by Rawi Hage
House of Anansi Press, 320 pages, $29.95
Seeing as immigration is an integral element of the Canadian landscape, it should come as no surprise that authors might seek to dip into this cultural stew for dramatic purposes. Very few, however, would likely seek to add the phantasmagorical and hallucinatory elements that Rawi Hage’s novel Cockroach brings to the recipe.
The Canadian author arose seemingly from out of nowhere in 2006 when his debut novel De Niro’s Game was rescued from the obscurity of the slush pile at House of Anansi Press. The novel was immediately deluged with plaudits and awards, culminating in his recent win of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the largest English literary prize on the planet.
No one could blame Hage for any perceived degree of tentativeness in his approach to his sophomore novel. Yet while it contains many of the same themes as his first, Cockroach proves that Hage is not content to rest on his laurels.
Leaving behind Game’s war-blighted Lebanon, Cockroach sets itself in the more overtly familiar surroundings of Montreal. But while the country may be considerably dissimilar, Hage continues his penchant for bleak poetic atmosphere, transforming the bustling metropolis into an alien topography of menial jobs, mysterious accents, insect infestations, and class hostilities.
Cockroach is first and foremost a character study of a stranger in a strange land. A very strange stranger at that, an individual who possesses the odd habit of imagining himself at times to be a cockroach; “Other humans gaze at the sky,” he explains, “ but I say unto you, the only way through the world is to pass through the underground.”
Hage has more on his mind than allusions to Franz Kafka, however. Like Kafka’s many baffled protagonists, Hage’s anti-hero may be bewildered by the machinations of the world, but he is no mere observer, taking pains wherever and whenever he can to make his presence felt.
Similar to the leads in De Niro’s Game, the narrator is not so much a hero as he is a survivor, but with a far bleaker approach to life. Unlike the start realism of the former novel’s, the narrator of Cockroach may or may not be on the brink of insanity, adding a surreal aspect to many of his daily encounters.
Cockroach’s unnamed narrator is an immigrant to Canada, an man who ekes out a living through a combination of odd jobs, threats, and surreptitious thievery. After a haphazard suicide attempt, explained as being “a challenge to nature, to the cosmos itself, to the recurring light,” he is ordered to attend therapy sessions to assess his mental competency.
The narrator is not having an easy time of it living in Montreal, the clash of cultures altering the man he perceives himself to be. “[H]ere in this Northern land,” he laments, comparing his new life to his old, “no one gives you an excuse to hit, rob, or shoot, or even to shout from across the balcony, to curse your neighbours’ mothers and threaten their kids.”
Alongside a gift for breaking and entering, the narrator prides himself on his ability to lay bare the true natures of those who surround him. “I see people for what they are. I strip them of everything and see their hollowness. I strip them, and they are relieved of the burden of colour and disguise.”
Hage writes his tale in short, declarative sentences, capturing the despondency of a life of potential trapped in a world as similarly rigid in its caste structure as the land that he left. The narrator grimly acknowledges himself and his acquaintances as “the scum of the earth in this capitalist endeavour,” and it becomes readily apparent that Hage did not have to trek too far to revisit the themes of isolation and pain that suffused the pages of Di Niro’s Game.
Like that novel, Cockroach occasionally betrays a wicked wit beneath the pathos, manifesting through the narrator’s inserting himself into the lives of those he watches. “I was part of their TV dinner,” he writes after one young couple watches him as they would watch a reality television show, “I was spinning in a microwave, stripped of my plastic cover, eaten, and defecated the next morning just as the filtered coffee was brewing in the kitchen and the radio was prophesying the weather, telling them what to wear, what to buy, what to say, whom to watch, and whom to like and hate.”
Despite its many admirable qualities, Cockroach is not flawless. There is an abrupt switch at the halfway point as a more formalized plot begins to force its way onto the page. The ending, involving a weirdly-played subplot of a mysterious figure who draws the attention of the narrator’s friends, feels rushed and incomplete.
Cockroach is also, like its hero, a supremely frustrating creature, alternately fascinating and confused. By the finale, the skill of Hage is readily apparent, but there is a maddening sense of incompleteness to the whole of the novel, an impression exemplified by the narrator’s frequent digressions that entertain and provoke but don’t linger in the mind, a dilemma De Niro’s Game so effortlessly avoided.
Nevertheless, Cockroach reveals Hage to be no mere fluke, but a fearless talent with his best years ahead. Regardless of its shortcomings, Cockroach exposes a world so otherworldly to most Canadians as to be near-unimaginable, and reveals an author on the cusp of greatness.
Originally published (heavily expurgated version) in the Winnipeg Free Press, August 31, 2008.