Rawi Hage came to Canada (via New York City) from Lebanon, where his first novel, DeNiro’s Game, is set. Quite the debut it was, pulling in such prizes as the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2008 and two QWF prizes: McAuslan First Book Prize and the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2006. The civil war in Lebanon is revisited in his second novel, Cockroach, about a suicidal thief in Montreal undergoing therapy. It too won the MacLennan Prize (2008). As did his most recent book, Carnival, reviewed below by Irene Marques.
How has Hage supplemented his writing income? He is also a photographer (Photography at Dawson College and Fine Arts at Concordia University) and was a taxi driver. In 2011 a fellowship took him to Berlin for a year. In 2013 he was Writer-in-Residence at Vancouver Public Library. He lives in Montreal.
Rawi Hage, Carnival, House of Anansi Press: 2012, 289 pages.
Reviewed by Irene Marques
Rawi Hage’s novel Carnival is an absorbing work that takes you places. Places and spaces of the mind, present and invoked geographical and historical spaces, uncomfortable places, political spaces, sorrowful spaces, magical spaces of the imagination. Divided into Four Acts and short titled sections, the headings of which allude to the main point of the story addressed there and develop previous plots, the novel reveals to us the complicated and multi-faceted lives of the people of this unnamed Canadian city (which could easily be Montréal), where a yearly Carnival takes place. But this compelling work of fiction goes well beyond this metropolis, taking us to many other parts of the planet, bringing to the page a universal story of humanity, where the many peoples of the world and their histories are looked at, their traditions, religions, cultures and empires deconstructed, attacked, critiqued, and where the issue of power is always a bloody one.
Fly, a taxi-driver of Middle-Eastern origin, is our magical, intellectual, well-read, historically savvy, politically conscious, anti-corporation, left-wing narrator, with an obsession for masturbation, who travels the city by night to pick up passengers. He grew up in a circus and possesses in him that magic of the mind proper to enchanters. When he masturbates in his flying carpet, which his father used to fly before abandoning the circus to go find God in the desert, history is rewritten for the better and he reinvents reality according to his fancy. Our narrator lives in an apartment full of books, from floor to ceiling (infested with rodents that threaten their very existence), volumes of different sorts organized according to a principle that defies library classification, but which, as he explains to us, follows another logic, one with a political motivation. He rearranges the history of humankind, giving proper weight to the causes he deems of real importance, while minimizing what he considers banal or unethical. As he puts it:
Dead protagonists take priority over triumphant, happy-ending characters but are surpassed by books with open endings, books that don’t have grand moral conclusions. Novels with open endings I consider to be of a higher rank; hence they are located before novels with happy-endings, which I often call religious, or “resurrection,” endings. … [L]et me confess to you that the most privileged position of them all is saved for the misanthropic writers … for instance, the writer and dramatist Bernhard, l’enfant terrible of Austria, is found on a golden shelf with his fellow literary radicals, writers of conscience, revolutionaries, debauchers, and liberators … these kinds of writers deserve the utmost respect, though in their lifetimes they are often subject to neglect and contempt. (220-221)
Fly tells us about the lives of the many people he encounters in the city or remembers from his past: the prostitutes, pimps, dealers, CEOs of powerful corporations, the skinny and hungry squeegee kids, lovers of books, the students of literature who benevolently offer their bodies to the poor migrant workers who slave in meat-packing factories, transvestites, the hermaphrodite bearded lady who became a mother to him, the well-dressed gentleman with an accent from some part of the former British empire who goes to shady places in search of sexual ecstasy, Fly’s fellow taxi-drivers who came from the Caribbean or the Eastern Block or North and West Africa or the Middle East, and many other characters of a complex and diverse world. A world where we struggle to make sense of things, where we dream, where we control and are controlled, where religious, capitalist, political, medical and legal paradigms of knowledge, forged through a rhetoric that fools and legitimizes, come to command our lives – and where madness may be sanity and sanity may be madness.
Through his analysis of history, Fly reveals that the search for power is directly linked to the fear of death. Entrance into the world of sexual ecstasy, which religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity repudiate, may be a better option for humans and lead to a less violent and more egalitarian world. Humans engage in violence and bloody wars because they are beings “in heat” who misdirect their sexual energy to other (violent) acts that give them the illusion of power or control. It is as if the body is raging against its hormones and rebelling against the religious condemnation of the carnal; thus, rather than making love (having sex), the body engages in destructive acts, killing the self or the other, either through violent wars or socio-cultural impositions that tame the “wholeness” of the human being, a being who has sexual urges that are as powerful as the spiritual ones (or more so). The narrator depicts history as a struggle for power and domination. He is not kind to the religious patriarchs and their histories of power, misogyny and control of bodily pleasures. Fly equates the evolution of humankind to a downfall and sees religion as a cover up for lust, where semen is “mistaken for sacred snow”:
So I wondered which event in history I should recall. From all the filth and violence that we talking apes have caused since our descent from the branches and our expulsion from the banana paradise, which seance of lust, horror, and blood should I choose to rectify today? Which plain, mountain, or river should be my battlefield, and what history should I exorcise to further the evolution of bacteria into a gentler, dancing ape? As I lay down, an image of red rivers of clay passing between the cedars took me back to the ancient Levant, where, for every virgin who left the temple of Baal after offering her lips, breasts, and collection of orifices to the gods, thousands more would be born to walk across the Canaanite’s land and fill her place. … Before the Mongols, the Arabs, the Hebrews, or the Hellenics; before the Telly Savalas, that bald-headed actor, I, Adonis, walked these lands in peace. Our temples were filled with our obedient daughters, who waited to be deflowered by a stranger. Those were the Cannanites’ norms, I repeat. … There was an instant bloom all over the land: cedars sprung like circumcised male genitals, and water gushed like springs between the Nile and the Euphrates. Everything seemed to thrust and climax with the beat of howlers and ejaculators who covered the land with white semen, evermore to be mistaken for sacred snow. (165-167)
Carnival is a magnificent read because it makes us think. It reminds us of the many things that are wrong with a world that exploits, caging people into categories, restricting their potential and humanity, robbing them of basic dignity, their bread of the soul and body. The novel is written with emotion, intellectual acuity, sensitivity, irony, love for the oppressed – and it possesses a powerful poetic, philosophical and magical slant that allows us to experience a wide range of states and emotions. And for those very reasons, moves us to act and become better at life: one’s own life and the lives of others.
Readers of CWA will recognize Irene Marques as the author interviewed by Sonia Saikaley. A bilingual author writing in English and Portuguese, Marques is also an academic, holding a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto, as well as a Bachelor of Social Work from Ryerson University. She currently teaches in the African Studies Program at the University of Toronto and the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at York University. In the past she has also worked at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
In addition to her three poetry collections in English – Wearing Glasses of Water, The Perfect Unravelling of the Spirit and The Circular Incantation: An Exercise in Loss and Findings – she has published the Portuguese short story collection Habitando na Metáfora do Tempo: Crónicas Desejadas. Her most recent works include the novel My House is a Mansion and the collection of short stories Procurando Maravilhas, due for release in early 2016.