By Neil McCormick
Cockroach by Rawi Hage -A Hamish Hamilton Book isbn 978-0-241-14444-2
When you read or hear the word Cockroach, what do you picture in your mind? For me its a vile and dirty pest, a parasite, blighting our society, nothing likeable and having no redeemable qualities about it .
With that pre-conception in my head, I started reading Cockroach by Rawi Hage. The story is told in the first person perspective by our unnamed protagonist, a young immigrant trying to survive in Montreal. The story is made up of two parts, his existence in Montreal, searching for food, working dead end jobs, and stealing for the sake of it, coupled with the story of his life in his home land. This element unfolds in a series of conversations with his court appointed psychologist, after he fails to commit suicide by trying to hang himself in a park.
Cockroach is essentially a study of an immigrant trying to live in a foreign country, while never believing he can fit in. He does not want to be there. :-
“Goddamn it! Not even a nod in this cold place, not even a timid wave, nor a smile from below red, sniffing, blowing noses. All these buried heads above necks strangled in synthetic scarves. It made me nervous, and I asked myself, Where am I ? And what am I doing here? How did I end up trapped in a constantly shivering carcass, walking in a frozen city with wet cotton falling on me all the time? And on top of it all, I am hungry, impoverished, and have no one, no one…..”
Hage, is himself an immigrant, originally from Beirut, and now residing in Montreal. You wonder how much of the feelings of isolationism portrayed in the book were felt by Hage, after his own arrival in Montreal.
There are two metaphors, which are played out throughout the book, the first is the use of the concept of metamorphosis, that our protagonist believes he is a cockroach, a creature that scurries from light and clings to the shadows. Whenever our character breaks into a house he believes himself to be a cockroach, slipping along pipes, under doors, up walls. This feels like a nod to Kafka ‘s “Metamorphosis “ like “Cockroach”, Kafka’s character Gregor, is transformed overnight into a dung beetle or cockroach. However the approach is different, in Kafka’s, its portrayed as a passion play of christ like suffering, with Hage its much more caustic and defiant, its a chance to extend for the protagonist from his existence as an immigrant. In fact, the character is so similar to a cockroach that reading about his life gives you the same skin-crawling sensation that you get when you watch a cockroach scuttle about.
The second metaphor is the use of drains, in particular of water swirling down drains and converging. This is played out in several areas of the book, and can be seen as a mechanism to draw in elements of the story. For example the girl he falls in love with, Shoreh, had fled from Iran to escape the darkness of her own past. However when she sees the man from her homeland that had held her captive, raped and beat her, it leads to convergence, our protagonist gets a chance to redeem himself from his sense of failing his own sister.
Throughout reading this book, I felt uneasy, I did not like the main character due to his dubious practices played out in the book, in particular his acts as a sexual predator towards his boss’s 16 year old daughter made my skin crawl. However if you take the book as a whole, it is a compelling read. While you may not like the main character, you emerge at the end of the book, blinking in the sunlight, realising you now understand why he is what he is.
While some of his activities are not pleasant, you realise he is not as selfish or immoral as you first thought. His guilt over the fact he did not intervene to prevent his sister from being murdered by her husband, has damaged him beyond hope of repair. It has consumed him and made him do the things he does.
If I have one gripe with the use of the metaphor of a cockroach, by the end of reading the book, you realise our narrator is not the indestructable person the word cockroach implies. For after all it is believed that the cockroach is best designed to survive a nuclear fallout.
It has been documented that a cockroach will survive even after being submerged for 30 minutes in water. It is apparent that his guilt will ultimately destroy him.
However at the end of the book there is redemption, but its at a cost. He helps Shoreh avenge her suffering in Iran by helping her confront the man who had subjected her to her ordeal in Iran. When Shoreh is not able to shoot the man and is going to be killed herself. Our character kills the man’s bodyguard then shoots the man himself.
While he knows he must pay a terrible price for his actions, he now feels free and the book ends with the two metaphors referred to above , converging into one:-
“I dropped the gun and walked back into the kitchen. I looked at the water that gathered and rushed towards the drain.
Then I crawled and swam above the water, and when I saw a leaf carried along by the stream of soap and water as if it were a gondola in Venice, I climbed onto it and shook like a dancing gypsy, and I steered it with my glittering wings towards the underground.”
I cannot recommend this book more highly – yes the main character has some undesirable qualities, but such is Hage’s style of writing and descriptive skills, you come away privileged from having read such an intense book.