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Archive for November, 2008

A review of Cockroach by Rawi Hage. House of Anansi Press. Toronto: 2008

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Rawi Hage’s second novel Cockroach takes place during a frigid Montreal winter and details the picaresque adventures of an unnamed protagonist, a recent immigrant from the Middle East and self-professed thief who often envisions himself as a giant cockroach. Hage is the recent winner of English literature’s richest prize, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, for his debut novel DeNiro’s Game (which I did not read); as such, there has been a considerable degree of anticipation for this new book.

There are two narrative arcs in this novel. The primary arc is a first-person description of the protagonist and his interactions within and without the shadowy émigré community of Montreal. The secondary arc provides the backstory of the protagonist’s family history in the old country as detailed to his government-appointed psychologist.

Hage writes with an almost relentless forward momentum, and the prose quickly takes hold of the reader by providing an intimate depiction of the protagonist’s underworld. The tone is persistently nihilistic (particularly in the first half), cynical, and dark. This is reflected in the actions of the unnamed protagonist, who breaks into the homes of his acquaintances for petty reasons (or none at all) and sells drugs to shallow and self-obsessed young Quebecois. These young cocaine-addled materialists who live “expensive apartments with faux shantytown architecture” are viciously described by the protagonist, who recognizes their implicit acceptance of him as nothing more than their latest exotic fashion accessory, another acquisition from the savage East. The following passages illustrate this gleefully sardonic tone (and there is much of this in the novel).

All of her friends, too, lived in a state of permanent denial of the bad smells from sewers, infested slums, unheated apartments, single mothers on welfare, worn-out clothing. No, everything had to be perfect, every morsel of food had to be well served — presentation, always presentation, the ultimate mask.

 … They were corrupt, empty, selfish, self-absorbed … I despised them; they admired me.

This unrelenting nihilism, untypical in many ways of Canadian literature, is coupled with a fascinating use of imagery. It is this imagery that has the greatest impact upon the reader. As the title implies, the protagonist views himself as a giant cockroach, quick and agile, feeding off the detritus of civil society, thriving in the dark and recognizing no boundaries and barriers. He comes to identify with the cockroaches infesting his apartment, to the point of conversing with a giant albino roach. He exists on the edge of madness, for reasons that become clear as the novel progresses.

Despite all the cynicism, surreal imagery, and nihilistic tone (which many have found offputting), the ultimate sense conveyed by the protagonist is a profound sense of loneliness. As he laments to his psychiatrist:

I just wanted to know you, I said. I just wanted to be invited in.

This loneliness is coupled with a deep sense of responsibility and shame by the protagonist at his failure to affect an earlier tragedy. The primary narrative arc of this novel is his attempt to atone for this tragedy. And as such, the novel is ultimately a novel of redemption.

I found it fascinating, a very quick read, and enjoyed the propulsive narrative style. The imagery stretches a bit too far in some cases, and parts of the second half are a bit slow, but these are minor complaints. I look forward to reading more from Hage in the future.

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A review of Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by  Margaret Atwood. Toronto: Anansi. 2008.

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Given the current worldwide economic malaise, it appears rather prescient that the 2008 Massey Lectures address the subject of debt. In these lectures, Margaret Atwood examines of the concept of debt as a motif in human society, particularly through an examination of metaphors of debt in western literature. As such, this book only obliquely deals with personal monetary debts. Rather, the focus is on the more general idea of debt in relation to justice, sin, redemption, balance, and revenge, among other topics.

Atwood begins with the idea of debt and its relationship to fairness, which is ingrained in the psyche of the human race (and other intelligent creatures). In early societies, notions of debt are aligned with justice, which is typically represented by a supernatural female figure. It is the emergence of Greece, and the induction of the court system described in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, that the idea of a female arbiter of fairness/justice (and thus of debt) is replaced, although the feminine image remains.

Next, Atwood describes the links between debt and sin. In heaven, debts are forgiven; in hell, debts are eternally paid back. The character of Satan is often portrayed as a collector of debts, and often described as wielding a ledger. With these notions of debt and sin, the creditor is often seen to be as sinful as the debtor, particularly in pre-industrial literature. Moreover, motifs of debt are always twinned with motifs of credit, one symbiotic with the other.

In the lecture on “Debt as plot”, Atwood examines the characters of Faust (as particularly exemplified by Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus) and Scrooge (of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol). In a fascinating passage, she wonders if Dickens wrote Scrooge as a reverse characterization of Faust:

Was Dickens consciously writing Scrooge as a reverse Faustus? … There are so many correspondences it is hard to avoid the thought: Faustus longs to fly through the air and visit distant times and places, Scrooge dreads it, both do it. Both have clerks – Wagner and Bob Cratchit – the one treated well by Faustus, the other treated badly by Scrooge. Marley is Scrooge’s Mephistopheles figure who carries his own Hell around with him… Everything Faustus does, Scrooge does backwards.

As someone who has been studying variations of the Faust legend for over a decade, I found this digression fascinating. The characters of Scrooge and Faust will loom large over the subsequent lectures in this book.

An examination of the shadow side of debt described in the title focuses on the ideas of punishment, resentment, and revenge, among others. The endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge exemplified in the myth of the house of Atreus are shown as analogous to cycles of debt and credit: one is a moral debt, the other a financial one. The solutions to both are laws (as exemplified in the Oresteia) or forgiveness (as exemplified by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission). The shadow side of the debtor is the creditor: hence we have Faust/Mephistopheles, Scrooge/Cratchit, and Antonio/Shylock. It was inevitable that a treatment of the motif of debt would include mention of The Merchant of Venice, and Atwood succeeds with a detailed and trenchant analysis of the relationship between Antonio and Shylock with regards to the debtor/creditor roles.

Payback is associated with redemption, and requires recognition on the debtor’s part of the debt incurred. In the concluding lecture, Atwood returns to Scrooge. Recognizing two archetypes in the Dickens tale (Scrooge Original, before his redemption, and Scrooge Lite, after his redemption), she introduces a third archetype for a new variation: Scrooge Nouveaux. This twenty-first century Scrooge is annoyingly narcissistic, at once astoundingly rich and astoundingly ignorant. He is visited not by the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future, but by the spirits of Earth Day past, present, and future. At this point, the narrative moves into a strong focus ecological ethics and the role of debt. The debtor, Scrooge Nouveaux, is a stand-in for all of us and our negligent razing of the planet, effectively racking up an enormous ecological debt from our creditor. We can either start to pay back through sustainable and ethical practices and receive the forgiveness of Gaia, or proceed with business as usual and face her revenge. As Scrooge Nouveaux begins the new day after the nocturnal visit of the three spirits, he thinks:

I don’t really own anything… Not even my body. Everything I have is only borrowed. I’m not really rich at all, I’m heavily in debt. How do I even begin to pay back what I owe? Where should I start?

 Scrooge Nouveaux’s thoughts apply to all of us. Where shall we begin?

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Memory and loss

A review of The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan (2008).

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There has been a recent trend among some journalists in Canada to reflexively dismiss what has been termed, often derisively, as “Canadian gothic.” Although the term is vague and not precisely defined, it is essentially accepted as dark, tragic, nineteenth-century rural Canadian narrative (for example, think Wuthering Heights transported to the Bruce Peninsula). Given this provisional definition, The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan falls into this category, but it would be a mistake to overlook this fine novel simply based on this categorization.

The Boys in the Trees is a heartbreaking tale of a terrible tragedy and how it transforms (and informs) a community, offset with notions of how memory, responsibility, forgiveness, and knowledge shape lives. The story asks the reader how memories of the past affects the life one lives now, how responsibility is to be determined when actions cannot be predicted, how forgiveness is essential to a contented life, and how knowledge about one another, and memory of the past, is necessarily incomplete.

The novel begins and ends (as its title suggests) with vignettes of boys in trees. The trees at the beginning of the novel offer refuge, a safe haven from abuse and despair for a young boy named William Heath, one determined to escape his miserable existence and determined that one day people will know his name. The trees at the end of the novel provide a vantage point another group of boys to witness the final results of a tragic choice.

After the brief vignette in the trees, we next see William as a young man with a family living in England. He is beset by a first brutal onslaught of tragedy that causes the family to flee to Canada – first Toronto, then the fictional town of Emden, Ontario. However, William is unable to escape his feelings of anxiety, despair, and failure that have accompanied him since childhood, setting the stage for a second and even more brutal tragedy. It is this tragedy that is dealt with in the remainder of the novel, with the citizens of Emden reflecting and acting upon their impressions of what happened. Swan is masterful here at describing the ripple effects of a tragic singularity on the lives and memory of those involved with the Heath family.

Swan writes in a resolutely non-linear format that suits her examinations of knowledge and identity. In particular, the second and third chapters are composed in fascinating contrapuntal narratives that slowly converge into their respective tragic conclusions. The remainder of the novel consists of individual non-linear narratives (recollections of the citizens of Emden at various points in time) that slowly offer the reader additional insight into the characters and events of the first three chapters yet leave many questions unanswered, signifying that the causes and motivations behind many events are ultimately unknowable, even by those closest to them.

One narrative follows a young boy named Eaton, a neighbour and friend to the Heath daughters. The tragedy provides a defining point in Eaton’s life, and assigns an infinite value to a secret gift that he will carry with him for the remainder of his life. Questions of guilt and responsibility continue to haunt Eaton even as his memory fades in old age.

Another narrative follows the Robinson family and how the main tragedy relates to and interacts with another within their own family. Again, questions of guilt and responsibility are examined, with a possible answer provided in the notion of forgiveness. Hints at guilt possibly lying elsewhere are suggested throughout the Robinson family narrative, and additional facets of the Heath family are provided by the Robinson women.

These narratives ask us: what can we really know of a person from their external appearance and outward actions? Swan shows that we can only glean facets, glimpses of knowledge that no matter how numerous will never coalesce into a whole, or even a reasonable representation of a whole. And moreover, this imperfect knowledge is ultimately doomed to fade away with the people holding it. Nevertheless, these accumulated facets can provide a rich description of characters and motives, even with many questions remaining unanswered.

This is remarkable debut by Mary Swan. It has been nominated for the 2008 Giller Prize, and in my opinion is the best of the four nominees I have read (having yet to read the Joseph Boyden entry, and not likely to finish it before the award is presented).  I strongly urge anyone interested in the future of Canadian literature to read this book. I certainly look forward to reading more of her work.

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