Inside the Buggy Mind of an Immigrant | Review of “Cockroach” by Rawi Hage (2008) House of Anansi Press

Cockroach

We all have a notion of what it is like to be an immigrant to our country. Usually it is based on the stories of people who came before us. But Rawi Hage has given a new perspective to what it like to be an immigrant in today’s age that is gritty, bittersweet, and totally refreshing. In short, his novel Cockroach is a brilliant read.

Page 3-4

Perhaps it’s time to see my therapist again, because lately this feeling has been weighing on me. Although that same urge has started to act upon me in the shrink’s presence. Recently, when I saw her laughing with one of her co-workers, I realized that she is also a woman, and when she asked me to re-enact my urges, I put my hand on her knee while she was sitting across from me. She changed the subject and, calmly, with a compassionate face, brushed my hand away, pushed her seat back, and said: Okay, let’s talk about your suicide.

Last week I confessed to her that I used to be more courageous, more carefree, and even, one might add, more violent. but here in this northern land no one give you an excuse to hit, rob or shoot, or even to shout from across the balcony to cures your neighbours’ mothers and threaten their kids.

I love the fact that the narrator of this story is never named. He is a desperate individual living among the émigré community of Montreal in the dead of winter. He goes from beds to cafes to his therapist’s office to the homes he breaks while in a murky and desperate rant.

Page 86-87

I like to pass by fancy stores and restaurants and watch the people behind thick glass, taking themselves seriously, driving forks into their mouths between short conversations and head nods. I also like to watch the young waitresses in their short black dresses and white aprons. Although I no longer stand and stare. The last ime I did that it was summer and I was leaning on a parked car, watching a couple eat slowly, neither looking at the other. A man from inside, in a black suit, came out and asked me to leave. When I told him that it is a free country, a public space, he told me to leave now, and to get away from the sports car I was resting against. I moved away from the car but refused to leave. Not even two minutes later, a police car came and two female officers got out, walked towards me, and asked for my papers. When I objected and asked them why, they said it was unlawful to stare at people inside commercial places. I said, Well, I am staring at my own reflection in the glass. The couple in the restaurant seemed entertained by all of this. While one of the officers held my papers and went back to the car to check out my past, I watched the couple watching me, as if finally something exciting was happening in their lives. They watched as if from behind a screen, as if it were live news. Now I was part of their TV dinner, I was spinning in a microwave, stripped of my plastic cover, eaten, and defecated the next morning just as the filtered coffee was brewing in the kitchen and the radio was prophesying the weather, telling them what to wear, what to buy, what to say, whom to watch, and whom to like and hate. The couple enjoyed watching me, as if I were some reality show about police chasing people with food-envy syndrome.

Hage has documented a unique element of the human condition here. In this wonderfully-confused muddle of a narrative, he shows what the thoughts of a lonely and confused individual that could easily exist in our midst. The story does flow well as we are given deeper and deeper insight into this person and his world around him.

Page 158-159

I did not know how cold it was. I’m never sure of the temperature, and I never look at the weather forecast. I’m not sure why people in this place always start their conversations with remarks about the weather. Small talk frightens me. I have nothing to say. I do not see the point of communicating just for the sake of saying something. Yes, it is cold. I’ll admit it if you want me to, but at least today I was well-fed. Tonight the cook made me a plate before he left. Without calling me over or telling me anything, she shoved a plate in front of me, and then the owner came over and pointed at it and looked at me. I sat at the small table next to the kitchen and ate, really trying not to show how much I was enjoying the food. I know what kind of merchant the owner is. Everything is negotiated. If my boss sensed my dependence on his meals, he might cut money from my pay or aks for more work and give me more orders, and who knows where it would all stop – maybe with cleaning his car, or heating his car, or shovelling his snow, driving his in-laws, cutting the lawn under his suburban plastic chairs, scrubbing his barbecue. Some of these immigrants are still eager to re-enact those lost days of houses with pillars, servants, and thick cigars. Filth! They are the worst – the Third World elite are the filth of the planet and I do not feel any affinity with their jingling-jewellery wives, their arrogance, their large TV screens. Filth! they consider themselves royalty when all they are is the residue of colonial power. They walk like they are aristocrats, owners from the land of spice and honey, yet they are nothing but the descendants of porters, colonial servants, gardeners, and sell-out soldiers for invading empires.

Cockroach by Rawi Hage is a wonderful muddle of an exploration into a segment of the human condition. It is a brilliant read and –  most definitely – a must read for any fans of literature.

*****

Link to House of Anansi’ s page for Cockroach

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