Canadian Author Weaves Bleak Immigrant Story

Canadian Author Weaves Bleak Immigrant Story

George Abraham
Khaleej Times Online
12 October 2008

In Rawi Hages telling, some among Canadas foreign-born population inhabit a parallel universe that is far removed from the rest of society. Others have compared immigrant life as a lonely walk in the snow, but for this countrys latest literary sensation its more like the furtive, darting life of a cockroach repulsive and something that can be squashed on a whim.

“Cockroach” is about newcomer lives that dont quite make it in this new land. A kitchen sink illustrates the cover, but like the allegorical reference of the title, the creatures that lurk in the plumbing below are invisible, hidden from view, coming alive only after sundown when the lights have been turned off. Fresh from winning the worlds richest IMPAC Dublin award last June for his debut novel De Niros Game, Mr Hage has done an encore.

There has been much speculation that Cockroach is loosely based on the authors own fitful career in Montreal as an artist since his arrival in 1991. But the author himself is chary of characterising his book as a social commentary or confirming that it extrapolates from his own travails including a stint as a cab driver in Canadas original cosmopolitan city.

Its not about me, Mr Hage has said in interviews. I dont think its as much about immigrants or immigration as it is about people living on the margins and they happen to be immigrants. Im not sure why everyone is so obsessed with tying me to a work of fiction. Like other writers, I draw on experiences and transform them.

The book promises to be transformative at many levels, shining the light on an aspect of immigrant life that has largely remained in the shadows. The novel delves into the grey, depressing reality of many an immigrant life in a way only the best fiction writers can. The books main character remains nameless throughout the books 300 pages. He is however not faceless, alternating between a male human and a cockroachs existence. Tellingly, he lives in Montreal.

This character is on the verge of desperation and has attempted suicide twice. The story unfolds as this cockroach of a man unburdens his woes to a psychotherapist assigned to get into his head and bring him back from the brink. The narrator knows the futility of these shrink sessions and tries to keep the therapist entertained with stories about his childhood in his unidentified war-torn homeland.

It is these episodes that provide readers a sense of what the man has been through before his arrival in Canada.

The narrator, who for a while works as a busboy at a fancy restaurant, wants to move up in life as a waiter. When he approaches the maitre d, he is told off gruffly: He looked at me with fixed, glittering eyes and said: Tu es un peu trop cuit pour a (you are a little too well done for that).

He ends up working as a busboy in another immigrants restaurant. In the wee hours, the cockroach is busy breaking into homes to steal food, clothes and even toilet paper. His buddies are other immigrants who are also struggling on Montreals fringes. They are welfare dependants, cocaine addicts and petty thieves who prey on old women.

In Mr Hages world, the cockroach has no redemptive qualities, except as a repulsive creature. It could be anywhere and everywhere, the only creatures capable of surviving nuclear incineration.

Mr Hage is perhaps at his best when he portrays the chasm that separates struggling immigrants and other Canadians. The cockroach describes his Canadian therapist as gentle, educated, but nave, (she is) sheltered by glaciers and prairies, thick forests, oceans and dancing seals.

In another instance, the author mocks the mainstream, for trying to keep out the herds of brownies and darkies by trying to attract the Parisians to settle in Quebec. Those Frenchies come here, and like the Qubcois they do not give birth. They abstain, or they block every fallopian tube and catch every sperm before the egg sizzles into canard lorange.

The books protagonist does not shy away from political commentary either. 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 You know, these countries we live in talk about democracy, but they do not want democracy. They want only dictators. It is easier for them to deal with dictators than to have democracy in the countries we come from.

In interviews, the author has been critical of Canadas immigration policy, charging that it is overly biased towards economic migrants, rather than refugees and those deserving of our humanitarian intervention.

But, he sees himself as quintessentially Canadian and his work as a Canadian book. Rather than looking in from the outside, Mr Hage considers himself part of the Canadian mainstream.

I feel fully immersed in the culture. I dont want to have to justify or assert my Canadian-ness, he has asserted.

George Abraham is an Ottawa-based commentator. Reach him at