Rawi Hage’s unnamed protagonist—an unreliable narrator—fantasizes almost as much as he steals.
A poor, starving Middle-Eastern immigrant walking the Montreal winter streets, he sees himself as a cockroach: the lowest of the low, but also crafty and able to survive. His awkwardness around women causes him to undergo what he perceives as a metamorphosis into a dirty, many-legged insect who will survive the apocalypse, when all the wealthy people in the world will die.
As he tries to romance Shohreh, the woman with whom he is enamoured, the self-styled cockroach tells his therapist Genèvieve about his life before immigration, that is, the story of his relationship with his sister and how he tried to defend her from Tony, her abusive husband. These therapy sessions were court-ordered after the narrator attempted to hang himself, and he tells his story like Scheherazade, to keep himself out of the mad house.
Eventually the narrator’s past begins to catch up with him and he must decide how to act against the powers of capitalism and religious fundamentalism. But the poor cannot be pacifists in the world the cockroach has explored. Sooner or later, in a moment of decision, the cockroach will rise from the shadows and drains of the underworld and rise against the upper world, where the sun shines so bright.
Though I once thought the narrator was a creep, stalking women and men to find their homes and steal from their basements, by some strange magic, the protagonist wins your sympathy and cannot fail to engage you. It may depend on your political views or moral expectations, paraphrasing Rawi Hage during the Concordia event, but the narrator is funny, witty, and can get away with anything. Evil and goodness coexist in the same man.
Cockroach, or so argued Samantha Bee on Canada Reads, highlights the difficulties and troubles surrounding the immigrant experience in Montreal, a hidden “underground” world that most Montrealers cannot see. But Hage’s novel is more than an informative Montreal Gazette article. It is the unreliable, yet politically radical vision of a trickster whose monologues in defiance of the hypocritical and the wealthy must have delighted Hage to write whenever he stepped into his alter ego’s worn-out shoes.
I simply love Hage’s refreshing style. His long, lyrical sentences are filled with extended similes and charged descriptions that underlie the narrator’s keen observations. Take the following as a metaphor for his desire to escape the trials of the immigrant experience:
“When I entered the café, I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves, and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing of Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts” (10).
The narrator’s observations also help him to expose hypocrisy. Take the narrator’s following rebuke against a Jehovah’s witness, which almost reads like a slam poem:
“You are a charlatan, standing there with your magazines full of promising images like opium. Look at you, human, all dressed up. You can’t be handsome without weaving the saliva of worms around you, without stealing the wool from the backs of sheep, without making the poor work like mules in long factories with cruel whistles and punch-in cards” (284).
Another wonderful feature of Rawi Hage’s style is his refusal to write dialogue with quotation marks. The effect is that we are receiving all the dialogue filtered through the narrator’s voice, which means characters may or may not have spoken exactly as the narrator tells it. This adds another layer of untrustworthiness to his protagonist, making you question everything he tells you.
At the Concordia event “Up Close and Personal with Rawi Hage,” which I attended with my father in 2009, Hage said that he saw the lack of quotation marks in his writing as not a radical innovation, so much as a result of his own laziness. He never understood why you would ever need quotation marks. It is this kind of unconventional attitude that underlies Cockroach.
Hage’s stylistic unorthodoxy adds to the appeal of his story, like innovative directorial cuts add to the originality of a Martin Scorsese flick. Particularly, I am thinking of Taxi staring Robert DeNiro, another tale of isolation and the underworld, which culminates in an act of violence. There is even a mirror scene, only when Hage’s narrator looks in the mirror, he sees a man-sized cockroach standing behind him instead of saying, “Are you talkn’ to me?” Is it any wonder that Hage was a Montreal taxi driver and lived in New York City for a time?
Anyway, I suppose I would have to read his most recent book Carnival, which also concerns a taxi driver, to find out about this link between Rawi Hage and Robert DeNiro. In the meantime, Cockroach is a great book for Canadians and especially Montrealers to read, if they enjoy a little trip down the sink drain.