Home Arts Giller Prize contender delivers a story to crawl into your psyche

Giller Prize contender delivers a story to crawl into your psyche

By Archives October 28, 2008

If you are looking to read a book that tackles the intense struggles of the immigrant experience and features a narrator who is on the brink of madness, Cockroach should be at the top of your list.
Lebanese-born author Rawi Hage immigrated to Canada in the early 90’s and received a B.F.A. from Concordia University. He has since written two novels, De Niro’s Game (2006) and Cockroach, released this July.
Cockroach brought Hage his second Scotiabank Giller Prize nomination this month, alongside other Canadian authors such as Joseph Boyden and Marina Endicott.
The story begins with the unnamed protagonist’s failed suicide attempt.During his ensuing sessions with a therapist named Genevieve, he begins to share his dark past.
Hage’s novel addresses head on the culture shock experienced by many immigrants settling in Montreal. The main character is a poor man from an Arabic country, unable to fully blend into such a cosmopolitan city; he faces many challenges, including the brutal cold of Canadian winters.
The narrator asks himself: “How did I end up trapped in a constantly shivering carcass, walking in a frozen city with wet cotton falling on me all the time?”
Quebec’s immigration issues have had their share of attention. In 2007, the small town of Herouxville became a battleground when it forbade genital mutilation and stoning as part of a town ordinance. Many were outraged at the laws, which seemed to contain a racist undertone and no practical application.
Even in 2008, there is a mounting immigration backlog and an inability for immigrants to find jobs suited to their degrees. These remain everyday realities for many new Montrealers.
Cockroach is also a story about mental illness. The protagonist is trapped within his own world, constantly jumping between reality and his own illusions. He imagines himself as an insect, crawling into the homes of others without their consent. When his therapist asks which insect he sees himself as, his response is simple: “A cockroach.” Through this, he finds his identity.
Hage’s story is relentless and doesn’t avoid showing the darker side of humanity through gripping imagery and a punctuated narration. However, it is not all grim, as Hage has a knack for incorporating his own brand of very dark humor into his lines. The novel is as captivating as his earlier release De Niro’s Game, filled with as much intensity and guts. While the narrator becomes more and more disillusioned, a quiet violence and quest for revenge brew in the background, ready to erupt on any page. The book’s climax will not easily be purged from the reader’s memory.
Hage’s writing style is unconventional and his approach is nothing less than fearless. Cockroach is a novel that will remain in your thoughts long after the last page is read.