poets, singers and storytellers most of us know nothing about) but what he makes of all of them belongs distinctly to himself.
Cockroach is an angry and agnostic book that will seriously annoy those unmoved and unshaken Bushites to the south, Harperites to the west and Péquistes in Hage's hometown, who have yet to "realize that we are all gatherers and wanderers, ever bound to cross each other's paths, and that these paths belong to us all." And whom will it delight? The July issue of New Scientist shows that readers of narrative fiction score higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who don't. That's an old idea, one that runs from Homer through Dickens and beyond, but it's far too generally stated by the researchers in the department of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto who conducted the tests.
For Rawi Hage, the writers and artists who matter and make important differences in readers' lives are "all those women and men of letters, and all artists who have gone beyond the aesthetics of the singular to represent the multiple and diverse, to all those men and women who have chosen the painful and costly portrayal of truth over tribal self-righteousness." They are the ones to whom he is grateful and to whom socially empathetic and politically acute readers should all be grateful. Cockroach is precisely what its publisher claims it to be: "necessary... and astonishing."
Contributing reviewer T. F. Rigelhof's grandparents came to Canada on one of the last ships to sail from a Russian port before the Great War erupted. He lives in Montreal by choice, not necessity.