From the first pages, it is clear that Rawi Hage can write, that he can paint pictures with words. Inside their houses, the impoverished women carefully, economically, dripped water from red plastic buckets over their brown skins in ancient Turkish bathtubs, washing away the dust, the smells, the baklava-thin crust, the vicious morning gossip over tiny coffee cups, the poverty of their husbands, the sweat under their unshaven armpits. They washed like meticulous Christian cats that lick their paws under small European car engines that leak corporate oil extracted by exploited Nigerian workers from underneath the earth where devils roam, and worms gnaw on the roots of dead trees that are suffocated by factory fumes and the greedy breath of white-skinned engineers. Those lazy cats lingered under unwashed cars, watching the passing of Italian shoes, painted nails, colourful and torn-out cuffs, pointy high heels, plastic flippers, stomping naked feet, and delicious exposed ankles that thick hands would bind, release, and slip higher to reach a flow of warm fluid that carefully, generously turned into a modest flood smelling of eel, red fish, and rosewater.
This is page 14, the fourth page of the novel, and in the first of what will be many images like this, Hage sets up the recurring themes set amidst the blood and bombs, sex and guns and contraband whiskey, death, dirt, dust and violence of Beirut circa 1982. East (Christian) Beirut, specifically, although loyalties are complex and difficult to grasp, as fluid and circular as Hage's imagery.
This is a chaotic, hallucinatory, cinematic, nihilistic, sometimes literal, sometimes figurative, sometimes both nightmare world seen through the eyes of the traumatized and testosterone-, nicotine-, hash- and coffee-fuelled Bassam who dreams only of escape.
When I believed that all I was going to be given were these beautiful and lyrical images describing the ugliest of scenes, wonderful as they are, I started to fade, but on p. 101 (precisely) a plot twist occurred, and several more after that.
Thereafter, Hage's novel wove character and plot into the tapestry (whereas prior to, Bassam's L'Etranger-like emotional detachment made it difficult to connect with him), and the imagery came to embroider his emotional underpinnings and mental state. A scene of torture is particularly effective, gut-wrenching and frightening, when described with this type of lyricism.De Niro's Game
reads in part like a spy novel, and part like Hemingway-meets-Burroughs-meets-Camus. It's not on many of my GR friends' lists, but (not only to plug a Montreal-by-way-of-Lebanon author), it should be.
I thought this book, based on title and cover art, was a spy thriller--not my cup of tea. Instead, I find out it's an existential exploration, with allusions to Camus and Sartre, of life in war-torn Beirut. The title is taken from the game of Russian roulette (à la DeNiro in the Deerhunter) that becomes popular among those who are struggling to survive there. Much lauded among the CanLit crowd, including Quill & Quire (review here