Behold the Immigrant Male, North American edition. He is a horror: a debauchee who pleads with a 16-year-old girl to let him ‘see’; a sweaty, smelly, barbaric impostor among his pale-faced countrymen; a scar across their smooth sense of progress and reason, their ‘state of permanent denial of the bad smells from sewers, infested slums, unheated apartments, single mothers on welfare, worn-out clothing’.
That, at least, is Rawi Hage’s idea in Cockroach, his second novel; his first, De Niro’s Game, concerned a young anti-hero’s efforts to escape Lebanon’s civil war. Immigrant literature is hardly a niche industry in the United States and Canada (Hage is of Lebanese descent and lives in Montreal). Indeed, Pico Iyer made the case in Harper’s Magazine that in Canada it is the national literature. We have had striving immigrants (Ha Jin’s A Free Life), bewildered immigrants (Gary Shteyngart’s novels), immigrants who anticipate the multiculturalist future better than the natives (the Canadian crop profiled by Iyer, including Neil Bissoondath and Madeleine Thien), and immigrants who think multiculturalism is dangerously naive, even as they benefit from it.
But we have not had an immigrant as viciously disaffected, as comprehensively alienated, as the unnamed narrator of Cockroach. A runaway to Canada from an unspecified Middle Eastern country (Lebanon, in everything but name) who has failed in a suicide attempt and now trawls Montreal’s poverty-stricken underground, our hero does not believe. The dream of making it, in one sense or another, that is an immigrant’s first buy-in to his adopted culture, that hopefulness and sense of possibility: he won’t have any of it. (I’m talking of course about immigrants to the capitalist West.)
The specific cause of his disenchantment is initially unclear. (It may be that he came to Canada not by choice but because it was the easiest place for a war-blasted refugee to seek asylum – that at any rate is how it seems in the earlier novel.) Our first, dutifully liberal impression is a familiar one: it’s the natives’ fault: the sensible, materialistic, impersonal natives who don’t understand the value of soul and impracticality. ‘Not even a nod in this cold place, not even a timid wave, not a smile from below red, sniffing, blowing noses,’ the narrator complains. ‘How did I end up trapped in a constantly shivering carcass, walking in a frozen city with wet cotton falling on me all the time? And on top of it all, I am hungry, impoverished, and have no one, no one . . .’ The titans of business and industry who stride purposefully down the rain-slicked Montreal streets ignore him, and for the strenuously slumming bohemians he is nothing more than an accessory, ‘the fuckable, exotic, dangerous foreigner’ who is a fool to long for a lasting, genuine connection with these authenticity junkies. They
will eventually float down, take off their colourful, exotic costumes, and wear their fathers’ three-piece suits . . . I will envy them when they are perched like monarchs on chairs, shamelessly having their black shoes shined, high above crouched men with black nails feathering and swinging horsehair brushes across their corporate ankles. At the tap of the shoeshiners, the Brahmins will fold their newspapers, stand up and fix their ties, scoop out their pockets for change, and toss a few coins in the air to the workingmen below. And they will step onto ascending elevators, give firm handshakes, receive pats on their backs, smooth their hair in the tinted glass of high-rises. Their radiant shoes will shine like mirrors and their light steps will echo in company corridors to murmurs of ‘See you at the barbecue, and give my regards to your lovely spouse.’
The narrator is painfully conscious of the charade, but he can’t afford to forgo the rewards of dutifully playing his role – a free meal, an occasional coupling. And so he doles out the minstrelsy in carefully calibrated doses. ‘The exotic has to be modified here – not too authentic, not too spicy or too smelly, just enough of it to remind others of a fantasy elsewhere.’
The narrator’s adopted homeland, and the grievances it inspires, is embodied most directly by Genevieve, a state-mandated therapist who will determine whether he requires institutionalisation as a result of his suicide attempt. Genevieve only wants to help – and she seems gullible enough to assume that her charge only wants that himself. In an early meeting, she batters him with questions, and when he proves flippant and evasive, scolds him with a schoolmistress’s thin patience: ‘I am here to help you. You have to trust me. I am here because you need help. You have to tell me more about your childhood.’ She is apparently too obtuse to understand that all the answers she needs are in the narrator’s elisions.
On another occasion, when the narrator tells her that ‘a gun could be useful’ amid the violence of what is presumably the Lebanese civil war, she seems perplexed by his view that ‘pacifism is a luxury,’ unable to imagine a patient who resorted to violence out of need rather than desire. Even after many meetings, she is dense enough to ask: ‘Did you have a licence for [the gun]?’ He asks incredulously: ‘A licence, doctor? You make me laugh sometimes.’ To himself, he thinks: ‘Simple woman . . . Gentle, educated, but naive, she is sheltered by glaciers and prairies, thick forests, oceans and dancing seals.’
Despite Genevieve’s ostensibly clinical demeanour, the narrator wants us to understand that she is no different from the vegetarian recyclers who experience a special frisson of authenticity whenever a foreign accent enters the room. As he gradually reveals his background, she becomes so engrossed in the primal stories of his war-torn country – a kind of cinema next to the drab prosperity of her own life – that she doesn’t want him to stop even when his time is up. And he, in turn, knows how to oblige. As he spins the yarns that keep Genevieve enraptured, he is like Scheherazade deferring his own doom (institutionalisation), a ‘monkey with the music box’ helping a native to her daily dose of hardship porn. ‘How naive and innocent this woman is, I thought. If she only knew what I am capable of.’
So far, we’ve been nodding along, seduced by a comfortingly familiar story told by a narrator who knows how to say what his audience wants to hear. But eventually, the portrait of Genevieve/Canada comes to seem a little one-sided. When, during the conversation about pacifism, the narrator says, disdainfully, ‘You can be a pacifist because you have a job and a nice house,’ even Genevieve is driven to object: ‘Not everyone who grew up here has a job or a house. There are many poor people who grew up here.’ We gradually realise that something else is to blame for his viciously pessimistic view of himself and the world.
In fact, the narrator has been hinting at his unreliability all along. To begin with, as he confesses early on, he’s hardly a guide to the natives: he barely interacts with anyone outside ‘a few newcomers to this land’. And his propensity for the unflattering view is so unrelenting, his eagerness to expose sin so compulsive – ‘I see people for what they are. I strip them of everything and see their hollowness. I strip them, and they are relieved of the burden of colour and disguise’ – that we slowly realise he’s not really in the market for enchantment in the first place. It comes to seem as though he wants to be oppressed, because he deserves no better. And the reasons, as they emerge during his sessions with Genevieve, have nothing at all to do with Canada: Canada is a cipher, an innocent, laughable villain when compared with the narrator’s homeland, or with Iran, the birthplace of most of the few friends he has – places of wanton violence, religious hypocrisy, barbaric misogyny, and profound spiritual, material and political corruption.
The narrator’s own bleak story revolves around his older sister, Souad, whose voice was so precious, her presence
so enchanting that no clergy cared to object, no man in her presence had indecent thoughts about her, and no woman in the audience was jealous of her firm breasts, her generous, curly pubic hair, her long, wavy locks that covered her buttocks, her radish-coloured nipples . . . She was respected . . . she would never be preyed upon by some military man who would deflower her, eject sperm into her belly to inflate her uterus, swell her ankles, fill her bosom with milk.
Until, that is, ‘one of those men’, a militia fighter named Tony, appears below the balcony, ‘smiling at my sister, stepping on the gas to make his sports car roar and fume’. He pays for her groceries, calls her Madame, whispers into her ear. And soon enough they elope. Under threat of Tony’s gun, a priest is compelled to marry them despite the fact that Souad is underage: Tony ‘finished his drink . . . deflowered her, and when she asked for money to buy food he beat her’.
When the narrator sees his sister again, her cheeks are as puffy as her round belly, and her legs are thick cylinders. A shame to her family, for her husband she is mainly an object of scorn. ‘I wanted to kill him,’ the narrator confides, ‘but I was young and he was older and stronger . . . I should have said something. But I did not.’ When, on another occasion, Souad runs back home with black rings around her eyes, the narrator swears revenge. Not only on Tony, but on a whole culture – his father beat his mother, as his grandfather beat his grandmother – in which women are terrified of defending themselves, at best, out of shame, at worst, because they fear retribution. ‘Would you kill the father of my child?’ Souad rants. ‘And when my daughter Mona grows up and asks me where her father is, I will tell her, your uncle put a bullet in his head . . . Look, you are not so different, my father is not so different. I am surrounded by men that come from the same mould.’ The narrator can deliver justice only by adding to his nation’s burden of violence.
As it happens, he can’t muster the wherewithal. On one occasion, Tony contemptuously brushes him off – he doesn’t take his threats seriously. On another, having acquired a gun, he can only shoot to miss, in the hope that Tony will get out of their lives. But he leaves only briefly, and when he returns, the narrator’s plans for revenge go horribly wrong. But even then, with Tony taunting him to shoot, he ‘couldn’t pull the trigger’.
The narrator is a defeated man, his own decency spun into cowardice, and at an inconceivable price. This, as much as anything else, accounts for his self-loathing, and the masochistic pleasure he seems to take in it. He is a shameless voyeur who hasn’t a shred of respect for Genevieve; a lecher who fantasises about his sister and the 16-year-old daughter of the owner of the Persian restaurant where he works as a busboy; the cockroach of the title who alternates between feelings of worthlessness and the pride that comes from having no illusions. He will not be made to believe again. He has been left with little, but that choice, at least, is up to him.
The narrator’s story gradually intersects with that of his occasional lover Shohreh, an Iranian woman. Visiting the restaurant where the narrator works, Shohreh breaks down when she recognises, seated as a guest of honour, the Iranian jailer who used to rape her during her imprisonment for taking part in student protests. When the narrator is sent to ‘make sure the bathroom was clean’ for the visitor ‘and to make sure there was an empty bottle above the sink’, Shohreh erupts. ‘Yes! . . . to clean himself, that religious hypocrite, after he takes a piss. He never cleaned himself before he made me spread my legs.’ After this revelation, Shohreh’s casual relationship with the narrator turns intensely intimate, as if the trauma of their shared histories has made anything less seem shamefully cavalier.
Hage sounds a new note in immigrant fiction, at least for North America, where immigrant narratives rarely address the motherland with such fury, too many contenting themselves with chronicling the collision with a resolutely foreign adopted culture. Hage goes further, and his readers press up against the glass a little more closely when the narrative returns to the Middle East. Our interest is genuine – this mostly plotless novel whips by much more rapidly when the narrator returns to stories from home – but it’s voyeuristic and complicit too. We have bought in, and our interest subsidises the author and the sins of his homeland alike. You can’t have one without the other.
In more incriminating ways as well, the irony for Hage is that Canada’s welcome is as generous to political refugees as it is to the regimes that abused them. (And it isn’t always so generous: ‘You are a little too well done for that . . . the sun has burned your face a bit too much,’ a maître d’ called Pierre tells the narrator when he applies for a job as a waiter.) The Iranian torturer who patronises the restaurant where the narrator works is accompanied by a Canadian bodyguard – ‘Canada is selling weapon parts to Iran . . . They want to make sure he stays well and that the deal goes through.’ As an Iranian exile explains to the narrator, ‘You know, we come to these countries for refuge and to find better lives, but it is these countries that made us leave our homes in the first place . . . They do not want democracy. They want only dictators. It is easier for them to deal with dictators.’
Hage is a devastatingly precise writer. Consider the innocently declarative pair of sentences with which the narrator explains himself to Genevieve: ‘I prefer not to be here, but when I was spotted hanging from a rope around a tree branch, some jogger in spandex ran over and called the park police. Two of those mounted police came galloping to the rescue on the backs of their magnificent horses.’ (My italics.) Single words that say everything: the humiliating absurdity of an immigrant’s death wish snuffed by a heedlessly well-wishing native in spandex; the irredeemable foreignness conveyed by ‘those’ mounted police; the unattainable majesty of nativeness telegraphed by the magnificence of those horses.
The narrator’s perspective is off-kilter in every imaginable sense. ‘His large body secured a void around it,’ he writes of a man dancing. Or: ‘I winked at Genevieve, but I must have aimed a little to the left because my wink bounced off a cheap reproduction of a Matisse painting of a vase and flowers.’ Like a child toying with a new mystery – and what is an immigrant if not a temporary child, unschooled and inept in a new place? – he pauses to pick apart everything he encounters. (How do things work here?) Almost as a tic, he follows objects most of us are too busy to consider back to their source:
Sometimes when I picked up a spoon or a fork, I swear I could still feel the warmth of a customer’s lips. By the shape of the food residue, I could tell if the customer had tightened her lips on the last piece of cake . . . When she is happy, delighted with the food, a woman will slowly pull the spoon from her tightened mouth and let it hang a while in front of her lips, breathe over it, and shift it slightly to catch the candlelight’s reflection. It saddened me to erase happiness with water.
A jobless, moneyless immigrant ignored by his compatriots – he is so alienated that there isn’t a single Arab or Christian in his modest group of friends – he pursues the secret life of inanimate objects. His pipes ‘gurgle with thirst and hollowness’; he asks the city wind to cool a meal for him. Refusing to be confined by the morose bonds of realism, he confronts his self-loathing in the most literal way and ‘transforms’ into a cockroach, infiltrating apartments out of curiosity or revenge. At one point, he slips the chains of corporeal being, crawling inside another character’s dream. It’s certainly one way to eradicate the noisome sensuality of the immigrant body. (As the narrator insists, ‘Nothing corporeal, nothing natural, should emanate from a servant.’)
The estrangement operates linguistically as well. The narrator deconstructs the idioms that spill mechanically from native mouths. A native says ‘bread riots’; Hage’s narrator says: ‘[Farhoud] offered me soup that released a vapour thick as sweat, and bread that incited riots, and a little salad . . .’ One of his favourite instruments is the untoward adjective in front of a noun, a mainstay of other immigrant writers, such as the Croatian-American Josip Novakovich: ‘As he said this, his eyebrows danced and he swayed his musical head, dimmed his eyes, and smiled.’ Sometimes, he simply invents a creatively awkward locution: ‘My teeth felt as if they were growing points.’ And sometimes, there’s nothing more going on than the grace and rhythm of the writing. A perfectly ordinary, typical paragraph:
She turned, poured, and waved her spoon at me like a conductor. And then the little china cup came shimmering above my lap, and gold traces on the inner rim of the porcelain were lapped by golden tea, subtle, austere and expensive tea, now surrounded by a delicate saucer and the elaborate high handle of a white cup that made my pinky tingle and stand erect, a nation’s pride.
If only the narrator applied these singular energies to finding employment, we think in overly rational moments. But, this, too is the rejectionist’s counterintuitive freedom. The narrator will ‘waste’ his mind on beautiful sentences; he will not look for gainful employment just because everyone else looks for gainful employment; after all, isn’t it his idleness that makes possible the time and alienation to see things in the way that he does?
The novel concludes with a plot point that serves as a kind of redemption for the narrator – peculiarly, both of Hage’s novels begin as defiantly plotless pleasures of voice, rhythm and sensibility and end in plot-driven, page-turning drama – but it seems almost unnecessary. The narrator has already found his courage and earned back his dignity, a form of self-possession impervious to regimes both evil and well-meaning.