The award-winning Lebanese author Rawi Hage speaks about his latest novel, Cockroach, and about how growing up in a conflict zone continues to influence his writing.
From the ground up
Sometimes a stormy past leaves scars that only writing can heal, and the 50-year-old Lebanese author Rawi Hage's novels reveal much about the hidden effects of war and the immigrant experience. He's lived through both - he was a teenager when the Lebanese Civil War broke out in the 1970s. Later that decade, he left for New York to scratch out a living as a taxi driver in a crime-ridden neighbourhood. His experience has informed both his books: 2006's award-winning De Niro's Game, in which two teenagers escape war-torn Beirut for Paris, and now Cockroach, where the specifics of war are replaced by the displacement that happens afterwards. When Hage chuckles that taxi driving in New York was "worse than the war", you know that you're in the company of someone who has seen - and perhaps tried to banish - a whole lot of bad experience.
Cockroach is, then, a natural follow-up to De Niro's Game. The characters are similar, and the underbelly of Montreal (Hage's actual home) replaces Paris as a place for Hage to bury a hero on the very edge of survival. But rather than a physical survival, this is a very personal struggle. His unnamed narrator is a self-confessed thief who has unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide. Haunted as he is by the guilt of his sister's death and his love for an Iranian woman, he tells his story to a therapist. When we meet him, he's penniless, loveless and starving. Is this Hage's way of explaining how hard being an immigrant is?
"Well, I'm completely aware that not all immigration stories are ones of hardship and exile," he says. "There's a passage in Cockroach where the narrator says as much, that he despises that elite who you find all over the western world, dripping in money. So of course, immigration is not so homogenous. There are different kinds, but I think actually I try to tackle them all. It's not so much about a character dealing with being an immigrant. It goes beyond that, I think. My characters are defiant. They're political. The fact that I chose this image of a cockroach is simply because they're the closest thing to the ground."
The cockroach is vitally important to the book. In addition to the title, it's why his second novel is more than just another "confessions to a shrink" tale. The narrator's fantasy is that he is half cockroach. It means that all of a sudden we can be propelled into Kafkaesque hallucinatory sequences where he can be undetected and do as he pleases. It also symbolises the deep disgust the narrator feels for humanity, for the moneyed elite.
"If I look at both books, when my characters are in some kind of trauma, psychosis or disillusion they try to escape," Hage says. "And the way they escape is through fantasy. In a way, it's another kind of madness, of course. I try to write in a form which can combine the situation they're in with some kind of delusion. So in De Niro's Game when he's being tortured, waterboarded, he escapes into this fantastical colonial journey."
Hage explains that these escapes might come to him in the context and process of writing, but they also often come from within, from dealing with events on a personal level. I wonder whether growing up during the Lebanese Civil War remains, even now, a source of great anguish. "A lot of my writing does come from something very painful within me, from growing up in the war in Beirut," he says. "I don't remember everything but one of the things that truly marked me was being in this shelter when we were being bombed for weeks on end. It was a really distressing time, and this neighbour of ours totally lost it. Since then I've always connected these moments of amazing stress to delusional behaviour, to fantasy, to wanting to escape, and I think that really does come across in my writing. It struck me just how much some people can create an entirely different world for themselves at times like that."
And if that is Kafkaesque (in The Metamorphosis Gregor Samsa turns into a beetle as he's saddled with debt) then Hage is unrepentant. "He's not an influence at all," Hage says. "In my view, Kafka doesn't and can't have a monopoly on acts of metamorphosis. I live in Canada and we have a very rich oral tradition from native people which often involves metamorphosis. And if you want, you can say that sort of thing goes right the way through to Spider-Man. It can be anything. I suppose there is the same atmosphere of oppression - that's probably more Kafka-like than the specifics of someone turning into an insect."
That oppression can sometimes be overbearing. The narrator's world is teeming with crime, hustlers, and bad people on the make. Thankfully, Hage thinks it vital to include moments of dark humour in stories about such suffocating circumstances. Even the botched suicide is bleakly funny and only important insofar as it gets the narrator talking to the therapist. But Cockroach does, despite the moments of crisis and despair, gently reveal itself as a positive book. It's difficult, at first, to find. But lines such as "Yes, I am poor, I am vermin, a bug. I am at the bottom of the scale. But I still exist" linger long in the memory.
"That sums up the narrator's feelings about class," says Hage. "Because the biggest weapon the poor have is democracy. Not only do they exist, they exist in quantity and they will never be wiped out. Much like cockroaches, when you see one you see hundreds, and as soon as you try and get rid of them they come back. They make more babies. There's a real power in just existing." And there's a real power in Cockroach's political subtext. Of course it's important to note that this is a book with a cracking narrative. Our "hero" has the chance to redeem himself for past mistakes in the moral dilemma that confronts him in the present, as his attention slowly turns from the slightly annoyed shopkeepers he initially steals from to shadowy Iranian fat cats. At the same time, it asks people to think a bit more carefully about the way the world is run. Hage - and this book - are obsessed with asking who we are and what we are doing to each other.
"Ultimately, yes, it's a socialist novel," he says. "I always try to have these characters who are suspicious of organisations. There are many movements in this world who try and reform the way we are but we end up in the middle of the road where, unfortunately, we do fail as humans. There is that much larger statement in my books, yes, but it does have to come through as part of a narrative." Hage seems to have a fierce commitment to style and plot, to the poetics and to the whole process of writing. He admits it takes him years of brooding on ideas before he can embark on the actual mechanics of being a novelist, and this comes across not just in satisfying and surprising plot twists but also in hugely redolent writing. Each description seems to hold a second or third meaning where usually one would have sufficed. There's a huge energy in the simple process of crossing the street: "the eccentric professor ran and crossed against the lights, jaywalking the red, the green, the yellow, the purple sky, the blue people, the pink dogs, the squirrels, the wet pavement." I read that excerpt back to him and he laughs.
"The way I write is very intuitive. It's something visceral, emotional. There is some kind of repetitiveness to it, and I suspect a lot of that comes from Arabic poetry. As kids, we were forced to stand up in class and recite these long poems. It wasn't so much about the content or how much you remembered, but the delivery. So that musical rhythm stayed with me. There's something very authoritative in these poems, repetitive and direct.
"But at the same time, it's not a deliberate thing. A feature of my writing - perhaps a danger to it - is that I'm not systematic about it. I've just developed a style where if I come up with a line that has that poetry to it in the middle of a narrative I'll inject it there and see if it works." It does, of course, to quite thrilling effect. That's his real achievement with Cockroach: he may be torn between poetry and prose, but it's mirrored in his narrator's battles with being human or primitive in order to survive. It's mirrored in cockroach fantasy and unflinching urban reality. It makes Hage a very special author, and his narrator a compelling creation.
"Maybe we all flip between reality and madness," he suggests. "I kind of alternate between the two when I write, and sometimes weave them both in at the same time. Even the act of writing is an act of madness in a way. Think about it: to write literature you have to create things from nowhere and truly believe them - and make other people believe them. I acknowledge and cherish that." And does he think, with Cockroach, he has fulfilled that goal? "Look, I just hope it's good literature in the end, from the politics to the style to the poetics. I have no objection in people getting lost in the beauty of words and images, but at the same time you do want it to make a difference, to expose injustices. Most of the time such a process as this, with those sorts of aims, is futile, I know that. But it doesn't mean you - and we as a human race - shouldn't keep on trying. That's the great thing about good fiction: somehow the characters always remain, and in remaining, they become the truth."
Cockroach (Hamish Hamilton) is out now.