Rawi Hage’s first novel, De Niro’s Game (2006), won what many call the most prestigious international literary prize: the Impac Dublin Literary Award. The story focuses on two brothers, growing up during the Civil War in Lebanon, the author’s country of birth. With Cockroach, Hage expands his territory as well as his cast of characters. Set in Montreal, the new novel centers upon half a dozen immigrants from the Middle East—most of them barely able to survive, relegated to the unofficial economy, and eking out a basic existence in a cold city far from their origins.
The nameless main character describes himself as half cockroach, which is to say a survivor, but also to indicate the attitudes of the people around him toward immigrants in general. In an interview that Hage gave on Canadian TV, the author noted that his own situation in Canada has been quite different, but earlier when he lived in New York City, his situation was near destitute. Nevertheless, Montreal in the novel could be almost any large, impersonal Western city where immigrants are forced to cope with the underbelly of metropolitan life. The environment is seamy and depressing much of the time, yet even cites that have public services for unemployed immigrants often have no real sense of their enormous numbers. Cockroach describes the reluctant life-style of too many people who are forced to live anonymously, to crawl into the cracks in the midst of opulence and indifference.
In the opening pages of the story, Hage’s main character has recently attempted to commit suicide by hanging himself, but he’s not been successful. Much of the subsequent narration that unfolds is the dialogue when a therapist named Genevieve, assigned to council him and to whom he is attracted, as he reveals bits and pieces of his past to her—plus his own movement forward in time as he gets a job and interacts with other immigrants.
The past is both violent and idyllic. Genevieve repeatedly asks him questions he would prefer not to answer. When asked about his mother, for example, he responds that it’s not appropriate to talk about people who are deceased—obviously a revelation to his therapist. It’s no real surprise that he had to flee the country of his birth in order to save his neck. Other immigrants he befriends are in the same situation. That is also true of the woman he supposedly loves, who fled Iran after the religious police tortured her.
Hage’s characters and the situations they find themselves in would be rather uninteresting were it not for the juxtaposition of the lyrical with the squalor–plus a fair bit of comic relief. But what is so compelling about the narrative is the main character’s perceptions of himself as half cockroach. He’s got a job, cleaning up in an Iranian-owned restaurant, but he’s also a rather gifted thief with a penchant for bizarre thievery. On one occasion, he follows Genevieve home so he knows where she resides and then subsequently breaks into her house:
“The next day, Friday, I woke up early. I returned to Genevieve’s place and watched her leave her house for work. Then I slipped past the building’s garage door, went down to the basement, and crawled along the pipes. I sprang from her kitchen’s drain, fixed my hair, my clothes, my self, and walked straight to her bedroom. On the bedside table were a few prescription pills, some books and magazines. A painting of a naked lady in an intimate, yet unrevealing, position hung above the bed. She had a large bed, unmade. I crawled up onto it and sniffed her pillow and bathed in the scent of her sheets. I found a spot that was still warm…. I curled up and rolled like a kid down the hills. I covered myself with a sheet, inhaled, and wept a little under clouds of cotton and blue sky. Then I made Genevieve’s bed and lay on my back and looked around her room.”
This vicarious mingling with the rich and educated occurs on other occasions, not so much as literal thievery but curiosity about other people’s lives. The narrator’s fascination with those are much better off also extends to his own people, that is, Middle Easterner immigrants who are successful and exploit those who are not. “They are the worst—the Third World elite are the filth of the planet and I do not feel any affinity with their jingling-jewellery wives, their arrogance, their large TV screens. Filth! They consider themselves royalty when all they are is the residue of colonial power. They walk like they are aristocrats, owners from the land of spice and honey, yet they are nothing but the descendants of porters, colonial servants, gardeners, and sell-out soldiers for invading empires.”
Cockroach is a disturbing cry in the dark, a harsh indictment against injustice, a haunting account of invisibility–an unforgettable story of one man’s survival amidst the ugliness that most of us refuse to see.
By Rawi Hage
Norton, 305 pp., $23.95
CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.