Top critical review
A scuttle through immigrant life
on 22 April 2011
What to say about Rawi Hage's "Cockroach"? Certainly it is an interesting book, or perhaps an interesting two books. One strand of the novel, the Canadian section, is a dark picaresque, in which an alienated, self-loathing and quondam-suicidal Lebanese immigrant takes out his alienation and self-loathing both on the place he has wound up in - a cold, bland, indifferent Quebec - and on his fellow refugees from a corrupt and/or war-torn Middle East, all the while seeing himself as a cockroach, an unseen scuttler in the shadows, a lover of dirt and darkness, a thief of other's leavings. This part of the story is told in a series of near-plotless episodes, related in elegant sentences which sometimes stretch out a little too far.
The other part of the story, the Middle-Eastern section, is made up from our cockroach's recollections of his youth, recollections told with an immediacy often lacking in the drifting tale of a poor immigrant in Canada. It is during these sections that pages turn faster and the reader is keenest to hear more. Not only is this where the large part of the novel's action occurs, it is also where insights into the causes of the narrator's self-loathing are provided.
In binding these twin strands of his novel, Hage performs a neat authorial trick: the tales of the narrator's Middle Eastern youth are related during his regular meetings with his state-appointed Canadian psychiatrist, Genevieve, who is assessing him after his suicide attempt. A representative of the West's half-hearted and unimaginative do-goodery, it soon becomes clear that she is not merely professionally interested in her patient's reminiscences but also getting a voyeuristic thrill from them, the same voyeuristic thrill as the reader. In the same way her complaints about the aimless drift of the narrator's life also seem to reflect readers' (or, at least, this reader's) occasional irritation about the lack of plot in the Canadian sections of the novel. There is both skill and wit in this device and in the way it is employed.
But is this really enough? The narrator is so angry with and/or despairing of himself and all around him that the journey alongside him can be as hard going as any of his trudges through the deep Canadian snow. The book gains considerable pace the further one gets into it but at times this feels like a short tale of guns and vengeance has been tacked on to give some structure to the rambling main tale.
An interesting story then, told with skill, but gripping? Highly recommended? Not really, but definitely worth a look.