A young immigrant travels to the land of ice and snow to whisper tales of gore on how he calmed the tides of war.
I was two-thirds of the way through Rawi Hage’s Cockroach when the incident occurred.
I was making my daily rounds, trolling the internet for porn, when something bounced off the top of my head. I ran a hand through my hair. Nothing. A minute later- bonk! A small piece of plaster lands on the desk. Fear grips me. I look up, slow. There on the ceiling is a whopper of a cockroach, strutting around with impunity like Tony Manero on his way to the club.
What ensued could only be described as an epic battle of wits as I desperately tried to end the bastard’s life. It was like a chess match played out with an old shoe and a can of WD-40 (it was the most toxic thing I had in the house.) Eventually he eluded me, and I resigned myself to sleeping with one eye open for the duration of my lease. Needing consolation, I called my girlfriend to regale her with the account of my bravery. I was mid-tale when the not-so-little bugger peaked out from behind a filing cabinet and I screamed like a little girl.
If I hadn’t already started and fallen in love with Cockroach, I very well may have hurled it from my apartment window or set the damn thing on fire. As it is, I think I might have to get rid of my copy of The Roaches Have No King, by Daniel Evan Weiss. It is one thing to give a person insect-like qualities, but it is another to make such a despicable creature human.
Cockroach is the story of a Lebanese immigrant living in Montreal after a botched suicide attempt. The metaphor of immigrant as cockroach is usually a negative one, but in Hage’s novel our narrator imagines himself scuttling beneath the feet of the privileged elite as a Kafkaesque badge of honor. He is a womanizer and a thief, and when he is not sneaking into people’s homes and stealing food, he is recounting his childhood in war-torn Lebanon to his court appointed shrink.
Hage’s vision of immigrant Montreal evokes the 70’s era New York City of Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, his unnamed narrator a more personable Travis Bickle. Hage populates that world with a cast of ethnically diverse characters that are relatable on a grand scale, despite their social status. Those characters wend their way into your heart, like roaches under a door, until one day you realize you have an infestation on your hands.
Cockroach is driven by these characters, not by plot, and exhibits a natural fluidity in its storytelling. By the time the climax rolls around, we are caught up on the narrator’s past just in time to witness his future. Hage doesn’t lead us by the nose with a trail of plot-point breadcrumbs. He starves us, just enough, before throwing the whole loaf of bread in our face. We see it coming, but only once we are in the moment and it is already too late.
So as I scraped the insect’s carcass off the bottom of my shoe and gave him a burial at sea, I was forced to consider Mr. Hage’s book in a new light. I realized Hage and Weiss’ approach to understanding the human condition were not so dissimilar. Hage’s immigrants and Weiss’ vermin are both utterly and completely human, despite the sordid details of their lives. Dare I say I felt a twinge of lower-middle class remorse as I flushed the toilet? That I had used what little privilege I have to extinguish the dreams of those below me? That we all have our place in this turbulent world and should strive to co-exist peacefully? Probably not, but next time I see one of those six-legged fuckers, I’m sure I’ll be thinking of Hage’s book as I squash it.