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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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