Thursday, 20 May 2010

Book Review: DeNiro's Game, by Rawi Hage (2006)

Bassam and George are two young Lebanese Christian men, growing up as friends in the Civil War that consumed the tiny country starting in 1975. Bassam, our narrator in DeNiro's Game, works at the port and drifts into a life of petty crime as he desperately seeks a way to escape the broken country.

George, nicknamed DeNiro after the actor became popular in Beirut for his role in The Deer Hunter, gets sucked into the militia; he receives combat training, gets involved in hard drugs, and experiences the horror of brutal combat where a minuscule margin exists between a numb life and a horrible death.

As their lives diverge, Bassam wanting out and George very much in, they find themselves on an unalterable collision course that will test their friendship and forever alter their lives.

Rawi Hage's debut novel combines a powerful story of friendship during war with a mesmerizing descriptive style that hypnotizes and abducts the imagination. Hage allows his descriptive paragraphs to develop streams of consciousness with enormous spans of time and space, and while the descriptions appear to stray from the story, they in fact underpin the characters. When this style works, and with Hage it works most of the time, the results are nothing short of breathtaking.

DeNiro's Game offers the most accurate description of the Lebanese Civil War that has been committed to text. The never ending artillery shelling of civilian areas; life in the shelters; the panicked drive to the hospital with severely wounded civilians; the endless smoking; the always-on radio news; the thuggery of the militias; life at the front lines; and the garbage-strewn streets ruled by packs of dogs.

Is it any wonder that in this bloody and altered reality a life of crime, drugs, uncontrolled lust and violence becomes routine?

Hage, a Canadian who was born in Lebanon and experienced the Civil War up close, elegantly weaves into his fictional narrative two real and monumental events from 1982: Bassam plays an unwitting role in the assassination of Bashir Gemayyel, the charismatic leader of the Christian militia and called Al-Rayyes in the book; and George participates in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shateela refugee camps -- and both events have a direct bearing on the final dramatic moments of the friendship between the two men.

Bringing these emotionally devastating historical events into the book magnifies its impact, and serves as a reminder that Bassam and George accurately represent a generation of Lebanese youth lost to the ravages of a vicious conflict that continues to fester.

As a work of fiction closely tied to the tragedy of real events, DeNiro's Game is a masterful achievement, and takes its place as one of the best works of modern literature.

Published in paperback by Anansi.
273 pages.

The Ace Black Blog Book Review Index is here.

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