Thursday, June 26, 2014

Carnival by Rawi Hage

“Everything ends with a flight, I thought…”
O strange and wondrous story of an ordinary man “conceived on the circus trail by a traveler who owned a camel and a mother who swung from the ropes.” This story of a circus performer-turned-taxi driver is perhaps not as strange as Hage’s last novel which featured a cockroach. Suffice it to say, Hage wants to take us out of our comfort zone so that we really look at what his characters are experiencing, thinking, and saying.

The sympathetic and unnamed narrator, friend of society’s underclasses, both invokes and evokes Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, as he was gifted a large library which fills his small apartment to overflowing. He spends his free time reorganizing the volumes according to a personal and impressionistic system.
“Dead protagonists take priority over triumphant, happy-ending characters but are surpassed by books with open-endings books that don’t have moral conclusions. Novels with open endings I consider to be of a higher rank; hence they are located before novels with happy endings, which I often call religious or “resurrection” endings…As for historical novels, they are organized based on the name of the winner of the first battle that appears in the book. For instance, War and Peace will be filed in the N section, N in reference to Napolean, of course...and here, if you look above the toilet…all libraries must submit to a certain order…“

Our narrator is called “Fly.” When asked if it refers to the insect or the action, he answers “I’m not sure.” But I think I might know. Once his mother, in a state of mental distress, came in from the circus outside and saw her son shivering and naked, cold and wet from a storm.
“She called me some other name. And she laughed when she saw me naked and stared at me. Flying man, she kept on saying, flying man, let me please you. And she drew me close to her bosom and kissed my neck and her hand swept across my skin and touched me and held my erection and stroked me until I came. There you go she said now you can leave and march towards your desert and your stone.”
Fly is a taxi driver in a city that sounds like New Orleans to me; there is a week-long annual Carnival that involves much of the city. He alternately calls his taxi his boat, his plane, his ride, his car. He “flies” to pick up fares or to get home. Or to escape.
“There are two kinds of taxi drivers: the Spiders and the Flies. Spiders are those drivers who wait at taxi stands for the dispatcher‘s call or for customers to walk off the streets and into their hungry cars….Flies are wanderers, operators who drive alone and around to pick up the wavers and the whistlers on the edges of sidewalks and streets…I am a wanderer.”

Fly masturbates on a carpet that his true father had left him. One suspects it is a prayer rug, but it suits Fly to lie on it and fantasize endlessly, his mind filled with dreams of “gladiators, sailors, or women in need of rescue.” Fly does occasionally share his seed with women, but he prefers to be alone, perhaps to concentrate on his imaginary world rather than working to please another.

Violence has a central role in this narrative. Violence is part of our worlds, though it is visited more upon some than others. Fly himself is violent, though he seems to use it more as a means of communication rather than from psychopathy. Taxi drivers begin to turn up dead, killed in gruesome ways. The litany of the dead recalls Roberto BolaƱo’s 2666 in which he lists endlessly the names of Mexican girls killed in the desert over a period of years.

The victims in this novel are male immigrants on the night shift. We are set up to imagine the killers of the taxi drivers to be the work of two feral boys who grew up rough and live under an overpass by a river. Fly knows the boys, and tries to help them but finds his efforts too little too late. One of the boys’ mother is a drug addict, the nominal “father” a pimp. “I don’t judge those who can’t dream…” Fly says.

Other people are murdered: a psychiatrist, an industrialist, a college professor. The boys admit to these murders, though the mystery of the taxi drivers remains unsolved. By the end, nearly everyone close to Fly is dead or disappeared. He flies.

Every review I have looked at picks out different authors or works of literature of which this book is reminiscent: Calvino, Kafka, Wallace, O’Toole are a few, but I suspect there are many more. Hage is aligning his story of a neglected underclass of misfits with the vast body of literature, and placing his group in that hallowed hall. Why shouldn’t it be there? he seems to be asking. Their lives are as interesting and telling as any other. Their lives are our responsibility.

In a remarkably difficult but revealing interview with CBC Radio 1's Q host Jian Ghomeshi, we learn a little about the Lebanese Canadian author Rawi Hage. Hage, born in Lebanon, lived in the United States for a few years before moving to Montreal. He thinks of himself as integrated but he has that “outsider” vision allows him to zero in on cultural touchstones and problems.
“There is a war out there, and believe me, Fly, it was never really between Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Crusaders, and Confucius. The final battle is between those who love, respect, and liberate the body and those who hate it, Fly…”
Thus the masturbation, and the library--feeding the body and the brain. But real food is another story.
“Communists and Muslims are not the enemies to fear in this land, Fly. It is the food consumption that will eventually blow up in everyone’s face.”

Hage is a very interesting man and author. I think he could have helped us out by making his story more user-friendly; I had to work hard to get somewhere with this and I’m still I’m not sure I got all that he meant. I do think Hage is doing something unique…he has his own style and his own subjects. I hope I have the opportunity to see his earlier work.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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