Rawi Hage

Rawi Hage, novelist, photographer (b Beirut, Lebanon 1964). As a young man growing up in Beirut and Cyprus during the years of the Lebanese civil war, Rawi Hage experienced life in a war zone directly. He left Lebanon in 1984 and lived, sometimes in conditions of considerable hardship, in New York, where he studied at the New York Institute of Photography. He immigrated to Canada in 1991, continuing his studies at Dawson College and CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY while supporting himself by working as a night security guard, taxi driver and photographer (he has exhibited in a number of countries, including Canada). Hage's novels have garnered widespread praise for their portrayal of war, exile and the immigrant experience.

Hage's first novel, De Niro's Game (2006), grew out of a short story on which he was working after having received a grant from the Quebec Council of Arts and Letters. "I am fleeing and leaving this land to its devils," says the antihero, Bassam, of Lebanon in De Niro's Game. Much of the protagonist's time is spent lethargically planning his escape while lying on his bed indifferently awaiting the next attack. He eventually succeeds in leaving civil war-torn Beirut, a city of bombs and bloodshed, to arrive in Paris, superficially a peaceful centre of European civilisation. Once there, however, it is to find that his experience as an illegal immigrant, and the dictates of his own character, created and fostered by a violent past, make life impossible for him there. "Paris has no falling bombs" he reflects, "Paris is a mute city." This contrasts poignantly with the oft-repeated, almost incantatory summation of the tragedy of the Lebanon: "ten thousand bombs had fallen on Beirut."

Bassam's childhood friend, his "brother," fellow conspirator and perpetrator of many reckless escapades, George, who is known as "De Niro," is tightly bound by ties of family, temperament and self-interest to Beirut. He is gradually drawn further and further into the treacheries and shifting allegiances of the various factions and illicit militias thriving in the stew of corruption, blackmail and racketeering that civil war fosters. Contrasting belief systems strain relations between the two men, resulting in betrayal and leading to a final confrontation that will inevitably be fatal for one or the other. As the title of the novel hints, the denouement owes much to the culminating scene of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, a film portrayed in the novel as much admired by Lebanese militiamen. The novel was shortlisted for the SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE and the GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD in 2006, and in 2008 won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

The theme of alienation is reiterated and elaborated in Hage's second novel, Cockroach (2008). Sometimes seen as a species of sequel, here the setting is Canada. The protagonist, never named, probably from Iran, is living on the fringes of the Montréal immigrant community in impoverished conditions: "I cursed the plane that had brought me to this harsh terrain ... this city with its case of chronic snow." A framing device for the novel is the protagonist's sessions with a naïve therapist after a failed suicide attempt. From an extended portrayal of the predicament of the central character, and his highly idiosyncratic actions and ideas - including the belief that his desires cause him to be transformed into the cockroach of the title - the novel gains pace and becomes more violent as the protagonist's lover seeks to revenge herself upon an official who raped and tortured her in Iran. The novel was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award in 2008.

Because of the insect metaphor running through the work, a rather facile comparison is often made of Cockroach to Kafka's Metamorphosis, a parallel Hage repudiates. Although both of Hage's novels undoubtedly owe a debt to existential writers such as Kafka, Sartre and Camus - in De Niro's Game Bassam is portrayed reading L'etranger in Paris - there is a complex mixture of influences at play, reflecting Hage's eastern as well as western literary heritage. It is no coincidence therefore that Hage has reiterated his self-definition as a global citizen and a cosmopolitan writer. This is reflected notably in his style, which has sometimes been described as "hallucinatory." It is, rather, an intercutting of passages of tightly constructed, terse and sometimes violent speech and action with descriptive sections that often contain extended metaphor and simile with roots in the imagery of Persian poetry. Although occasionally too diffuse to be successful in a prose setting, the effect of such language on the reader can often be both striking and revelatory.