Saturday, June 28, 2008

Rawi Hage

Congratulations to Rawi Hage, winner of the 2008 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for De Niro’s Game (Anansi, 2006).

Hage’s debut novel received a double honour the year it was released, nomination for both the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award for Literature. Though it won neither, the book achieved broad recognition, critical acclaim and other awards. The IMPAC, however, is an important international notice for this Canadian talent.

The publisher’s website describes the book this way:

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."

In Rawi Hage's astonishing and unforgettable novel, this famous quote by Camus becomes a touchstone for two young men caught in Lebanon's civil war. Bassam and George are childhood best friends who have grown to adulthood in wartorn Beirut. Now they must choose their futures: to stay in the city and consolidate power through crime; or to go into exile abroad, alienated from the only existence they have known.

Rawi Hage brilliantly fuses vivid, jump-cut cinematic imagery with the measured strength and beauty of Arabic poetry. His style mimics a world gone mad: so smooth and apparently sane that its razor-sharp edges surprise and cut deeply. A powerful meditation on life and death in a war zone, and what comes after.
In 2006, I was part of a mock Giller Jury experiment for, later reproduced on the TDR website. Asked who I thought should have won, I said:

Hage’s book was the clear #1 pick for me. Why? It was the only one that gave me a knot in my stomach. None of the other books gave me the same kind of emotional engagement. A large part of the power of the book comes from the extraordinary circumstances of the story: the Lebanese Civil War. In structure, it’s essentially a buddy story and quite simple, as is its prose. I found the references to Camus’s The Stranger unnecessarily literary. Hage’s novel is existentialist, yes, but readers should have been left to reach that conclusion on their own.
Two years later I still have strong affection for the novel. In my memory, in fact, it has improved over time. I feel that I was overly critical in dismissing the "unnecessary literary" in the novel. Someone once dismissed the book to me, using a similar but stronger argument. She said that De Niro’s Game was watered-down Camus. This is a fair comment, but I have come to feel is it also part of a trend of dark cosmopolitanism – the kind of cynicism that kills babies in their cribs.

I wonder how a literary culture grows, how it is nurtured. What threats does it face? How can these be addressed? There are internal and external threats, it seems to me. Censors and book burners can exist both inside and outside the community. Not that disliking a book is a symptom of being a philistine. But how one phrases one’s dislike may well be.

In this regard, I am sure I have made my share of errors. Perhaps I’ll confess them some other time.

For now, some reflections on De Niro’s Game. Hopefully meaningful ones.

Rawi Hage has achieved his fame as a Canadian writer. His novel, however, is not about what it means to be a Canadian. If one looked at the definition of Canadian literature on Wikipedia, one would be hard pressed to locate De Niro’s Game within this topos. (Please, Wikipedians, fix the abomination of your Canlit definition.)

Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether Hage’s book is "Canadian literature" or not, but for the sake of some academic log-rolling, let’s keep going. Because if Hage’s novel isn’t Canadian literature, then Canlit is a historical anachronism. Perhaps this is another way a literary culture grows. The definitions are kept under constant pressure, the categories kept ajar.

In June 2002, Harper’s Magazine published a notable essay by Pico Iyer, called "The Last Refuge: On the promise of new Canadian fiction." Terry Rigelhof summarized Iyer’s essay in Canadian Notes and Queries:

What Iyer [says] the "New Canadian Novel" … offers a kind of multiculturalism that can be known only at the individual level, where people understand that it is only in the imagination that we can begin to penetrate the Other (or to allow the Other to penetrate us), a multiculturalism that is based on shared beliefs not shared roots and, especially, on the most universal of all shared beliefs, the belief that art transcends ideology and political identity.

Iyer identified Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) as "the defining work of modern Canadian fiction, not only because it won so many readers worldwide but because it presents us with a stirring vision of what Canada might offer to a world in which more and more people are on the move and motion itself has become a kind of nation."
For a reason along these lines (one imagines), Bono endorsed Paul Martin for Prime Minister and said, "The world needs more Canada" (November 2003). Because Canada, in the internationalist’s imagination, is a blank slate on which can be written the aspirations of the world’s dispossessed. Canada doesn’t have an (international) colonial legacy. It is a post-colonial state itself. Right? Well, some would say this is too simple.

Within De Niro’s Game, Canada plays no role. It is truly the blank slate on which the story of the Other can be told.

And yet I am insisting that Hage’s novel is a Canadian novel. Because Hage is a Canadian. Is that the only reason?


De Niro’s Game was written in Canada, published in Canada, and launched to the world stage on its Canadian foundation. There is more than a peripheral relationship between nation and novel. And there is no reason why a Canadian novel needs to be about Canada. Vis a vis Nabokov, there’s no reason for a novel to be "about" anything.

Even Carol Shields says so:

I love language, and I think I come out writing novels from that direction rather than from what Nabokov used to call the "aboutness" of novels. That's interesting to me too. But the language is always first.
De Niro’s Game is not about what it means to live here, and it’s not about what it means to arrive here – or to have a difficult past. As the Anansi blurb suggests, it’s a novel that looks back at the existentialist philosophers and brings forward their point of view into a dramatic story of war and friendship.

The novel creates a vivid view of the chaos of the world. It is a significant achievement.

I will end with a note about Hage’s other profession: photographer. His online profile provides something to interest us:

…one of his professors, Raymonde April, brought him to see photography as a medium that can become very aggressive, very unjust . . . at the documentary level, because it can be easily manipulated by the media. Hage opposes that pernicious effect on the medium by incorporating his photos—which deal mainly with immigration, war and racism—into fictional contexts where many voices summon each other. Somewhat like a Vermeer who has metamorphosed, through his art, the images of a camera obscura, he transforms his photographs so as to make them unsuited to hurried consumption or sensationalist use.
As to photographs, so to novels. "Unsuited to hurried consumption or sensationalist use" is as apt a description of literature as any.


After I wrote all of the above, I found in today's Globe and Mail:

Our part-time home and native land


It is a Canada that, at first glance, looks to be stretching social cohesion beyond limit, a Canada crumbling into author Yann Martel's metaphor of the world's best hotel, but where none of the guests make small-talk in the lobby. No getting together in the dining room for meals, no gathering in the bar to watch hockey.

It is a Canada that has arrived at multiculturalism Mark II and a generation of new adults who have moved decisively beyond nationalism to embrace a kind of transcendent planetary supranationalism. We are becoming the land of global citizens, by all accounts galloping out ahead of other advanced democracies.

It appears to be occurring within a broad consensus.
Strange, huh?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Debating Canadian Identity has long been a traditional Canadian hobby. As a new Canadian, and a new Canadian of new fame Rawi Hage inherited this mess.

When asked in a recent Quill and Quire interview if De Niro’s Game was a Canadian book, I believe Hage replied that the Canadian granting system helped make it possible. Indirectly, his answer was “yes”. With that in mind, perhaps we can identify a Canadian author by the fact that they pay school tax in Canada. That doesn’t however, take into account the authors who can barely get by on their Canada Council grants and who can never imagine being a home owner, much less a home-owning school tax payer.

But defaulting as a Canadian writer doesn’t mean the writer’s work will automatically be categorized as CanLit. Can we lump De Niro’s Game under the CanLit umbrella? That depends on the criteria we select to test it against. I would argue that it isn’t Pinch-your-nose CanLit. Pinch-your-nose CanLit is the CanLit most Canadians teens were force fed in high school, swallowing it because it was good for them. No teen ever got indigestion from CanLit but few asked for second helpings until later on when their literary taste buds matured.

Regrettably the CanLit debate becomes a default test. Ask anyone who hates CanLit to read De Niro’s Game and if they don’t pinch their nose then you know it isn’t CanLit. Ask a CanLit lover if De Niro’s Game is CanLit and readers will be pleased to lump it in alongside Sheilds, Blais, and Atwood. Why? Because we want to read Canadian voices reflecting Canadians. As a new Canadian of new fame Rawi Hage offers us this.

By the way, what are the school taxes like in Narnia these days?

Kathleen Molloy, author - Dining with Death