The narrator of Rawi Hage’s second novel is a nameless immigrant from a nameless war-torn country, struggling to survive in Montreal, “this city with its case of chronic snow.” The story opens shortly after his botched attempt to hang himself in a city park. This failed suicide results in court mandated therapy sessions with a naïve young counselor named Genevieve. What follows is a bleak, existentialist survival tale—the 21st century spawn of Dostoevsky and Kafka, replete with crime, drugs, and sex.
Born in Beirut, Hage lived through nine years of Lebanese civil war before immigrating to Canada in 1992. His debut novel De Niro’s Game, winner of the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, told the story of two young men on the ravaged streets of Beirut. In Cockroach, Hage fixes his gaze on the exile experience, delivering a cast of characters from Iran, France, Macedonia, Algeria, and elsewhere, all united by their alienation, and by the adversities they overcame to arrive in frosty Quebec.
Be warned: you will rarely encounter such a misanthropic narrator. Between therapy sessions and welfare checks, our anti-hero passes his hours lurking around the apartments of friends and strangers, scrounging for crumbs, money, and dope. In raw, bleak passages, Hage sheds light on those corners where the unwanted scavenge. “The underground, my friend, is a world of its own,” the narrator tells us. “Other humans gaze at the sky, but I say unto you, the only way through the world is to pass through the underground.”
In the novel’s boldest aesthetic turn, whenever greed or lust overtake the narrator, he succumbs to a “mysterious, mutant urge.” Antennae and sharp teeth protrude from his head. He becomes one of the cockroaches that “salivate like little dogs” in his apartment. Hage uses spare, unassuming language to turn his narrator into a cockroach not once, not twice, but a dozen or more times throughout the novel. The transmogrification is temporary, yet more menacing than Gregor Samsa’s, such as when the narrator sneaks into Genevieve’s house through the basement plumbing. “I sprang from her kitchen drain, fixed my hair, my clothes, my self, and walked straight to her bedroom…she had a large bed, unmade. I crawled up onto it and sniffed her pillow and bathed in the scent of her sheets…I wanted to see what she saw before taking off her glasses, before she closed her eyes for the day.”
Cockroach is an unsettling trip through the underground, a painful meditation on exile and isolation. In a noir style punctuated with lyric passages, Hage delivers a character who is slimy and unpredictable, yet admirable merely for his ability to survive. As the secrets of his past uncoil, we can’t help but agree with his attitude toward his therapist: “If only she knew what I am capable of.”
Cockroach by Rawi Hage
W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2009
305 pages. $23.95 hardcover.