Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Book Review: Cockroach, by Rawi Hage (2008)

Life at the edge of society, in the dark fringes that are intentionally overlooked by the majority. The focus of Rawi Hage's second book is immigrants in Montreal, their stories, background and day-to-day struggle to escape the past and survive the present. The book is written in the first person, with the main character -- who remains unnamed, likely very intentionally so -- an immigrant from Lebanon where he witnessed regular brutality. He has lost at least part of his humanity and is now comfortable thinking of himself as part human and part cockroach, and he appears to be most at peace when he imagines himself to be the latter, scurrying through the cracks of society.

Unlike Hage's brilliant DeNiro's Game (2006), where the violence was random and the country was on fire, the violence in Cockroach is much more personal. Our narrator's mother and sister are victims of regular beatings, and he has tried to hang himself in a Montreal park. Several of the immigrants from Iran that we meet in Montreal are escaping personal stories of rape and torture.

Cockroach is not as much story-driven as an excuse to introduce several small portraits of a small circle of immigrants, all shifty, tortured souls trying to keep the past buried while creating a future in a new, strange land. There is Reza the musician, Shohreh the love interest, a cranky Professor spending his days in a cafe recreating fake glories, and the regimented owner of an Iranian restaurant where our narrator finds a job and the book finds a climax. Hage does an excellent job bringing these characters to life against a backdrop of an uncaring, cold environment. The Canadians in the book are all portrayed as out of touch, naive in the true ways of an unkind world, or just plain vacant and self-absorbed.

Most of the background story of the main character is recalled in conversations with Genvieve, his government-assigned therapist trying to find the cause of his attempted suicide. These passages are beautifully written, and present a powerful metaphor of forced communication between two worlds that, at the human level, know little about one another.

Cockroach is not going to challenge the status of DeNiro's Game as one of the best books ever written. But as a follow-up effort, Hage has delivered a suitably entertaining and memorable literary experience.

305 pages.

Published in hardcover by House of Anansi Press.

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