on Cockroach, a novel by Rawi Hage (W.W. Norton)

Having attempted to hang himself from a tree, the unnamed narrator of Cockroach must meet with a psychiatrist after his release from a state-run clinic. At the health centre, “Everyone knows that you are going to confess something,” he says, “something evil that was done to you, something evil that you did. Still, the past is all in the past. If you sit, wait, behave, confess, and show maybe some forgiveness and remorse, you, my boy, you could be saved.” Concluding that Genevieve, his analyst, can’t fathom his grievous situation, he tells his story to us, the more receptive listeners.

HageCover.jpgRawi Hage has created a character who sneaks into one’s consciousness as a roach follows pipes into one’s kitchen. The gap between his caustic, cynical perspective and the moral values we bring to his situation repeatedly widens and contracts – just as his own attitude fluctuates: “On my days of pay I am grateful, I am grateful for everything, and it shows … I am grateful for the waitress’s thumbs that grasp the edges of the food plates, and their palms and their wrists that juggle them all the way” … followed by … “And I was overwhelmed with the particular guilt of the impulsive poor who, in a moment of grandiose self-delusion, self-indulgence, and greed, want to have it all. The poor one is greedy. Greedy! Greed is the biggest stupidity. But I was filled with greed.”

Hage.jpgWhy did he try to kill himself? He tells Genevieve that “my suicide attempt was only my way of trying to escape the permanence of the sun … out of a kind of curiosity, or maybe as a challenge to nature, to the cosmos itself, to the recurring light. I felt oppressed by it all. The question of existence consumed me.” Cockroach is a superbly paced and plotted unspooling of information that feeds his bloating sense of oppression. Genevieve listens raptly to his stories of violence and exploitation like the Persian King captivated by Scheherazade – and like him, the analyst is fooled. Are we also deceived?

In the foreground we follow his bleak, daily routine in Montreal. He goes to the welfare office. He holds down a job as a bus boy in an Iranian restaurant. Poor and hungry, he steals and collects small debts to survive. He shadows his acquaintances and breaks into their houses. (Like a roach, he examines the contents of his victims’ refrigerators, snacks, and departs.) He hangs out in the city’s demi-monde among other Middle Eastern émigrés, antagonists as much as friends. He picks fights.

In the background we hear about his former life in Beirut: the war, his tutelage in thievery and extortion, the sufferings of his family. And then, there are the roaches in his tiny apartment, “the future rulers of the earth.” First, he claims to be one of them. Then, he refuses to be manipulated by them. They taunt him. But whether feeling elevated or despised, he is an extreme creature, isolated, desperate, sensitive to insult, quick to anger, delusional – and in his use of language, magnetic, uninhibited, penetrating, lyrical, disturbed.

HageRoach.jpgHere is a typical blighted flight, the bus boy cursing humanity: “They must be horrified to realize that they are made of skin, flesh that can be cut, boiled, and eaten, that they perspire, that fluid runs through them, that always, whatever they eat, no matter how presentable it is, the food that comes on fancy plates, that is savoured as it is illuminated by small candles on red tablecloths, that gives off the aroma of spices, will always, always be transformed into something ugly and repulsive. They are obsessive about masking their humanity, their dung, their droppings, their sweat, their curved toenails that grow and never stop growing. They despise this world and therefore they are engaged in the constant act of covering themselves up – covering their faces, their feet, their nails, their breath, their decaying bodies.”

That passage may make Cockroach sound more like a morose screed than a story, but Hage moves deftly from these dark and sometimes comical philosophical asides to encounters and action. Each paragraph moves the story ahead in some way, either by winching the narrator’s tensions even tighter (or loosening them into contemplation) or by taking the next step toward the story’s gripping conclusion. The several supporting characters emerge through situation, environment, and terse observation. There are no unnecessary, padded sentences – even as the narrator enjoys the luxury of describing at length the look and sound of his lover’s urine swirling around the bowl and streaming down under the city’s streets. Everything comports with the narrative psyche. If you’re a novelist, this is a book to study as well as enjoy.

HageMiloszRowicki.jpgI’ve restrained myself from plot synopsis for the obvious reason. It must suffice to say that Hage stalks his readers with a shrewd understanding of their conflicted moral sensibilities. As the narrator moves toward a final act to vindicate himself, the reader (now a queasy accomplice) has no time to equivocate or judge, only to watch. Everything meshes in the end – the tragedies in Beirut and Teheran, the fecklessness of the welfare state, the exile’s rootlessness, the affectations of the privileged, the unstable lurch toward moral action.

Some reviewers will emphasize Hage’s depiction of Montreal’s seedy underworld or see in the narrator a victim of global brutality. After Cockroach was published abroad in 2008, Nicholas Blincoe wrote in the Telegraph (UK) that while Hage is influenced by Dostoevsky, he embraces his style rather than his themes. Blincoe goes on to say, “In [Hage’s] hands, existentialism becomes a mannerism, in effect, a kind of camp.” Raskolnikov’s contempt becomes an exuberant harangue in Cockroach. But I dispute the charge of mannerism, except to say that Hage has created a manner of his own. It takes idiosyncratic courage to turn a man into a cockroach after Kafka.

Cockroach is a formally complete novel – leaving us with strangely mixed sensations of satisfaction and anxiety. “I was split between two planes and aware of two existences, and they were both mine,” says the narrator. And so are we.

[Published October 12, 2009. 305 pages, $23.95 hardcover]