Half man, half cockroach

Montreal’s Rawi Hage pens an existential award winner

Critics have received Montreal writer Rawi Hage’s new book, Cockroach, with open arms, hailing it as a compelling new existentialist novel. But don’t let the label and praise intimidate you – you can still enjoy yourself while you read it.

Growing up in Beirut, Lebanon, Hage endured nine years of civil war. During this time he was exposed to violence and the strain on sanity that comes with an impossibly complicated political situation. The reader can clearly see that the violence and thuggery that the author was exposed to from a young age acutely affected him.

Hage’s characters always seem to be hiding something sinister, in a way that makes the reader question their mental stability. It is hard to know what will happen next, how each character will react to each new event. This style is present in Cockroach as well as Hage’s first novel, De Niro’s Game, which was published in 2006 and won a number of awards, including the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. De Niro’s Game took place in Beirut during the civil war of the 1970s and followed the life of a young man named Bassam, who is not so unlike the narrator of Cockroach.

Cockroach takes place in Montreal’s immigrant community. We never know for sure where the narrator is from (or even what his name is); he spends time with Iranian immigrants and refugees, but makes it a point that he is not one of them. He is free to casually talk to a professor from Algeria about welfare, chat with a cab driver who once published a magazine in Iran, and wander up and down St. Laurent on the days when he isn’t working as a bus boy at a local Iranian restaurant. The narrator lives in an apartment building where he smells the strong spices of the Pakistani family below and drinks tea with the Russian lady in the basement apartment.

The plot follows the narrator as he grapples with the cold Montreal winter. The most urgent events in his life include collecting money that his friends owe him, meeting with the woman he claims to love, and breaking into strangers’ houses. However, the majority of his time is spent wandering the streets of Montreal, contemplating life, and imagining that he is half human and half cockroach. This bizarre concept, evocative of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, begins to make sense as the narrator slowly reveals information about himself and the life that he lived before it was committed to the page.

Among other things, we learn about an unsuccessful suicide attempt in his recent past: he tried to hang himself from a tree in Mount Royal Park. This action was not about death or trying to end life, but curiosity about what it would be like to escape the light. His attempted suicide results in mandatory weekly therapy sessions, leading to an interesting relationship between the narrator and his therapist.

The whole book takes place in a state of delirium. This could be credited to the narrator’s occasional substance abuse, but the end result is a foggy style of narration that somehow reaches moments of lucidity. It tells the truth as the narrator sees it, but the reader must decide what is real.

That Hage is Canadian and chooses Montreal as the setting for his novel makes Cockroach relevant to readers who can recognize the city’s landmarks and frigid weather. Although the novel has a distinctly Canadian setting, it is an example of a Canadian novel that branches off from traditional Canadiana in its style and subject matter. Hage is proof that exciting [and unusual] things can happen in the Canadian literary world. In his acknowledgements, Hage thanks the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec. The contributions of institutions such as Canada Council have made it possible for books to be written and art created that may never have had a chance.

Don’t be afraid to imagine what it would be like to travel the streets of Montreal in the dark winter while you stay warm indoors, or to imagine the world from a cockroach’s perspective. The idea is strange and a little terrifying at first, but this book tells a beautiful story told from a unique point of view in words that glide easily across the page.