by Rawi Hage
“All those who leave immigrate to better their lives”, says the narrator of Rawi Hage’s COCKROACH, “but I wanted to better my death.” We first meet him in a psychiatrist’s office, following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, and a stay in a psychiatric hospital. As the story unfolds, we gradually discover the reasons for his abiding death-wish, which lie in his violent past in an unnamed country.
It’s rage that provides the thrust of this vivid, challenging novel. Our (also unnamed) narrator is disgusted with his squalid life in the immigrant community of Montreal: “Why should I smell poverty? I live it!”, but he is equally vituperative toward the wealthier people who come to the restaurant where he works. He hates the Montreal weather, resenting the cold, slush and snow. He hates his apartment, where he fights a war of attrition against a horde of cockroaches. But most of all, he is furious with himself, and his own cockroach-like ability to survive. Only when he falls in love with Shoreh, a beautiful, damaged Iranian immigrant, does he begin to find some self-respect and purpose again.
He’s not a particularly likeable man, our narrator: a petty criminal, he lies, steals, bullies more vulnerable immigrants, spies on people, breaks into their homes, and indulges in sexual fantasies about every woman he meets, including the teenage daughter of his employer. Yet I continued reading, drawn in by the narrator’s picaresque wit, and the intensely lived, tactile quality of the writing, that is full of exuberant imagery: on one of the narrator’s many imaginary trips down into the drains, he tells us, “there, my friend, you can encounter rivers of steam … noisy crickets, crocodiles, muddy rivers, green fungus arching like wallpaper over trees, and expert scuba-diving rats”. It’s silly, and yet terrifying, when in a drug-induced hallucination he comes face-to-face with his alter-ego, the “gigantic striped albino cockroach” who tells him, “The world ended for you a long time ago.”
Rawi Hage won the Impac prize in 2008 for his debut novel, DE NIRO’S GAME, and his is clearly a significant talent. At times his scatter-gun, hate-it-all approach feels hopelessly nihilistic, while the political, humanistic points he is trying to make get lost in his immensely detailed imagery. But overall I enjoyed this novel, which raises salient modern questions about immigration, identity, history, and the difficulty of being entirely at ease with who (and what) we are.
Published by Hamish Hamilton, 320pp.