The Madness within

Limbs folded neatly, the stranger sits with uneasy grace in a plastic chair. He is bespectacled and dressed completely in black; a beanie tops his shaved head. He raises a microphone to his lips and says in a lightly accented English, “I tried to document the madness that was around me, growing up. In the end, this unconstrained explanation of madness liberated me.”
A Concordia graduate and author of De Niro’s Game (2006), Rawi Hage’s debut novel won both the 2006 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the 2006 McAuslan First Book Prize. De Niro’s Game was also long listed and short listed for a slew of other awards, including the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award.
De Niro’s Game is a coming-of-age story about two friends who join separate movements during the Lebanese Civil War. Bassam is obsessed with leaving war-torn Beirut and commits a string of petty crimes to finance his trip. George, on the other hand, ventures deep underground to build power among the city’s corrupt military.
The book’s title is inspired from The Deer Hunter (1978), an Academy Award-winning film starring Christopher Walken and Robert De Niro. The film prominently features Russian roulette, a game of luck that involves loading one bullet into a revolver and taking turns pulling the trigger at one’s head.
Hage manages to evoke the chaos of the times as he answers questions from Norman Cornett’s Propaganda class (COMS 361).
“When I was little, I stole my father’s car with a friend. We went chasing bombs to photograph,” he said. “It’s not indifference, it’s accepting how you are living and having a defiance to it.”
Hage’s visit is part of a series of “dialogic” sessions with various writers, filmmakers, actors and other creative types. Cornett, a historian by training, believes in the primacy of first-hand sources.
In an interesting twist, students are called upon for the question period by names of their own choosing. These include Madonna Incubus, McCartney Helter-Skelter, Jefferson Kink, Symphony Rush, and Cupid Harper.
“Names are a form of propaganda,” said Cornett. “They are imposed on us from birth. Here, students are allowed to articulate their own identities instead of being named by others.”
The name of the Hage session is “Purple Rehab,” which combines the songs “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix and “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse. Incidentally, Cornett’s Purple Rehab name is Amy Hendrix.
During the session, Cornett read out anonymous statements about De Niro’s Game to the author, who was invited to respond. Many of the testimonies were less than complimentary. One person wrote, “Something about this novel is offensive.”
“I guess I should have put in more wailing, I don’t know,” deadpanned Hage.
Among the subjects touched upon during the sitting were escape, eroticism, Arabic and American culture, religion, conflict, existentialism, loss, language, photography and the writing process.
When asked what he thought of the session, Hage said, “I thought it was great. There were such poignant and precise statements from the students. I am happy that not all of them were complimentary.”

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