Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The Stranger in a foreign land

De Niro's Game
by Rawi Hage

The Impac Dublin Literary Award is literature's richest prize. €100,000 (almost £80,000) is not to be sneezed at, and when a début novelist beats off big-hitters like Roth, Atwood, Updike and Pynchon I'm interested. If it hadn't been for the prize there's little chance that I would even have glanced at this book which, with its hideous cover, looks like one of those airport murder/thrillers. You'll notice the crack that runs to the bottom of the page and which reminded me of Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth at Tate Modern. She said that the fissure she opened in the Turbine Hall's floor represented the danger of crossing borders; the danger of rejection and racial hatred, which is a useful parallel to have with Hage's novel.

Set in Lebanon during the Civil War of the 70's and 80's we follow the trajectories of two childhood friends Bassam and George. The early pages describe with cinematic flair the exuberance of their youth, even in this city destroyed by 'ten thousand bombs'.

Then we hopped back on the motorbike and drove under the falling bullets, oblivious. We drove through the noise of military chants and a thousand radio stations all claiming victory. We stared at the short skirts of female warriors and drove beside schoolgirl's thighs. We were aimless, beggars and thieves, horny Arabs with curly hair and open shirts and Marlboro packs rolled in our sleeves, dropouts, ruthless nihilists with guns, bad breath, and long American jeans.

Not knowing an awful lot about the conflict myself, Hage shows in simple detail the divisions between Muslim and Christian, the various factions in the battle for power and the States that stand behind them but he focuses on the individuals. Bassam dreams of leaving the war torn streets for Rome, whereas George finds himself drawn into the Christian militia. The two of them work together initially on a scam at George's workplace involving poker machines. With this Bassam hopes to fund his flight to Europe but it ends up becoming the leverage a local militia leader needs to enlist George, a willing participant at a time when the only way to command respect and ensure your own safety is with a gun in your hand.

These are men inured to violence because of their familiarity with it. De Niro's game is of course Russian Roulette (from The Deer Hunter) a game of chance which serves as the perfect metaphor for the situation in Beirut. When lives can be lost so cheaply there is very little these young men can think to do apart from escape or take part. Even when his own mother is killed by a falling bomb Bassam finds himself feeling release rather than sadness. Maybe this accounts for the rather deadened tone to Hage's writing. It is a curious mixture; the filmic quality early on making some passages read with the black and white simplicity of a screenplay but every now and then Hage will add a poetic flourish. These flights of fancy increase as the novel progresses and with decreasing effect. I'm not sure that the world was crying out for a poetic description of urination (I stood above the toilet, undid my belt buckle, and slowly, urgently, I let the metamorphosed red wine burst and flow in the curve of a single yellow rainbow).

Bassam will eventually make his escape, to Paris, where his rebellious leanings find ample expression in the city synonymous with revolution. It is here he comes face to face with racism and finds himself resorting to the only form of defence he knows; attack. Here he also meets George's half-sister Rhea, who is desperate to know as much as she can about George from his closest friend.

I skipped many things about George, and when I saw how happy she was I changed names, I planted trees, I painted the concrete houses in our old neighbourhood in tropical colours, I made people dance and laugh, even under the falling bombs.

But he can't pretend forever. Bassam begins reading a copy of The Stranger by Albert Camus whose hero is man not unlike himself. In the same way that Mersault is awakened from his disconnection by killing 'The Arab', Bassam will confront his past in order to make any progress into his future.

I wanted to enjoy this book more but Bassam is a character with very little capacity to connect, which makes for a frustrating narrator. The prose an be either too simplistic or too florid and the plot begins to stretch credulity as it develops, especially when we reach Paris. However, Hage's descriptions of Beirut and the corrosive effects of war and violence are spot on and he creates some fantastic images. The games we play as children can take on a hideous dimension in conflict, and the human angle that Hage shows provides a sobering aspect to the images we see everyday on the television from war torn cities around the globe. Just as many people saw the images of 9/11 as clips from some Hollywood movie these two boys find that violence, even when it happens right in front of you, can be banal and clichéd.


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