The unnamed narrator is an exile from an unnamed Middle Eastern country resembling Lebanon, which Rawi Hage left as a young man. The novel is set in Montreal, where Hage now lives. The narrator has attempted suicide, is being treated by a female psychiatrist and thinks he’s a cockroach, which is presumably where the resemblance to the author ends.
Our hero, for want of a better word, is a thief, drug-user and womaniser, whose mental health has been slowly disintegrating since he was forced to flee his homeland for reasons which remain unclear until towards the end of the novel. He likes to tail people he meets, even his psychiatrist, break into their homes and rifle through their possessions, not just for material gain but also to uncover their most intimate secrets. His only intimate relationship is with Shohreh, an Iranian exile who has suffered appallingly in Khomeini’s jails before finding refuge in Canada. He gets a part-time job in an Iranian restaurant, where his main preoccupation is trying to seduce the owner’s teenage daughter until the opportunity fortuitously arises to help Shohreh take revenge on a high-ranking Iranian official who had repeatedly raped her in prison.
The narrator charts his own descent into insanity while cogently describing the world around him (but not acknowledging any debt to Kafka). In his criminal lifestyle and growing madness, he has something in common with Engleby, the eponymous central character in Sebastian Faulks’s recent novel. It is a tough trick for a novelist to pull off, but one which Hage manages pretty well.
The condition of exile is at the core of the book. The life of Montreal’s refugee community and the dislocation both physical and mental that it can provoke are vividly described.
Hage provides a rich galère of characters stuck in the snowbound north while yearning for their sunny homelands, yet knowing in their hearts that they are unlikely ever to be able to return. It provides plenty of food for thought for those of us fortunate enough never to have to contemplate such a dispiriting prospect.
With his first novel, De Niro’s Game, set in Lebanon, Hage won the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, at €100,000 the most valuable single English-language book prize in the world and a handy windfall for a previously unknown writer. It was a shrewd choice by the judges. Hage writes succinctly and sensitively: it will be interesting to see whethe in his future work he extends his range beyond the claustrophobic world of exile and despair that he clearly knows all too well.