Rawi Hage has said that De Niro’s Game began as a short story.

1996; House of Anansi, 2012

A short story that continued to grow.

“I finally, out of nowhere, had a novel on my hands and I sent it to a few places and I got a few responses.”

The scenic construction does remind readers of the intensity of a shorter form, whether fiction or film, or even more concisely, photography.

“I was trained as a photographer. And that photographic gaze, the needed presence at the shooting of a scene was somehow transferred into my writing. I tend to write in the first person. I also tend to situate my self in the space I am describing, or imagining. There is a close proximity, a need for an almost physical presence that I notice while I am writing. Much like a photographer’s presence.”

(These quotations are drawn from a 2009 interview of the author by Rima Hammoudi.)

De Niro’s Game unfolds in Roma, Beirut and Paris. Just as the film for which the novel was named has the game playing out in more than one setting, George and Bassam play Russian Roulette with their lives against a backdrop of ever-shifting skirmishes and conflicts.

The novel is told from Bassam’s point-of-view, so readers are drawn closer to his story, the story of “longhaired teenagers like us, with guns under our bellies, and stolen gas in our tanks, and no particular place to go”.

“From the roof, I could see West Beirut on fire. The Israelis bombarded the inhabitants for days, orange light glowed in the night, machine-gun bullets left the ground and darted into the air in red arches. The city burned and drowned in sirens, loud blood, and death.”

Are George and Bassam simply “boys being boys”, such as that is in a war-torn country? Are they more troublesome, more violent than most boys in similar situations? Do they have any alternative? At first, readers are unsure.

“In the background I heard Abou-Dolly shouting, I knew your father, I knew your father, he was a friend of mine, and he would be ashamed to see that his son turned out to be. A thug! Shame on you, insulting me in my own house, in front of my family. A thug! That is what you are, my son, a thug. And he spat on the floor and cursed my generation and my kind.”

From Abou-Dolly’s perspective, Bassam does not even acknowledge the older man’s words, but Bassam does hear. Perhaps he even listens.

“The thug walked between the buildings, avoiding the falling bombs. The thug crossed streams of sewage that dripped from broken pipes. He walked with a gun in one hand and a box of tender cotton in the other.”

Rawi Hage could have known something of that, first-hand, having been a teenager in Beirut himself.

“As you know, Beirut was a divided city, much like Berlin, except there was no wall but sandbags and snipers, so we Christians lived in our enclave and the Muslims lived in theirs, and there was for all intents and purposes no contact between the two sides. It wasn’t until I was maybe 16, when I went to Cyprus to visit an aunt, that I had my first meaningful contact with Muslims.”

(This appears in a 2007 interview of the author by Arts & Opinion.)

Rampant criminality, unchecked militarization, gobs and gobs of testosterone: Rawi Hage simultaneously considers the political and personal impacts of and complications surrounding coming-of-age in Beirut.

His own perspective on the situation has changed dramatically throughout his life.

“I began to see the civil war in its absurdity, not of two sides fighting for their rights and beliefs but two sides being manipulated by regional and not so regional powers whose interests had very little to do with anything either Christian or Muslim. Any number of foreign corporations were funding and funnelling arms to both parties.”

Even as young men, George and Bassam, too, were unravelling the roles they played on that stage. (Sometimes in beautifully poetic bursts, although this one is more powerful in the context of Khalil’s death.)

“George, I said the next day while we were sitting in a café, smoking and drinking coffee, Khalil’s funeral is on Wednesday. Are you going?
“No, he said, and looked at me with piercing eyes. I do not kill the bird and dance with its feathers.”

Readers of De Niro’s Game know, too, that Bassam did dream of escape.

“I walked up the hill and looked down into the valley. Then I looked at the sea in front of me, the sea I’d have to plunge into and slip beneath and swim through one day to reach other shores and leave this place.”

In the game that De Niro plays in “The Deer Hunter”, however, there is no route to escape, and security can only be achieved by accident, what another character, in more luxurious circumstances, might call “luck”.

All of this makes for an intense and unsettling reading experience. (This was true, too, of Cockroach and Carnival.)

Rawi Hage excels at unsettling readers.

Project Notes: 
Day 34 of 45: I couldn’t score at all with Margaret Atwood’s The Circle Game, and Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game left me longing for a simple game of Uno. Nonetheless, I do love a good game. Do you?