“Tell me more,” says a therapist in the Canadian writer Rawi Hage’s second novel, Cockroach (2008). And again, “Tell me. I love long stories.” She’s speaking to the book’s unnamed narrator, an immigrant who recently tried to hang himself from a tree in one of Montreal’s public parks. Therapy is part of his state-mandated rehabilitation. Like Hage himself, the narrator is from Lebanon’s Christian Maronite community (though his home country is never named), and the sessions remind him unpleasantly of the Catholic sacrament: “If you sit, wait, behave, confess, and show maybe some forgiveness and remorse, you, my boy, you could be saved.”
As with several of the protagonists in Hage’s work—he is the author of four novels, all written in English—the narrator of Cockroach knows a lot of stories, most of them rather grim. He grew up in Beirut during Lebanon’s long civil war, in a milieu of militiamen, murderers, and petty crooks. The therapist, named Genevieve, thinks that recounting the events of his youth will speed his recovery. But the narrator sees that Genevieve is also excited, against her better judgment, by his tales of kidnapping, honor codes, and sexual violence. “I knew she was hooked,” he thinks toward the end of one session, playing Scheherazade to her Shahryar. “The doctor, like sultans, is fond of stories.”
This exchange between a wised-up storyteller from the East and a Western audience seemingly starved for thrills points, with some subtlety, to Hage’s own situation as a writer whose fiction returns again and again to the subject of Lebanon’s brutal civil war. Who really wants to hear these kinds of stories, and who wants to tell them? Can one do it without confirming the worst stereotypes of Middle Eastern savagery? One of Cockroach’s subplots involves another immigrant, an Iranian musician, who seduces Canadian women by telling them about having his instrument broken and his fingers bent backward when he played the wrong song for Ayatollah Khomeini. The narrator mocks the musician’s “exotic tunes and stories of suffering and exile,” but they are obviously fellow spirits.
This worry about offering up one’s trauma as entertainment for foreigners is common among Lebanese artists, and not only those who left the country. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, Lebanon’s political elite have pragmatically opted for amnesia. No side won, all of them committed atrocities, and many of the warlords are still in power, having exchanged their fatigues for suits and ties. In response, Lebanese artists have tirelessly analyzed and memorialized the bloodshed—even as much of their financial support and audience have come from outside the country. Lebanon’s postwar film industry, for example, is largely funded by European sources and dominated by films about the war; similarly, Lebanese novels translated into English or French almost invariably have to do with the decade and a half of civil conflict.*
Many of these artists chafe at the demand that they should serve only as expert witnesses on sectarian violence and urban dystopia. One of the central ironies of Cockroach stems from the therapist’s assumption that the narrator’s problems have to do with his past, that his present unhappiness is somehow the fault of his mother or his country of origin. But what if his suicide attempt was the result of being poor and hungry and depressed by Canadian winters? Hage’s novel is in fact more concerned with immigrant life in Montreal than it is with Lebanon. It may even be that his refusal to name that country is a protest against the demand to dig up his traumatic past.
A deeper irony of Cockroach is that at the center of the narrator’s memories of Lebanon is not an act of violence, but rather his inability to perform one. When he has the chance to take revenge on his sister’s killer, he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger—a failing he implicitly tries to make up for in the novel’s violent finale. The past can haunt you not only for the things you did, but also for the things you could have done but didn’t (what Catholic theologians call a sin of omission). Hage’s work suggests again and again that trying to escape one’s past is the surest way to tighten its grip.
Violence has always been central to Hage’s concerns as a writer. His novels anxiously circle around acts of bloodshed, then trace their effects on his characters and their communities. To commit violence is to trap oneself in a cycle that never ends. “We killed him, because he killed her,” says one character, a prostitute, in Beirut Hellfire Society, his newest novel, expressing the basic law of Hage’s fiction.
This law is at once an anthropological donné—Hage alludes to the writings of René Girard, the philosopher of “mimetic violence”—and a way of understanding the Lebanese war, a conflict Hage views as a kind of sectarian revenge tragedy (leaving its political and historical background somewhat blurry). Many of Hage’s characters try to escape this infernal circle through emigration—he himself left the country as a twenty-year-old in 1984—or, in the most extreme case, by suicide.
Hage’s more pointed suggestion is that acts of violence are the result of a person’s embracing a particular identity. This usually means a sectarian identity, though Hage is also interested in how his characters define themselves as men (his female characters are notably short on self-reflection). They are caught in a peculiarly Lebanese dilemma: either accept one’s role in a community defined by its antagonism toward others, or else become invisible, impotent, disposable.
Hage’s special interest is Lebanon’s Maronite community. He studies its customs and codes not with an insider’s sympathy so much as the bitterness of someone still trying to get out. He portrays the Maronites as an insular Mediterranean tribe—violently patriarchal, excessively attached to the symbols of religion, and incipiently fascist in their respect for power. In his later writing, this bitterness loses some of its edge, but in his fine first novel, De Niro’s Game (2006), you can feel the rage in each detail:
The men watched the late-Friday-night Egyptian movie, smoking on small balconies, gulping cold beer and araq, cracking fresh green almonds, and with their filthy yellow nails crushing American cigarettes in folkloric ashtrays. Inside their houses, the impoverished women carefully, economically, dripped water from red plastic buckets over their brown skins in ancient Turkish bathtubs, washing away the dust, the smells, the baklava-thin crust, the vicious morning gossip over tiny coffee cups, the poverty of their husbands, the sweat under their unshaven armpits. They washed like meticulous Christian cats that lick their paws under small European car engines.
De Niro’s Game is the story of two friends from East Beirut, George and the narrator, Bassam, “longhaired teenagers” who ride through the city on George’s motorcycle “with guns under our bellies, and stolen gas in our tanks, and no particular place to go.” The deep theme of the novel is escape, announced in its epigraph from Heraclitus: “How, from a fire that never sinks or sets, would you escape?” When George graduates from petty crime into the local militia and heads to Israel for training, Bassam is incredulous. “Thieves and thugs like us,” he says, “since when have we ever believed in anything?” But as it becomes more and more difficult to avoid believing in something, Bassam flees Beirut and its lethal ideologies.
The crux of De Niro’s Game is George’s harrowing account of his role in the butchery of Sabra and Shatila, the massacre of Palestinian civilians carried out by Maronite militias with the support of the Israeli army in 1982. It is a story of trauma that sets the template for many other confessions in Hage’s fiction. Beirut, in his writing, is a kind of cursed city, a vast charnel house just barely covered over by its modern slums and shiny hotels. His novels are full of images of violent excavation, in which a buried past explodes into the present, and his characters are acutely aware of history’s repetitions:
I climbed onto George’s motorbike and sat behind him, and we drove down the main streets where bombs fell, where Saudi diplomats had once picked up French prostitutes, where ancient Greeks had danced, Romans had invaded, Persians had sharpened their swords, Mamluks had stolen the villagers’ food, crusaders had eaten human flesh, and Turks had enslaved my grandmother.
Bassam is morally compromised but clear-eyed about his own failings; he has the honor of a reluctant mafioso or noir antihero. The narrator of Hage’s second novel, the immigrant storyteller of Cockroach, is harder to pin down. He too has escaped from the demimonde of Lebanon’s civil war, but has nothing of Bassam’s damaged stoicism. Instead, he’s a fast-talking con artist. Although he claims to see through the hypocrisy of those around him—“I see people for what they are,” he boasts—we have little reason to believe him. He lies to his therapist (he also breaks into her apartment, where he sniffs her pillow, eats her food, and steals her slippers), and he might be lying to us as well.
But one of the narrator’s brags does ring true, and it points toward the moral stakes of the novel. The narrator belongs, as he says more than once, to “the underground.” He means that he is a creep, but a peculiarly literary kind of creep. Like Dostoevsky’s spiteful monologist, he is hypersensitive to slights (imagined or otherwise), at once abject and full of pride (because other people are even worse), and permanently plotting some act of revenge, a reprisal that will wipe out the memory of previous failures. For Hage’s narrator, this means the failure to kill his sister’s murderer. While Dostoevsky’s narrator admits his desire to be an insect, Hage’s actually becomes a cockroach.
These underground men confess their wretchedness out of a desire to be seen, to be recognized, even at the cost of humiliation. When Dostoevsky’s narrator makes a lame witticism, he says, “Seeing for myself that I simply had a vile wish to swagger—I purposely won’t cross it out!” The extremity of this (properly Christian) desire to be known is only explicable by the desire to be forgiven. Hage’s narrator hedges on this score. He allows his therapist to know he is a thief, and to imagine that he might be much worse—he wants to keep her interested, after all. But it isn’t clear that he truly wants to be seen for what he is, in part because he doesn’t quite know what that is.
The most uncanny episode of the novel is a dialogue between the narrator and a giant cockroach—something like the narrator’s tribal id, a projection of his repressed desire for violence and belonging. The roach mocks his inability to pull the trigger when he had the chance. “Look at you,” it says, “always escaping, slipping, and feeling trapped in everything you do…. You are what I call a vulture, living on the periphery of the kill. Waiting for the kill, but never having the courage to do it yourself.” It is the narrator’s failure to take revenge—his inability, in other words, to live up to the codes of Maronite masculinity—that shows his true colors. So his dilemma ends up being the same as Bassam’s. As he puts it, “How to exist and not to belong?” It is a question that hangs over all of Hage’s fiction, and indeed over the history of modern Lebanon. How to create a deeply felt, historically grounded identity that isn’t defined by violence toward one’s neighbors?
The protests that erupted in Lebanon this past October were an attempt, in part, to answer that question. The demonstrations are a belated but recognizable version of the Arab Spring, aimed at a corrupt state unable to provide basic services to its constituents. Though Lebanon is not a poor country, its infrastructure is among the worst in the world, and its public debt is the third highest. In 2015 similar protests broke out when no one picked up the garbage (the protesters’ slogan was “You stink!”). One cause of this neglect is a history of promoting local identities—sometimes, though not always, sectarian ones—at the expense of forming a national community. Each of the 128 seats in Lebanon’s parliament is assigned to one of the country’s religious groups. Clientelism is the law of the land. Among the protesters’ basic demands is to replace the current government with one elected along nonsectarian lines, or as they put it, “All of them means all of them.”
No doubt Hage would welcome the protesters’ antisectarian spirit, but his newest novel, Beirut Hellfire Society, includes stories that remind us why they are unlikely to be met. The book’s protagonist is an undertaker from (Christian) East Beirut, nicknamed Pavlov. As a boy, working at his father’s mortuary, Pavlov happened to feed a bucket of entrails to one of the neighborhood dogs just as the church bells rang out. The dog came back for more food at the same time every day, and Pavlov got his name. It’s a good Lebanese joke. It turns the church bells into dinner bells and suggests that the staying power of sectarianism has everything to do with the regular provision of basic needs—even if what it provides is mostly rancid slop.
In another part of the novel, a Muslim convert to Christianity dies and his relatives disagree about his funeral. He’s finally buried in a Christian cemetery, but washed according to Muslim rites. A priest and a sheikh are invited to perform the prayers:
The priest offered the sheik the first prayer, but the sheik declined and insisted that the priest start the prayers since this was his home village, upon which the priest insisted that although the village might be Christian, it still upheld the old traditions of Arab hospitality. The sheik replied that he was eager to hear the priest’s beautiful voice and the prayers of Issa, Jesus, whom he acknowledged as one of the prophets of Islam…. In the end, the priest was compelled to go first and give the sheik the last prayer, and not utter a word more. But when the sheik was done, the priest splashed some holy water on the grave.
If sectarian identities are intractable and rigid, Hage’s new novel is a parade of deviants. It is set in Beirut in the early years of the civil war, which means that business is steady for undertakers. Pavlov isn’t a conventional embalmer, however. He has inherited the business from his father, a man who made a practice of picking up “orphaned bodies,” cadavers unclaimed by relatives. The last rites the father performs for these anonymous corpses are a ritual of his own devising, including a hodgepodge of what seem to be Zoroastrian, Greek, and Hindu elements—in other words, nothing native to Lebanon.
Over the course of the novel, Pavlov meets a number of characters who ask him for a nondenominational burial. Some are members of the mysterious, quasi-Masonic “Hellfire Society,” a group of self-styled illuminati who view Lebanon as a prison of orthodoxy. The founder of the society is a libertine named after the Marquis de Sade who requests that his funeral services include an orgy, with his dead body swinging from the rafters. The society’s enforcers are a pair of gender-fluid motorcyclists who appear to be modeled on Harut and Marut, fallen angels of Muslim tradition.
Hage has some heretical fun with this mix-and-match approach to religious mythology, and he’s obviously declaring his own affinities with the misfits and outcasts of the world. But while his novel has episodic pleasures, it never coheres. The book is structured as a series of digressions, somewhat in the style of The Arabian Nights, as Pavlov bounces off the oddballs who swerve in and out of his path. But these encounters only ever accumulate detail rather than momentum or interest (which can also be a problem with Hage’s awkwardly unfurling sentences). While Pavlov has a vocation, he has no real story of his own. Hage’s fitful attempts to give him one—the novel ends, like Cockroach, with a shoot-out—feel mechanical.
Hage has spoken in interviews about his determination to leave behind what he regards as old-fashioned realism, suggesting that Arab novelists have something to learn from their Latin American peers. But magic only works in fiction when it has some ballast of the real. There’s nothing inherently implausible about an undertaker who makes up Zoroastrian-Gnostic burial rites in modern Lebanon. When we are given no explanation for his strange behavior, however, and when the novel also includes nuns who supervise an orgy, dead dogs who speak like theology professors, and assassins who jump out of coffins at a wake, then we no longer feel the frisson of deviance, since weirdness has become the rule. When the chief libertine complains of living in a “traditional society” characterized by “meek religiosity” and “a culture of shaming and shame,” it is hard to credit him, since the Lebanon of this novel is the very land of unorthodoxy.
Hage has said that the seed of Beirut Hellfire Society lies partly in his encounter with images from the current bloodletting in Syria, an intractable conflict that resembles Lebanon’s own civil war in many ways. It would not have escaped his attention that a number of the Syrian uprising’s earliest flashpoints were funerals doubling as protests. Beirut Hellfire Society is full of references to ancient Greek funerary practices, philosophy, and literature, of which Pavlov is an avid reader. The epigraph is from Sophocles’ Antigone (“To lay my dearest brother in the grave”), and the novel strives to adopt a tragic posture toward the grisly history it evokes.
Throughout the book, we see Pavlov standing on his balcony or at his window, smoking cigarettes while another funeral passes beneath him, a thoughtful spectator to the danse macabre of civil war. Pavlov is a witness to violence, but he makes no pretense of judgment, and there are no spirits of justice on the horizon. Like other central figures in Hage’s novels, Pavlov would like to escape Lebanon’s warring communities. His solicitude for outcasts and “orphaned bodies” makes clear his wariness toward any officially recognized identity. This neutrality makes his character a cipher, and it poses technical difficulties for Hage’s novel. And yet, confronted with the tangled history of Lebanese and Syrian conflicts, with their baffling local and international dimensions, who can feel justified in taking sides?
The best passages in Hage’s fiction subject his own characters to withering moral scrutiny. In Cockroach, it is the giant bug who sneers at the narrator’s “arrogance,” his belief that he can avoid getting his hands dirty because he belongs “to something better and higher.” In Beirut Hellfire Society, the same criticism is leveled at Pavlov by a war photographer, a bored drug addict who comes to Beirut to get as close as possible to the action (Hage is also a photographer, and has written about his attraction to the ethic of bearing witness). The war-junkie mocks Pavlov’s attempts to suspend judgment. Staying above the fray, he says, simply turns violence into an entertainment. There is nothing admirable about refusing to take sides; on the contrary, it is a sign of cowardice. “What the weak ultimately desire is one spectacle after another,” he says. “Does that sound familiar, Pavlov?”
The photographer will later join a local militia, train as a sniper, and die on the Green Line separating East and West Beirut. He is hardly a figure of conscience. And yet his words should give pause to any writer who thinks of turning the subject of war trauma into an evenhanded fiction. His monologue also suggests, perhaps against the grain of Hage’s own beliefs, that the idea of refusing one’s identity may be as difficult to defend as the desire to have one. In times like these, there’s really no escape from the fire.
January 16, 2020
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For two recent examples, see my “Tripoli Nights with a Master of Arabic” in these pages, March 9, 2017. ↩