restricted access Cockroach (review)
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Reviewed by
Rawi Hage. Cockroach. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2008. 312 pp. $29.95 hc.

Successor to his debut novel, De Niro’s Game (2006), which was nominated for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award, and the Writers’ Trust Award, Rawi Hage’s Cockroach, although nominated for all of these awards, eventually won only the international IMPAC Dublin Award. Nevertheless, Cockroach is a worthy contender, and will not disappoint. This compelling novel offers readers not only the multiple pleasures of a carefully crafted and beautifully written narrative, peopled with unforgettable characters, but also myriad opportunities to garner important insights into what are arguably the defining and inextricably connected features of our age: the fragmented and hierarchical social and cultural geography of our increasingly diverse cities; the painful dualities and contradictions that shape the experiences of contemporary migrants, particularly refugees from war-torn countries; the moral complexities of our violent, post-colonial, post-9/11 world, and the convoluted logic of the human heart as it confronts a confusing plethora of potentially paralyzing dilemmas.

Now in his mid-forties, Rawi Hage, who was born in Beruit, Lebanon, and immigrated to Montreal in 1992, after spending time in New York City, has lived in the worlds he writes about in both of his deeply inter-connected novels: De Niro’s Game portrays the experiences of a young man growing up in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War of the late 1970s and early 1980’s; Cockroach portrays the experiences of a young man who has come to Canada as a refugee from somewhere in the Middle East and has been living in Montreal for several years. Rich with inter-textual echoes (e.g., Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” Burrough’s Naked Lunch, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as Le Carré’s many evocations of nefarious international operators and Richler’s denizens of Montreal’s “invisible ghettos”), Cockroach crosses several genres to create a claustrophic and nightmarish landscape that is at once unspeakably sad, strikingly ironic, surprisingly suspenseful, and wickedly funny. As the novel’s not-altogether-reliable narrator, a young, Middle-Eastern refugee is at its structural and thematic centre. Seemingly incorrigible, he is a self-confessed compulsive seducer of women and an inveterate liar and thief, as well as being mentally unstable. (This unnamed figure has recently attempted suicide by trying to hang himself from a tree in a public park, his attempt having been foiled by his failure to find a high enough branch and by the timely entry of the Mounties on horseback.) His running commentary [End Page 233] on his thoughts and activities, his reports of conversations with the novel’s motley characters, and his angry descriptions of a largely inhospitable physical and social landscape give us a less-than-flattering vision of Montreal, as well as a disturbingly close-up look at the lives of some of its most marginalized inhabitants.

The world his narration conjures up is always balanced precariously between life and death, light and darkness, hope and despair—an effect that Hage creates through his crafting of both form and content. Each of Cockroach’s six chapters centres on the narrator’s visits to his therapist, Genevieve—visits that the state now requires him to make following his suicide attempt. This structuring device highlights the growing precariousness of his mental state, as well as the inefficacy of the therapist’s interventions, given the unbridgeable gap between her experiences and sensibilities and his. That the narrator’s situation is truly desperate, though belied by his at once self-serving and self-deprecating banter, becomes increasingly apparent as we eavesdrop on his fruitless visits with Genevieve and follow him up and down the frozen streets of the city, where he sees nothing but “the grey roads, the grey buildings, …the grey people,” a place where the fate of everything is to turn cold and ultimately to freeze (116). The precariousness of this world, in which the narrator feels himself “split between two planes…aware of two existences” (119), where even his tears feel like those of someone else, is also created by Hage’s skillful development of the duality motif so...