Book Review: Cockroach by Rawi Hage

I found this book a challenging read. In fact, it took me so far out of my personal comfort zone that I was tempted to permanently close its pages several times while reading the first few chapters. But since I’d made a commitment to myself to read all the contenders for Canada Reads 2014, I persevered.

I guess I eventually grew accustomed to the desperation and horrible poverty permeating the life of the nameless main character and his fellow recent immigrants. I found myself noticing the narrator’s unique perspective on otherwise familiar things and became caught up in his thoughts and speech:

  • “…I used to be more courageous, more carefree, and even, one might add, more violent. But here in this northern land no one gives you an excuse to hit, rob, or shoot, or even to shout from across the balcony, to curse your neighbours’ mothers and threaten their kids.” p 4
  • “And how about those menacing armies of heavy boots, my friend, encasing people’s feet, and the silenced ears, plugged with wool and headbands, and the floating coats passing by in ghostly shapes, hiding faces, pursed lips, austere hands? Goddamn it! Not even a nod in this cold place, not even a timid wave, not a smile from below red, sniffing, blowing noses.” p 9
  • “Primitive and uneducated as I was, I instinctively felt trapped in the cruel and insane world saturated with humans….But I was the master of the underground. I crawled under beds, camped under tables; I was even the kind of kid who would crawl under the car to retrieve the ball, rescue the stranded cat, find the coins under the fridge.
    “When I was a teenager I met my mentor Abou-Roro, the neighbourhood thief.” p 23-24
  • “But when you sit and wait, everyone knows what you are here for. Everyone knows that you are going to confess something – something evil that was done to you, something evil that you did. Still, the past is all in the past. If you sit, wait, behave, confess, and show maybe some forgiveness and remorse, you, my boy, you could be saved. Jesus shall appear from behind one of those office doors in a skirt and stockings, holding a file of lives in his hand. Jesus will lead you, walk in front of you, swinging his ass up the hallway….Jesus is strong-willed and is on his way towards you, smiling at you, leading you to that familiar chair, that small table, and he will be asking you how your days were, and your nights, starting with the bad weather and finishing with your cold mother.” p 231-232

FROM THE INSIDE FRONT COVER: Cockroach takes place during a bitterly cold winter in Montreal’s restless immigrant community, where a self-confessed “thief” has just tried and failed to commit suicide by hanging himself from a tree in a local park. Rescued against his will, the narrator is obliged to attend sessions with a well-intentioned therapist. This sets the story in motion, leading us back into the narrator’s childhood in a war-torn country, forward into his current life in the smoky émigré cafes where everyone has a tale to tell, and out into the frozen streets of the city after dark, where the thief survives on the edge, imagining himself to be a cockroach invading the lives of the privileged, but willfully blind, citizens around him.”

It was never clear to me how the time line of the story is organized – whether linear, looping or some combination. We read snippets from the narrator’s childhood, teenage years and read much more about his life as a presumed refugee existing in desperate poverty and intuitively working the angles to survive. The narrator’s home country is never revealed, although he meshes with the Persian community in Montreal. The biggest clue the author offers is the use of lira, the currency of Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.

I don’t know if this is “the” book to change the nation, but it did change me. It made me realize I am one of the “privileged, but willfully blind, citizens” making blithe assumptions about immigrating to Canada; I just assumed that life here is pretty easy compared to a lot of other countries (unless you’re not ready for our winter season). This book made me appreciate the challenges some immigrants face and I’m a lot more interested in the unit on immigration that K is starting at school that I otherwise would have been.

Samantha Bee will defend Cockroach in Canada Reads 2014. On CBC’s Canada Reads website she explains that she selected this book because “‘A book can change a person and then people can change the country…I think that this book lifts the veil … the narrator is just an invisible person.’ She believes Cockroach will allow readers to take a good look at the people they come across in their everyday lives and see what’s underneath.”

I RATE THIS BOOK: 2.5 stars

I use pretty much the same rating system as Goodreads where 1 star = did not like it, 2 stars = it was OK, 3 stars = liked it, 4 stars = really liked it, and 5 stars = it was amazing. Unlike Goodreads, I allow half stars.

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