Packed deep in the centre of Cockroach is a powerful moral disconnect, a narrator struggling to place himself in a world of shifting rights and wrongs, all wrapped in the framework of the immigrant experience.
Rawi Hage never glamourizes immigrant life in Montréal, but despite the frankness with which he depicts its various confusions, humiliations and consolations, he writes with such verve, with such wit and energy, that Cockroach never feels dreary or oppressive. Instead one is swept along by the narrator’s amazingly compelling voice; it makes even the most fantastic elements of the novel feel genuine. I found myself missing that voice long after I finished the book.
Hage’s characters are not likeable people; if I met any one of them on the street I’m certain that I wouldn’t like a single one. I doubt I would even find them all that interesting. But on the page they crackle with life. I couldn’t look away from the horrible things they did to themselves, and to each other. Acts of violence and cruelty committed by or against these characters have followed many of them to Canada, a land that in the novel is both literally and figuratively cold. Here is where we find the moral disconnect at the heart of the novel. As they struggle to find their footing and maintain their dignity in this new place, how much of these past wrongs can they bring with them, and can that past justify new transgressions?
Cockroach is an astonishing and confident novel, rich and nuanced, full of humour and tragedy, with the most wonderfully unreliable and charismatic narrator I’ve encountered in ages.
I wrote this originally for publication somewhere else and intended to expand it for publication here, but have since decided against that. Cockroach was my thirteenth and final selection for the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Varieties of Disturbance, by Lydia Davis.