Some readers will be unsettled by the title alone. (I had early exposure as a young reader to Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel, so it didn’t work that way for me.)
Most readers will be unsettled by the story. (As activist and artist Banksy has said: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”)
Yet that needn’t interfere with admiration, albeit it from a distance. (Either for the insects themselves, or, at close range, Rawi Hage’s second novel.)
The earliest fossilized cockroaches existed more than 300 million years ago. Some species are parthenogenetic (i.e. females can reproduce without males). Some can go without air for more than 45 minutes. Some can survive for three months without food and one month without water. They can tolerate radiation 6 to 15 times better than humans. And, they make decisions as a group, balancing cooperation and competition, when it comes to complex matters like resource allocation. (Thanks to Wikipedia for these cockroach facts.)
The narrator of Cockroach has survived a boyhood in an unnamed war-torn Middle Eastern country and countless personal assaults and threats (from the ordinary instances of racism he experiences in Montreal to more serious violent encounters to the daily grind of poverty). He often has to go without food and water, and sometimes retreats beneath the covers to block out the world.
“My grandmother cried as she told this story. She watched those insects settle like clouds on fields and turn them bare and plain. I see people that way. I see snow that way. I see wind, cars, the words that fly from people’s teeth, the white dust that I channel through my nostrils, the flowing water that way. Everything is made of little particles that gather in groups and invade. All nature gathers and invades.”
In Cockroach, however, the comparison is not strictly metaphorical. The narrator openly identifies as a cockroach.
(Unlike Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, he has not actually transformed into an insect, but rather has willingly adopted the perspective of a cockroach, viewing the world from beneath with six fuzzy legs wriggling, even whilst moving through it on two human legs. Tales of transformation and magic involving insects are not uncommon globally, but inevitably there have been many comparisons drawn between Cockroach and The Metamorphosis, despite the fact that the author did not intentionally pursue a connection with Kafka’s classic text.)
His life is a hard one. In fact, when readers meet him, he is at an appointment with a therapist following his botched suicide attempt in a Montreal park. He views every aspect of life as a conflict and considers himself a resident of the underworld.
“In the middle of the kitchen, under the cook’s counter, there was a drain. I pushed the water towards the drain and it disappeared, eradicating whatever was below the surface. Slices of rejected vegetables, grains of rice, eggshells, and peas swam and rolled on the waves like little boats. I chased the water, surrounded it, at times attacking it from the back, at times confronting it head-on, driving it like a herd of buffalo off a cliff. The drain swallowed everything, nothing was filtered, recycled, tossed away. All was good, all was natural, all was accepted by the underworld.”
When a friend suggests to him that he should have chosen a more likeable animal (she suggests a pony or a tiger), he wishes that had been the case, but believes it to be impossible, this aspect of his identity unshakeable.
Nonetheless, he has discovered places in the community, dark corners, that he can comfortably inhabit. Like the Arista Café at the corner:
“It is open twenty-four hours a day, and for twenty-four hours it collects smoke pumped out by the lungs of fresh immigrants lingering on plastic chairs, elbows drilling the round tables, hands flagging their complaints, tobacco-stained fingers summoning the waiters, their matches, like Indian signals, ablaze under hairy noses, and their stupefied faces exhaling cigarette fumes with the intensity of Spanish bulls on a last charge towards a dancing red cloth.”
Rawi Hage impeccably sketches a scene. Reader can feel the thickened pads of skin with the tobacco stains, hear the screech of the plastic chairs dragged across the floor, and smell the cigarette smoke. And, yet, this is not a completely dark tale, but the author’s sense of irony lightens the telling of it.
Sure, there is endless social conflict, and ugly prejudices reign:
“The rich hate the poor, and the especially hate those whose odour surfaces like a cloud to overshadow the smell of cigarettes and hot plates or to overwhelm the travelling scent of an expensive perfume. Nothing corporeal, nothing natural, should emanate from a servant.”
But when our narrator must stand in line at the welfare building, readers cannot help but chuckle at the paradox revealed:
“I picked one of the six lines of waiting people, making sure I was behind someone who looked like he had taken a shower. Why should I smell poverty? I live it!”
Racism and classism permeates his experience of life as an immigrant in Montreal, and in many ways he lives a divided life, even without his cockroach-side. (The novel also considers religious fundamentalism and political exile and displacement)
“I belong to two spaces, I thought, and I am wrapped in one sheet. I looked at the ceiling. I felt it shifting for a very brief moment, sideways, then down and up. And then that terrible sadness came back into the world like an omnipotent blinding cloud, and tears dropped from my eyes for no reason, as if I was crying for someone else.”
And he is not alone. Even the seemingly pristine people, who occupy the upper echelons of society, belong to an underbelly of sorts. A taxi driver, also an immigrant, discusses the role that Canada has played in selling weapon parts to an Iranian dictator. Despite the country’s longtime reputation as a world peace-keeper, despite Montreal’s pretty postcard images of the Old Port and Expo ’67, there is a darkness there too.
“Of course, Canada! Montreal, this happy, romantic city, has an ugly side, my friend. One of the largest military industrial complexes in North American is right here in this town. What do you think? That the West prospers on manufacturing cars, computers, and Ski-Doos?”
It’s enough to make cockroaches and busboys and readers, alike, despair.
“All the crumbs, all the loose bits of food that had jumped during the evening from the cook’s knives and tilted plates – all that had flown and landed on the ground, all that had sizzled and escaped the rims of giant pans, all that had been transported by gravity and chased by giant brooms and battered by wet sweeping, all that had been expelled into the hollow of drains in this, calm waves of grease and water – now fell into underwaged fists and made me sob.”
But Rawi Hage writes with an undercurrent of the fantastic which also brightens the darkness:
“She rushed to set the table, tossing plates like a poker player tosses cards, throwing forks and knives in the air like a circus magician, lighting fires like a primitive in a cave, and sweeping onion-tears from her eyes.”
And our narrator has a voracious appetite which can be satisfied even by the underwaged (although sometimes only in their imaginations):
“The woman’s thighs were exposed now, and this gave me an uncontrollable urge urge to fly down and land on the bedsheets and extend my arms like two antennae and extract sweet nectar from between her open legs. She tossed around, exposing different shades of her long thighs.”
And, always, the use of language is remarkable:
“When I entered the café, I peeled myself out from under layers of hats, gloves, and scarves, liberated myself from zippers and buttons, and endured the painful tearing Velcro that hissed like a prehistoric reptile, that split and separated like people’s lives, like exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels that sound just like the friction of car wheels wedging snow around my mortal parts.”
What is truly unsettling about Cockroach, is that readers are forced to consider whether they mightn’t rather have six legs, all the better to scurry away from disaster.
Day 22 of 45: Even though I haven’t talked about it yet, I read Rawi Hage’s Carnival in October; it contributed to my decision to take on this project. It’s the kind of work that makes a reader extra-grateful for small presses. DeNiro’s Game is my last of his novels to read, and it’s one of my pretty, new AList books. Here goes! (Sidenote: This is the second botched hanging to open a House of Anansi best-selling novel. Curious.)