Review by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Rawi Hage’s second novel, Cockroach, inhabits a bleak world. The story centers on an unnamed narrator who believes that he is part human and part cockroach. He is an immigrant in Montreal and is living a life of poverty on the fringes of the rest of society.
After an attempted suicide, he finds himself in court-ordered therapy, where he reveals parts of his history before he arrived in Canada. As he tries to carve out a place for himself in Montreal’s immigrant community, he struggles with the cold winter, with mental illness and poverty. He is constantly on a search for food, and feels that he has more in common with the cockroaches that scrounge around in his kitchen sink than with the people he passes on the sidewalk.
Cockroach is supposed to repulse the reader – everything from the title to the descriptions of living in poverty has the ability to make us uncomfortable. The novel presents a side of society that usually remains unseen, because it’s easier to hide it than acknowledge that it’s there.
This book is not the grateful immigrant tale that most Canadians want to hear: this is the story of where our system fails, of how our country can be both refuge and prison, opportunity and oppression. The novel showcases this over and over again through the life of the main character, as well as various other members of Montreal’s immigrant community, such as Majeed, who came to Canada to find freedom, and who is free to be a taxi driver but not resume his career as a journalist. It is also evident in the life of the character known only as the Algerian professor, who has too much pride to acknowledge that he is living in a basement on welfare, and spends his days carrying a briefcase and talking about philosophy in smoky cafes.
The story also includes middle class characters that find the histories of these immigrants exciting and exotic, who use their presence for adventure and escape, instead of seeing the reality of their situations.
Cockroach delves into the nuances of the poor immigrant experience and lays everything bare. At times the main character imagines himself with six legs and antennae, staring up at people’s feet, or crawling underground while the rest of society strolls above, oblivious to him. It is a metaphor that masterfully articulates his struggle with integration and poverty. But it doesn’t ask for pity: rather, the book asks for his life to be acknowledged.
Instead of identifying with the main character, the reader must try to understand him. He lives a poor life, but he is also a man who steals and manipulates people, someone who still finds ways to exercise his control. He exacts revenge on people by breaking into their houses to take items of significance and eat their food. The story is also a portrait of mental illness and crime, of a man obsessed with women and haunted by memories of his childhood, and the book examines how all these aspects of his life are intertwined and dependent on one another.
The writing is raw and poetic. Hage’s sentences have the power to evoke intense images, creating a visceral reading experience. It’s also filled with dark humour. While the nature and subject matter of the story can at times run the risk of alienating the reader, the lyricism of the writing is a constant salvation.
This is a novel that’s not always easy to read, but perhaps that is the point. Cockroach aims to unsettle. It asks the reader to open their mind, and is a rare reading experience in today’s landscape of modern Canadian literature.
Cockroach was published in 2008 by House of Anansi Press.