Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Rawi Hage remains one of the great philosophical writers of Canadian fiction. Deeply rooted in his Middle Eastern heritage yet cosmopolitan and free of the wokeism that plagues much of Canadian literature, Hage speaks to reality and absurdity in the lives of his inconspicuous, although not unassuming, protagonists. His recent collection of short stories, Stray Dogs, is a masterpiece of the genre.
The eleven stories in Stray Dogs share a common thread of observation. Hage immerses himself in the perspective of the omniscient narrator, albeit at a respectful distance. At times, he also personifies the occasional observer in his fiction, who carefully avoids trespassing into the minds of his protagonists.
In "The Fate of the Son of the Man on the Horse," Hage links the controversial fresco of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in the Madonna della Difesa church in Montreal's Little Italy to the story of an unemployed photographer, Giuseppe Cassina. After an uneventful life and the death of his mother, Giuseppe discovers that his biological father is none other than the infamous Italian dictator, with whom his mother had slept to spy for the Italian Resistance. This naturally leads Giuseppe to leave Montreal to visit Predapppio, the village of both Mussolini and his late mother. Once there, the villagers marvel at the son's uncanny resemblance to their revered Il Duce. Then, in a comically commercial manner, Giuseppe dons his father's uniform to impersonate his progenitor for the benefit of the adoring fans who make the pilgrimage to Predappio. There are layers to this story that beg it to be read and reread, but the magic of Hage's writing is not the complexity of his writing. Rather, it is his ability to unleash his imagination from seeing an obscure, incongruous, if not embarrassing, painting to bring to life a rather hapless protagonist whose fate intimately involves the reader.
Photography reappears as a much deeper motif in "The Iconoclast," the first story in Hage's collection. In it, the author provides a first-person narrative that juxtaposes the philosophical musings of a Lebanese academic on photography and literature with the bitterness and search for purity of a radical Berlin photographer, Lukas. A strange affinity that some might call friendship brings Lukas to visit the academic in Beirut. There, Lukas abandons his anarchist militancy and becomes embroiled in a new iconoclasm, Islamism. I particularly liked this story, having lived in Berlin for four years myself, and having been exposed to the "German soul," a subject of great fascination to the narrator of the story, and perhaps to Hage himself. There is a whisper of self-deprecation in the story, perhaps a self-criticism by Hage of his own indulgence in the passive detachment of academia compared to the vibrancy of activism, however misguided.
Hage's final journey in Stray Dogs is a return to philosophy, a field that appears to rival photography as his favourite endeavours. Hage chooses a retired philosophy professor, James Aesthia,as his vehicle to paint a dusty fresco of the life’s meaning between nature and human mortality. Aesthia decides to move to his late wife’s village, where he spends his days marvelling at the beauty of nature and reminiscing in the teachings of his favourite philosopher, Martin Heidegger. This ends abruptly when he witnesses the death of a young couple who venture too close to a cliff’s edge. Unsettled by their senseless deaths, Aesthia immerses himself in writing a biography of Heidegger, whose philosophical brilliance was irreparably marred by his association with Nazism.
Aesthia also remains drawn daily to the site of the young couple’s death. As the murderous cliff gradually becomes a tourist destination, Aesthia begins to deliver Heideggerian lectures to audiences of mostly uncomprehending Japanese tourists. He is finally institutionalized and ultimately dies, bequeathing his intellectual endeavours to his former faculty and his wordly goods to the village to finance a safety fence around the cliff’s edge. It is debatable why Hage chose to end his collection with this story. Was he trying to come to grips with the senselessness of life, or perhaps warning against the perversion of a philosophy that leadsa person to insanity? Undoubtedly, there is a sense of the dangerous attraction of the aesthetics of nature itself: a warning to step back from the beauty of the cliff? Like the earlier stories in the collection, Hage incites his audienceto explore the story by a second and, perhaps, third reading. And even then, much still escapes comprehension.
Rawi Hage is a writer, with whom merely reading his works does not suffice. He leaves you with a burning desire to chance upon him in a café and interrogate him on the motivations in his writings, the intentions of his prose. Inevitably, this intellectual inquisitiveness draws readers to his work, again and again.
Stray Dogs is published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada.