"Cockroach" Has Lasting Power

Cockroach has lasting power

Paul Gessell
Canwest News Service
Published: Saturday, October 18, 2008

Immigrants to Canada can be divided into two main categories. There are those who, usually after a period of hardship, achieve the goals that brought them here in the first place. Then there are those who never quite seem to make it, remaining poor and disappointed, on the fringes of society, unable to move forward or to return home. Montreal author Rawi Hage is an example of the first kind of immigrant. Originally from Lebanon, Hage came to Canada in 1991, after nine years in New York. In Montreal, he did odd jobs and met with some modest success as a photo-based artist. Then he found fame, and even fortune, as the author of De Niro's Game, a 2006 novel about Lebanon's endless civil wars. The novel was nominated for both the Giller and Governor General's awards and, this year, won the $160,000 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the richest prize in the world for English-language fiction.

The other kind of immigrant is found in Hage's bleak new novel, Cockroach. Hage's second book is an angry and disturbing look at the immigrants who populate a harsh, hidden world that operates like some dark, parallel universe below the radar of most of Canada's whitebread society. These are the immigrants who arrive with horrifying backstories of wars, torture and missing relatives. They are condemned to carry their past like humps on their backs. That disfiguring extra weight hinders their economic progress and social integration. The unnamed narrator of Cockroach comes from an unnamed country that seems a lot like Lebanon, but could really be any place with too many guns. We soon discover he has a way with the ladies, feels compelled to break into the homes of acquaintances to root around their personal possessions and is undergoing psychotherapy by an inept psychologist because of a failed suicide attempt. He would have shot himself, he explains, had he the money for a gun or knew how to find one in Canada. Instead, he tried to hang himself from a tree branch. The branch broke. He survived. This man is so inept he can't even kill himself. He's such a loser that he finds himself being accused of stealing friends' toilet paper. He feels so unworthy that he calls himself a cockroach. That imagery of this man as a cockroach insinuates itself most frightfully throughout the book.

So, is this cockroach a man mentally deranged, perhaps because of the civil war and family violence he experienced in his homeland? Or is he a cockroach because he is perceived as a bothersome low-life by mainstream Canadians who can not or will not even attempt to understand the shocking past bundled up in that hump on his back?

Such questions fester at the heart of Hage's book. These are difficult questions because simply asking them suggests that Canada is not as caring and egalitarian a society as we like to boast and that not all immigrants have rags-to-riches stories. This is not the first time Hage has butted heads with the Canadian establishment. In 2001, Hage, the photographer, was among a group of Arab-Canadian artists scheduled to have an exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Civilization mere days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Museum officials postponed the show indefinitely, fearing visitors would see the art only in the context of terrorism. Hage and his fellow artists protested. Their voices were heard by the prime minister of the day, Jean Chretien, whose Liberals were joined by all parties in the Commons urging the museum to hold the show. The museum listened and the exhibition was held. The narrator in Cockroach does not have the powerful allies Hage managed to marshall in 2001. In fact, his friends are few, although he is engaged in an intermittent affair with the alluring Shahran, a woman who has come to Canada after being jailed and tortured in her homeland of Iran.

Shahran, the narrator and their strange menagerie of fellow immigrants populate this parallel universe of broken dreams and chilling memories. They use and abuse one another and are used and abused by those who have real jobs, nice homes and family dinners. The narrator gets a job as a busboy in an Iranian restaurant in Montreal. Shahran discovers one of the restaurant's regular VIP customers is the man who tortured her in Iran. She and the “cockroach” plot revenge.

The final, climactic scene in the restaurant unspools as abruptly and violently as a punch that knocks the breath from your lungs. You are left stunned, gasping for air and realizing that Hage has done it again.


By Rawi Hage
House of Anansi, $29.95