Fly’s voice is the ticket which offers admission to Rawi Hage’s Carnival.
It is not, however, a front row seat. It is a seat to one side, on the margins.
But this is where some of the most interesting things can be observed.
(Michael Ondaatje set The Cat’s Table there, too; let others read of the captain’s table on the ship, but the real action lies on the fringes.)
You will not immediately be comfortable. You might not even take off your coat.
(At the beginning of the novel’s third act, I wriggled off my shoes and curled up my legs beneath me, wholly enjoying the prospect of another two acts to follow.)
Fly is a restless and solitary narrator who drives a taxi cab to pay for his rent (owed for both car and apartment) and food and a little besides; he is a wanderer, an observer, a dreamer.
Some aspects of his story are simply quotidian details (his fares on an evening, what he eats when he gets home), other aspects include memories and imaginings (brushes with the fantastic, visions of past and future).
Fly’s voice weights these equally, so the story veers sharply between these elements.
The narrative structure is a reflection of Fly’s view of the world, which is populated not only by spiders and flies (like him) but giraffes, camels, elephants, mice and other creatures (two-legged and four-legged).
“I can always tell by the strip of cars and lanterns in front of the Bolero who is inside. Some of the spiders always sit together and eat at the same time; they regulate their lives around the filling of their bellies and the smoking of their cigarettes.
Then there is us, the flies, who come and go at all hours.”
The spiders camp at designated taxi stands; the flies drive around to find fares. There is much to be learned of the culture of drivers in this novel (e.g. the political machinations within the professions the varied approaches to shift-work, the night-time repair shop) for Fly is an excellent observer.
Fly is always in motion. Even when he is at home, lying on the floor or the bed, he is lying on a flying carpet; he imagines himself elsewhere, heroic and euphoric.
“Wanderers, tent makers, and animal herders have the privilege of dying anywhere, the bearded lady said as she gave her eulogy. The earth is their land and all the roads are their burial ground.”
Fly knows the roads and meets a wide variety of travellers. Some recognize him immediately as a man of culture, value his exposure to the highbrow and lowbrow clientele who travel in his cab. Others challenge his perspective.
“Drive, the giraffe said to me, drive. Look ahead and not at the car’s roof. You are a lousy traveler. All you do is think, talk, and go around and around in circles. You are as poor and as miserable as any of us kept animals. You are a prisoner of your own windows and point of view.”
It’s all about perspective, about the seat you inhabit, about the view of the carnival’s action. The corporate, well-dressed business-class might occupy the pinnacle of a social hierarchy in one observer’s eye and the dungeons of that hierarchy to another’s eye.
“In those glass citadels and towering dungeons, I see meek creatures, hunchbacked servants, and diabolic yes-men conspiring around water coolers, stirring storms in coffee cups, carrying out orders to steal the sugar cane from the land and the water from the underground, a murderous waltz that will never stop until they dig out the last meal from the bellies of the poor.”
According to those hunchbacked servants, Fly would occupy a true dungeon and indeed he does have to warn visitors not to hit their heads. But those residents of glass citadels would quite likely be shocked to see the number of books in Fly’s apartment.
(As someone who has taken many cabs in Toronto, I have learned that their drivers are likely better read and educated than I, but this might surprise some who have not had this experience, just as some might be surprised by the Genet-reading prostitute in this novel.)
“I may have neglected to tell you that my apartment is filled with books, towers of books stretching up in all directions. When a woman enters my house, a tunnel of books welcomes her, a carnival of heroes bounces from every corner, and I lead her straight through the welcoming applause of writers and mice.
I sit on books, sleep on them, breathe them.”
Fly sympathizes with the efforts to preserve books in Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude and he preserves his own stories in Carnival. (The story of how he gained his library and his system of organization for it? Fascinating.)
Like Fly, Rawi Hage is well-read and preoccupied with questions (preferring them to answers) and storytelling and culture. Fly says: “Novels with open endings I consider to be of a higher rank” and the reader gathers that Fly’s creator shares that view; Hage’s third novel raises a number of questions, which the reader must resolve (or perpetuate).
In an interview, A.L. Kennedy stated that comedy is carnival, and Howard Jacobson spoke about the potential for skepticism to thrive in this atmosphere. The elements of life which Fly observes are often funny: amusing, absurd, and horrifying.
We are all already attending this event, this Carnival, but Fly’s voice offers a new perspective on this “carnival of heroes”.
* CBC Writers & Company Interview (December 2, 2012): Dark Humour Panel with A.L.Kennedy, Erlend Loe, and Howard Jacobson
Day 26 of 45: I have just begun reading my last Rawi Hage novel, having chatted about Cockroach already in this project. It’s actually his first novel, De Niro’s Game, which everybody says is amazing. Alongside this, I’m reading short stories by three House of Anansi authors, spreading them out amongst the novels and longer works. All good stuff.
What have you read of Rawi Hage’s works, or what is still lingering on your TBR?