Thursday, July 28, 2011

Cockroach

I try really hard not to give up on a book once I've started it. Usually, that's not a problem because I'm a pretty quick reader and I'm pretty choosey about what I read. That said, every once in a while I start a book and think Oh shoot, this is not what I want to be reading. Generally, though, I slog through and either it gets better and I'm glad I did, or I never quite connect but I finish nonetheless. On the rare occasion, though, I realize that the discomfort is intentional, and even if I don't particularly enjoy the main character, I still become a little attached. That was the case with Rawi Hage's Cockroach.

Cockroach is set in Montreal in the winter and it follows the story of an unnamed narrator who is an immigrant from an unnamed country. We learn early on that he has recently been released from a psych ward, where he was placed after trying to hang himself in the park. As a condition of his release he has to see a therapist once a week, and it's through those brief meetings that we learn about his past. But the therapy sessions, which are usually brief, are hardly the most revealing sections of the book. Rather, because the entire novel is narrated from the perspective of the unnamed man, we spend the whole book in his head, rocked around by his sudden mood shifts and frequently unsure if what he's telling us is real.

The narrator lives in a filthy apartment crawling with roaches. Although he often attempts to kill them, he also sees himself as one of them – small, resilient, and able to get in anywhere. This last skill is one he puts to use as a thief. After he marks someone and follows them home, he waits until the right moment and goes in. He never seems to steal anything of value, though, mostly he breaks into homes and apartments so he can see what that person's life is like, take personal objects of little or no monetary value, and eat food from their fridge. He's careful not to leave a trace that he was there, though, because the narrator would rather sold onto that information until it can do maximum damage to the person's sense of security. As a reader, though, you can never be quite sure if the break-in has occurred at all until the confrontation because so much of what he describes sounds like fantasy, not least of which is his method of breaking in – he crawls in through the drain, he tells us, or under the door. He becomes a cockroach. 

Why he chooses to become a cockroach is another thing entirely. Simply deciding that he's delusional is too easy, I think, and his interactions with some of his friends wouldn't support that. Rather, the cockroach is the object of revulsion, unnoticed until it's in front of you and then immediately sentenced to death. But cockroaches are strong and sneaky and can live in the dark, dank places that polite society doesn't go, and where we perhaps see something disgusting, our narrator sees much to admire.

Cockroach offers one very specific facet of "the immigrant experience" that is often missing from the discussion, and Hage tempers it by including other immigrants whose lives don't resemble the narrator's at all. This is not meant to be a universal portrait, but the images of the narrator's isolation, despair, and anger, as well as a kind of perverse joy, all transcend his particular character. In the end, you don't need to like him to sympathize, which is an important take-away from the novel I think. Cockroach is a novel that forces you to think about things you would probably prefer not to, which can make it a tough read; stick with it, though, and the reward is undeniable.

Cockroach
by Rawi Hage
First published in 2008 (cover image from Norton edition)

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