What is the most loathsome creature you could think of? To Franz Kafka, the Czech novelist, the answer was: a cockroach.
Now, imagine the whole world as a desolate back alley with row after row of dustbins brimming with putrefying rubbish inhabited by hordes of ever-hungry cockroaches. This is the décor that Rawi Hage, a Lebanese writer living in Canada, has chosen for his second novel “Cockroach”, planting it in Montreal and peopling it with immigrants from the four corners of the world.
The narrator is a petty thief who is supposed to have fled from the decade-long Lebanese civil war during which he dreamt of nothing but escape. However, having made his escape to far-away and “frozen” Canada, he immediately wonders about the wisdom of his flight.
“Where am I?” he asks. “And what am I doing here? How did I end up trapped in a constantly shivering carcass, walking in a frozen city with white cotton falling on me all the time? And, on top of all that, I am hungry, impoverished, and have no one, no one.”
Unreliable if not downright duplicitous, Hage’s anti-hero reminds one of the narrator in Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” It is simply impossible to know which part of the story he is telling at any given time is true and which it is not. And, in the end, it matters little where truth ends and imagination begins. What matters is the comic tragedy that is life to a whole host of engaging and broken rogues clinging to existence as immigrants on the margins of Canadian society.
Among them is Reza, the Persian sitar player whose fingers were broken by Khomeini’s Islamic Guards. There is the Algerian self-styled “professor” aping French café intellectuals and dreaming of doing great deeds while waiting for his next welfare cheque. There is the beautiful Shohreh who has been raped by Islamists in Tehran, and the flirtatious Sehar who wants to forget her origins and become a true Canadian, whatever that means.
The supporting cast includes the native Canadians appearing as bleeding-heart do-gooders, pale-faced vegans, Jehova’s witnesses, welfare officers, and, of course, the sexually alluring psychotherapist assigned to the narrator after his attempted suicide.
In Hage’s world, east and west can never meet except in mutual suspicion, derision and, ultimately, hatred and violence. Like other Western countries that have admitted large numbers of immigrants from the Third World, especially Muslim countries, Canada is unable to absorb let alone assimilate its new citizens. Nor is it capable of offering them anything but the crumbs of its “indecent prosperity”.
The immigrants live in a limbo formed by an archipelago of solitudes.
Having lost their original homelands they are reminded daily that the new one they hoped to gain is forever closed to them.
The back-stories of the various characters provide a series of glimpses into the violent politics of the Third World nations that have triggered the biggest waves of refugees the world has ever known. (More than 80 per cent of all refugees in the world are from Muslim countries.)
Hage shows how small our world has become. Tragedies in places like the Middle East, find almost immediate consequences in such places as Canada, thousands of miles away. The reason is that refugees from distant tragedies try to find a safe haven in countries that have not yet closed their borders to the “damned of the earth.” The ocean, the distance of thousands of miles, the cold climate and language and culture cannot protect the Canadian from vicariously suffering the consequences of the Khomeinist revolution in Iran, the Islamic terror in Algeria or the sectarian killings in Lebanon.
Because of the title of the book, Hage’s novel may remind some readers of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two takes. Kafka’s anti-hero, Gregor, is metamorphosed into a cockroach without knowing and/or wanting it. He is a victim of a cruel fate beyond his control. Hage’s anti-hero, on the other hand, builds the cockroach aspect of his persona willingly and as an element of a mechanism of self-defence in a hostile world.
In Hage’s first novel, De Niro’s Game, a cockroach is transformed, and thus elevated, into a hunchback.” In this novel, the albino cockroach has a “hunched back”. Hage writes: “I saw the gigantic striped albino cockroach standing on two of its feet, leaning against the kitchen door. It had grown to my size- even bigger, if you were to measure the antennae that touched the ceiling.”
In the dialogue that ensues, the narrator is taken to task by the cockroach for being an “escapist”, presumably because of his attempted suicide.
“We are ugly,” the cockroach says.” Nevertheless, we always know where we are going. We have a project. A project to change this world.”
The cockroach ends up by reminding the narrator that he is at least “part human”, thus shouldering a greater responsibility than a mere cockroach.
A cockroach’s existence is the lowest, the most degraded, form of life.
Thus, Hage’s message is an affirmation of life, even in its lowest form. Kafka’s cockroach has things done to him while Hage’s cockroach always keeps the imitative. In other words, despite appearances, Kafka’s pessimism, dressed as black comedy, has nothing to do with Hage’s profound and life-affirming optimism, triggered by the simplest gifts of daily existence:
“At the first sip of beer, the first fries, I forget and forgive humanity for its stupidity, its foulness, its avarice and greed, envy, lust gluttony, sloth, wrath, and anger. I forgive it for its contaminated spit, its valued feces, its rivers of piss, its bombs, all its bad dancing. I also forget about the bonny infants with the African flies clustering on their noses, the marching drunk soldiers on the way to whorehouses. I forget about my mother and my father, the lightless nights I spent with my sister playing cards, dressing up toy soldiers, and undressing dolls by candlelight, reading comics.”
Hage’s novel may at times frustrate or even annoy the reader. In the end, however, “The Cockroach” is an unforgettable good read.