Rawi Hage's book Cockroach an existential Arab immigrant romp
Posted February 5th, 2009
He received international fame after releasing his debut 2006 novel DeNiro’s Game, about two-childhood friends coming-of age during the Lebanese civil war.
The book won the 2008 international IMPAC Dublin Award, and earned him the title of “Canada’s literary find of the year in 2006.”
Cockroach is a fearless portrayal of the Montreal most Canadians fail to see, and of the immigrant life in North America that is often generalized to be successful and fulfilling to outsiders.
The narrator is bold, dark and clearly scarred from his past – but he never comes across as a victimized immigrant.
Poverty-stricken and living in a house full of cockroaches, he crawls around “the underground” of his gentrified neighborhood in Montreal - a city that is praised as the gem of Canada – laid back, European influenced, French-speaking with an Anglophone dominated city center.
The novel, which has been hailed as existentialist, is constantly questioning what brought him to this “Northern land,” where “no one gives you an excuse to hit, rob, or shoot, or even to shout from across the balcony, to curse your neighbors’ mothers and threaten their kids.”
"The exotic has to be modified here - not too spicy or too smelly, just enough of it to remind others of a fantasy elsewhere," Hage writes.
Anger and alienation
Early in the book, after the narrator is found hanging from a tree in one of Montreal’s most frequented park, he is forced to see a therapist, Genevieve.
It is through his visits to Genevieve, who is keenly interested in hearing the narrator's stories of life from a far away land, that the narrator’s past is told.
He takes joy is watching his publicly-funded therapist's mouth drop while he tells stories about the crimes he would commit in his homeland with his mentor, the neighborhood thief Abou Roro.
"I'm exploring poverty issues, class, religion, fundamentalism, displacement — there are other things to explore through immigration," Hage said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).
His alienation is also enabled because of his relationship with Genevieve, who wants to understand him. But the narrator sees her world as too far from his reality, sometimes purposely yet subtly emphasizing the disconnect between them.
When asking about his mother, the narrator responds, “Well, I said, when she was not dangling clothing by the arms or the ankles off the balcony she would stir her wooden spoon around a tin pot, in a counter-clockwise motion, and if she was not busy doing that, she was chasing after us with curses and promises that she would dig our graves.”
While battling the Montreal winter, the narrator spends most his time at a 24-hour “immigrant café,” or with his friends, most of whom fled Iran to end up in Canada.
Through his characters, Hage points out the brutality of life in a strange land - without romanticizing the countries they come from.
He aims criticism at “the elite of the Third World,” including the narrators “Persian” boss, who employs him as a busboy. “They consider themselves royalty when all they are is the residue of colonial power,” he states.
“I do wonder what kind of reaction Cockroach will get,” admits Hage, who wrote the book in his third language, Arabic and French being his first two languages.
“Will I be portrayed as the ungrateful immigrant?” he asks.
There are a "lot of things to admire about the West. You want to belong to that democracy, you want to belong to that comfort, that society that manages somehow to elevate its own population, but you only want to belong to it after these same values and these same attempts failed in your own countries," Hage was quoted as saying.
Dark themes not autobiographical
Hage left Lebanon to New York City in the early 1980’s, after living through nine years of civil war.
In New York he spent two years working a number of different jobs from a salesman to a waiter to factory worker. It was also the first time he experienced racism.
The hostilities between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon were not felt to be personal, he told Quill and Quire magazine - it was simply about being on different sides of war.
In 1992 he moved to Montreal to study photography and visual arts at Dawson College and Concordia University.
"I'm not naive about cities, I'm not naive about nations," Hage said. "Just because a city has some culture and looks nice, doesn't mean it hasn't got an undercurrent of violence. Montreal is a large military industrial complex. Under all that beauty there is something very ugly."
The author says that the book is not autobiographical, and that the dark themes have more to do with studying human nature. Hage says he does not want to be labeled as a writer who lived through the war.
The 44-year-old author is currently living in Montreal and working on his third book.
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