THE UNNAMED NARRATOR of Rawi Hage’s second novel is a bad immigrant: he has brought nothing to this country but a load of negativity and a capacity for violence. But this man, presumably Lebanese Christian like his creator, has some necessary life skills. For example, he knows how to slip in and out of houses at will, like the famous insect. Unlike the brainless six-legged pest, Hage’s creation has some unsavory moral business to accomplish, which is, in general, to prove to the citizens of Montreal, immigrant or not, just how false and rotten their lives are.
The insect narrator is certainly no kinder to himself. He has gotten into trouble for an act of self-violence, having attempted to hang himself in a city park. His plan went awry since he’s no genius with knots, and finds himself having to tell his story to his court-appointed therapist, a certain well-meaning Genevieve. From his sessions with this dreadfully naïve woman who lives comfortably in Outremont, the book branches out in all directions, toward the stories that the narrator has accumulated while living in our fair city, and those he has brought with him from the Lebanese civil wars. He frequents immigrant cafés where yesterday’s men tell each other lies, he barely survives the winter by cadging drinks and scraps of food, he associates carnally with an Iranian beauty named Shohreh who, like him, carries a heavy past. Wherever he turns, whether he looks into himself or out into the greater world, he finds the same mediocrity and veniality.
Hage distinguished himself with his first novel, De Niro’s Game, for which he won the Impac Dublin Literary Award. To his credit, he does not cannibalize his earlier work set in Lebanon, a story of violence and exile. In some ways, however, Cockroach can be seen as a follow-up to the first book: here is what happens when a refugee in a state of post-traumatic stress arrives on our shores. The rhythm in this book is circular; the narrator is going nowhere, and he’s not even going there very fast. Here is a new take on the immigrant novel: instead of wanting to succeed and rise to the top, the hero is willing just to scrape by. Only a flash of liberating violence at the very end of the book brings some relief.
The thing about cockroaches is that they know everyone’s business. The one in this book certainly does. He (if an insect can be called he) cuts a wide satirical swath through Montreal society, and with impressive energy; imagine Dany Laferrière’s How to Make Love to a Negro, but written in more depressive tones. The cockroach in Hage’s novel is convinced of his moral superiority because he knows what others around him cannot know, and the only time he shows any fellow-feeling is for the Iranian refugees he encounters. There, in the calculation of suffering, he has more than met his match. For their sake, he is willing to act.
David Homel is a Montreal writer and filmmaker, and the author of seven works of fiction.