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The Anger of Exile

The Hakawati

by Rabih Alameddine
Anchor, 513 pp., $16.00 (paper)

Cockroach

by Rawi Hage
Norton, 305 pp., $23.95
toibin_1-032510.jpg
Hélas #7, 36 x 36 inches, 1994; self-portrait by Rabih Alameddine. For more paintings by Alameddine, see the NYR blog, blogs.nybooks.com.

There is a photograph of Thomas Mann taken in Lübeck, Germany, in 1955, shortly before his death. He is standing with his wife, Katia, outside the family house, the house of Buddenbrooks, or what remained of it. He is staring straight at the camera; the expression on his face bears all the complexity of what has been lost and cannot be regained. It is the look of someone in full possession of dark knowledge, the eyes displaying a sense of resignation that is both hard and melancholy. Mann was in California during World War II; he was one of the most famous German exiles, having fled in 1933. Now he was merely visiting and he had no desire to return and stay, despite the fact that his heritage was in Germany and Germany was the home of his language. He had been away too long for these things to matter much. “Wherever I am, Germany is,” he had said in America in 1938.

In 1975, two poets from Northern Ireland, one living then in London and the other in Wicklow, south of Dublin, contemplated in poems the ambiguous meaning of exile; they wrote about what it was like to have escaped. In the calm, resigned poem “Afterlives,” placed at the beginning of his volume The Snow Party, Derek Mahon wrote about revisiting Belfast:

And I step ashore in a fine rain
To a city so changed
By five years of war
I scarcely recognize
The places I grew up in,
The faces that try to explain.

But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I’d stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.

In the same year, Seamus Heaney placed “Exposure,” his own self-examining poem about exile, at the end of his book North:

I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows…

In a time of conflict, when a writer needs silence and space, the argument about staying or going remains difficult to resolve. When asked about the possibility of exile in an interview in 1969, Nadine Gordimer said:

I haven’t left South Africa because of my feeling of commitment to the place as a human being rather than as a writer. If I went to live in England, for instance, where I have my cultural roots, I might be very happy there. I might write quite well there. I don’t feel that I would lose my identity as a writer because I was born in Africa: I’ll carry Africa with me whenever I need to draw on it.

Ten years later, however, in another interview, she seemed more aware of Africa as her only home: “But after my first trip out, I realized that ‘home’ was certainly and exclusively—Africa. It could never be anywhere else.”

In Gordimer’s novel Burger’s Daughter, published in 1979, there is a peculiar intensity in the way Rosa Burger experiences the South of France once she manages to leave South Africa. Her gaze, as she watches people and things utterly foreign to her, is the gaze of exile; she is both relieved and shocked by the mixture of ease and emptiness, the lives lived apart from gnarled history. “If I am curious about them,” Rosa says in the novel,

these people, to me it seems they allow me to be so because I am a foreigner. But I see it’s that they are not afraid of being found out, the nature of their motives is shared and discussed; because the premise is accepted by everybody.

Rosa looks at two paintings by Bonnard, one from 1894, the other from 1945; she is concerned about the absence of history in the work, the absence of what she has come to see as the fabric of life itself, which is history and politics as they affect every aspect of being in the world. The attempt to create an exquisite bourgeois timelessness puzzles her. “In the fifty years between the two paintings,” a friend explains,

there was the growth of fascism, two wars—the Occupation—And for Bonnard it is as if nothing’s happened. Nothing. Look at them…. He could have painted them the same summer, the same day. And that’s how they are, those ones up there round the château—that’s how they live. It’s as if nothing has ever happened—to them, or anybody. Or is happening. Anywhere…. Oh that’s charming…of course, if you can manage it.

In two recent novels, both written in English, two novelists from Lebanon now living in North America offer further dramatization of exile: they allow the drama to occur, as Mahon, Heaney, and Gordimer do, emphatically and deeply within the self and the senses, in the mysterious caverns of consciousness, as much as in the society abandoned or in the place of refuge or return. They offer a poetics of exile while keeping its politics sharply within their sights.*

In Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati, Osama al-Kharrat, a software engineer in Los Angeles, returns to Lebanon to visit his family in 2003 as his father is dying. He is “a tourist in a bizarre land. I was home,” as he moves back and forth in time. The family and the country itself are rendered in luscious, luxuriant detail, with an extraordinary sense of felt life both in the present and in the remembered past, as though Bonnard were an abiding spirit here:

The begonias, glorious begonias, seemed to burst from every branch, no unopened buds. Burgeoning life, but subdued color. The red—the red was off. Paler than I would want. The reds of my Beirut, the home city I remember, were wilder, primary. The colors were better then, more vivid, more alive.

Lebanon is a land of plenty, wealthy not only in material goods but also in stories and jokes. Alameddine handles the illness of the father with a mixture of grim, realistic detail and broad comedy, painting the family unit with all its noises and fondness and feuds in primary colors.

But always there is the legacy of war, like gray or black pigment, both in the narrator’s memory and in the very gaps between buildings, the “shards of metal, twisted rubble, strips of tile, and broken glass” that are still “scattered across piles of dirt.” War was not inevitable, or a central part of the lives of these characters. It was a terrible surprise, a disruption, a nuisance. The family was too busy to be bothered with it when it first threatened. And then when it did come, everyone was bored by it and sought distraction. During shelling in 1976, for example, Osama remembers his mother in a shelter:

My mother lit a cigarette. “I’m dying …dying of boredom.” She turned off the transistor radio, interrupting the voice of the BBC anchorwoman in mid-sentence. “Entertain me or suffer the consequences.”

The family cares more about cars than wars:

We drove in my uncle’s Oldsmobile convertible. My father called it the problem car, but he couldn’t convince Uncle Jihad to get rid of it. Since we owned the Middle East’s exclusive Datsun and Toyota dealership, my father expected everyone in the family to drive one or the other…. My mother drove a Jaguar. My father overlooked it, because she’d always driven Jaguars.

In The Hakawati, names such as Osama and Jihad are rescued for comedy or ordinariness; clichés about war-torn territories are abandoned in favor of a zone between comedy, tragedy, and banality observed and recalled by the son who has come home, or in favor of further stories, folk tales, tall tales, and reminiscences—a hakawati is a traditional storyteller—or the dark ironies that haunt the book. Between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, for example, the protagonist remembers, he took lessons in playing the oud. There is a scene where he gets lessons while the radio crackles with news of war with Israel. Then he and his friend Elie go to fix a motorbike and the following conversation ensues:

Are you going to fight?”

I can’t join the army yet. But they don’t need me. We’ll humiliate them. Pliers.”

Who’s we?” I asked.

We,” Elie said dismissively. “We, the Arabs.”

We’re Arabs?”

Of course we are. Don’t you know anything?”

I thought we’re Lebanese.”

We’re that, too,” Elie said.

Elie then points out that Lebanon has a secret weapon: that while the Arabs have Russia and China on their side and the Israelis America and England, “the Israelis think France is on their side, but she’s not. France will be ours, because France loves Lebanon. France is our secret weapon.”

France, too, is Alameddine’s secret weapon as he, when it suits him, adapts a Proustian model to local conditions: “the Mediterranean as my madeleine,” as he himself notes. An exile remembers as no one else does. Osama remembers watching his mother when he was a child:

She was applying makeup, one eye closed, a finger delicately powdering the eyelid with color. I stood to the side, watching her reflection in the mirror. Her thick lashes were as dark as a starless night. She inspected her image, took out her lipstick, applied a coat of red, her mouth forming a demure O. She blotted her lips with a tissue.

The Hakawati offers a set of competing narratives, some fabulous, some filled with memory and desire; it allows what we might call geopoetics to flow over geopolitics. By refusing to permit a single perspective or a single story or style to dominate, it offers, almost despite itself, a paradigm of mingling images and rich difference living in a panoramic, harmonic disunity. Alameddine suggests with some subtlety and much exuberance how this tapestry might come to the aid of the very world that the book explores.

Toward the end of The Hakawati, there is a party where the narrator’s mother is wooed by both his father and his uncle while a Swiss man with a ponytail, who claims to be a friend of Jean-Paul Sartre, asks: “Will there ever be an Arab Sartre?” The question is left almost unanswered, an example of how boring the Swiss visitor is and how funny life is. Nonetheless, this idea of Lebanon having a special relationship with France and French culture arises seriously when we contemplate the fiercely energetic nihilism and existential despair at the heart of Rawi Hage’s second novel, Cockroach.

Hage’s first novel, De Niro’s Game (2006), takes place in a recognizable Beirut, ravaged by war. The narrative shape of the two main characters’ lives is dictated by civil war and by public events. The narrative plays with precisely the opposite forces that impel The Hakawati: it allows politics precedence over personality; it allows private life to be reduced in its scope, and thus manages to capture something of the daily mixture of claustrophobia, chaos, and sheer terror in a shattered city; it dramatizes the pain and petty treacheries that were created by forces beyond the control of the different sides. While the book is shocking, its power is both enriched and limited by its immediacy; the action of the war itself reduces the characters’ choices and chances.

toibin_2-032510.jpg
Frank Fournier/ Contact Press Images
A Palestinian house destroyed by pro-Syrian forces, Tripoli, Lebanon, November 1983

In the last section of De Niro’s Game, one of the protagonists makes it to Paris, where he reads Camus’s novel The Outsider and is told how to get a visa for Canada and then told, “When you arrive at the Montreal airport in Canada you claim refugee status.”

Cockroach is set in Montreal in the winter; it deals with the choices and chances that arise now that the protagonist has claimed such status. The war this time is going on within his soul rather than his city. If he has carried Lebanon with him in getting away, it is the complex country of Alameddine’s The Hakawati, where Camus’s The Outsider would be at home and where men in ponytails might talk of an Arab Sartre—rather than the place maimed by the stark simplicities of civil war.

In other words, the ungrateful narrator of Cockroach carries with him a rich burden that he dramatizes with fascinating results. If the darkness at the heart of the book seems determined, prearranged, there is also something exhilarating about its relentlessness, its refusal to allow any possibility of hope. The narrator is ambiguous, untrustworthy, sly, and filled with a despair both nasty and noisy; but he is also deeply wounded, oddly lovable, his voice both moving and manipulative:

This feeling was not paranoia, as the therapist wrote in her stupid notes…; it was just my need again to hide from the sun and not see anyone. It was the necessity I felt to strip the world from everything around me and exist underneath it all, without objects, people, light, or sound. It was my need to unfold an eternal blanket that would cover everything, seal the sky and my window, and turn the world into an insect’s play.

The novel begins, as it should, with a botched suicide attempt. It concludes, perhaps unnecessarily, with a shoot-out. And since the narrator is a thief, it has a trick that allows him to transform himself into a cockroach and thus get easy access to locked spaces:

The next day, Friday, I woke up early. I returned to Genevieve’s place and watched her leave her house for work. Then I slipped past the building’s garage door, went down to the basement, and crawled along the pipes. I sprang from her kitchen’s drain, fixed my hair, my clothes, my self, and walked straight into her room.

This trick works brilliantly sometimes, as we are forced to believe that it is real and genuine—all the better to rob settled Canadians—but it can also be oddly distracting from the core of the book.

The core of Cockroach is a dramatization of an exquisite ennui, and also of an ingratitude that is rooted in reality. The narrator feels both with considerable intensity. He hates the world first, and then he hates the country that has offered him asylum. He hates his apartment, the weather, the French-speaking Québecois, and the Iranian émigrés who abound. He is broke and he is bored. He loves women with a creepy, engrossed sexual frustration. He is often hungry and writes about food with relish. He moves in his narrative between a Nabokovian tenderness and longing for things, and then a love of the very words that do tender justice to his longings; at other times he exudes a comic, manic helplessness that can be found in Saul Bellow. He feels his powerlessness in the new country, where his closest companions are cockroaches, with an eloquence and an anger that move at times into venomous temper and awful rage:

As I walked away from the suburb, the dogs’ barks went up like the finale at a high-school concert. Filthy dogs, I will show you! I said and ground my teeth. I pulled down the zipper on my pants and crawled on my hands and feet like a skunk, swaying from side to side and urinating on car wheels and spraying every fire hydrant with abundance to confuse those privileged breeds and cause an epidemic of canine constipation. Down with monotony and the routines of life! I laughed, knowing full well that some dentist would soon be waiting for his little bewildered bundle of love to get on with its business. I laughed and thought: Some dentist will be late for trays of paralyzing syringes and far from the reach of blinding lights that hover above mouths like extraterrestrial machines inspecting the effect of pain on humans trapped in pneumatic chairs. And I rejoiced and howled…at the thought of a salesman stuck like a turtle in traffic, late for his work, flipping through catalogues, rehearsing apologies, and mumbling about dogs’ damnation.

Since he is forced by the authorities after his suicide attempt to go into therapy, he has much to say about his past, some of it highly unreliable, some only too plausible, and some hilariously in between. He mocks the therapy sessions and terms such as “self-esteem.” He also desires his therapist:

I am thinking: Doctor, Genevieve, my luscious healer, my confessor, I confess to you that we should touch…. Words, my love, keep tongues busy with dry air and clacking noise, words are what keep us away from the sources of liquid and life. There must be some branch in therapy where silence is encouraged and touch is the answer.

Yet when the therapist wants him to talk about his mother, he has words at will, all of them unreliable:

When she was not dangling clothing by the arms or the ankles off the balcony [my mother] would stir her wooden spoon around a tin pot, in a counter-clockwise motion, and if she was not busy doing that, she was chasing after us with curses and promises that she would dig our graves.

In scene after scene our narrator mocks the very idea of the ordered self or the ordered society. He makes racist comments about other immigrants, calling them “welfare dogs” and forcing the reader to side with him or hate him all the more. His deep dislike of a poor émigré Algerian professor is irrational and fierce. He is an affront to all types of decency. The fact that he is writing this in Canada, a country that rightly is proud of its policy on immigration and ethnic diversity, adds a comedy to the book; the sound of the hand that feeds being bitten sharply offers a rhythmic energy to the prose and removes any possibility of easy self-pity from the tone.

Cockroach is all voice, and it depends on the holding and wielding of tone. The problem is that it is also a novel and thus Hage works a number of plotlines through the book, some more convincing than others. One of them deals with what happened back home, which is told in the therapy sessions. Because this may or may not be true, it adds to the general insult to decency. Because most of the narrator’s associates are Iranian, there are accounts by people who have left Iran and been given asylum in Canada, having suffered torture under both the Shah and the Ayatollah. This leads eventually to a subplot that involves the Canadians selling arms to Iran, which serves merely to undermine the narrator’s hauteur and the novel’s dark philosophical energy.

This energy is at its most intense when the narrator is describing sensations, when he is trying to find phrases to match this new, ordered northern world that he has landed in:

Late at night in this city, the snow is pasted just above the street like a crunchy white crust that breaks and cracks under your feet. There is a sound to the cold, a constant quiet, a subtle permanent buzzing. It is not the vibration of the long-shadowed fluorescent city lights tracking the trajectory of falling snow, nor is it the wind, nor the people. It is something that comes from underground and stays at the surface.

This way of noticing, of attempting a lyrical tone about the narrator’s new world, grounds the book in the slow time of a real winter. But Hage also forces the reader to accept the regular transformation of the narrator into a cockroach, while remaining a man capable of love or embarrassment or deep alienation. The novel thus takes its bearings from the nightmare worlds of both Swift and Kafka. It is also set in a place where exile itself, escape from the massacre, and learning what is meant by home become dark metaphors for knowledge and experience that run way beyond the merely political, and even beyond the possibility of redemption.

  1. *

    The epigraph for Burger’s Daughter is a quote from Claude Lévi-Strauss: “I am the place in which something has occurred.”

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