Rawi Hage’s Carnival revels in creative anarchy
Canadian fiction is sometimes called down for being too reserved and introspective, for preferring the wry and melancholy over the caustic and bleak. This idea is, of course, as flimsy as most sweeping views. And it sounds downright hollow when it runs up against the work of Rawi Hage.
The Montreal author’s latest novel, Carnival, is a feverish portrait of an alienated cabbie named Fly, who navigates an infernal, nameless city populated by beastlike humans. Carnival’s fantastical edge, its blurring of the line between hallucination and cold reality, separates it from the 2006 debut that made Hage’s reputation, the best-selling, IMPAC-award-winning De Niro’s Game. But like that work and its successor, 2008’s Cockroach, the new novel has an unflinching pessimism at its core. It gnaws at comforting beliefs and occasionally provokes bitter laughter. It unnerves.
When the Straight reaches Hage by phone, this is the first matter on the table. Does he write to unsettle?
“To unsettle the reader? No, I’m unsettled,” he says with a laugh, his words accented by his native Beirut, which he left behind in 1984 for New York City and, eventually, Canada. “I think there are different attitudes to what fiction should be and the purpose of it. Basically, I question. There’s contests. I contest in general.…There’s a whole tradition of writers who wrote in that direction or with that sense of protestation. Basically, for me, literature is a criticism of life, not so much a celebration of life.”
Like Hage’s previous books, Carnival expresses this criticism through characters forced to the frayed edges of society. Fly is an outsider through and through, the orphaned son of performers in a circus where all manner of oddity was accepted. And he has grown into a self-described “watcher” of a city rife with violence and conformity.
“I find people like that everywhere in the world,” Hage observes. “They’re of course marginal, but they’re everywhere. I will never be a nationalist writer. There’s this demand sometimes for writers to represent certain nations. For me, it’s these pockets of progressive thought and humane community that are dispersed all over the world—for me, that’s my nation.…I’m not a religious person, I’m not a believer, but I agree with the existentialist notion of the Gnostics, the religious Gnostics. They took this world as an inferior place, but within that inferior place there are glimpses of light. These glimpses of light are very small, ephemeral, oppressed, et cetera, but they’re also essential. I’m portraying people on the margin, but people who are smart and on the margin, people who are undermined, understated, but nevertheless have this brilliant light.”
In a sense, this reflects Hage’s own arm’s-length relationship with official culture. It’s one that all artists must maintain, he says, despite great pressures to the contrary.
“That’s the tragedy of literature, not just Canadian,” he notes. “All nations demand their writers to be some kind of emblem or national figure. And for people who refuse this, they certainly have less support. Maybe I’m not the right person to say these things, because of my success, but in general, if you consciously take the position of not belonging to a nation, there’s a kind of price to pay. There’s a mutual thing, I think. Writers tend to use nation-states, and nation-states tend to claim writers.”
Hage is quick to point out that this stance does not mean he’s detached from his adopted country, or from the political currents flowing through it. Quite the opposite.
“I’m not being apologetic, but there are a lot of great things that I like about this country, and
I really care about Canada,” he says. “And when I’m criticizing Quebec or Canada, in a way the biggest form of nationalism is criticism.
I criticize in order to reform. And I’m worried about this place.…I think one of those rare, great experiments of multiculturalism and liberalism is under assault at the moment—from Quebec nationalism on one side, from Harper Conservatives on the other side, from American imperialism on another side. There are plenty of assaults on that Canadian experiment that once succeeded so well.”
Still, Hage’s novels are not tracts. Fiction is, for him, “that zone of ultimate anarchy, where any writer can explore anything we feel like exploring, without the burden of truth or exactitude”. And Carnival’s blend of vivid waking life and dreamlike delirium is, he says, closer to our normal experience than any form of strict realism.
“Yes, there is this polarization in the novel,” Hage explains. “There’s this hard social reality and then a sudden magic or fantastical writing, which I have no problem with.
I don’t feel I have any responsibility to keep the form homogeneous. I like sudden detours—they’re very deliberate on my part. But I also think that as humans we live between these two existences. We can dream. We’re constantly dreaming, we’re constantly shifting these existences. We don’t constantly live in a super-real world as humans. And this is how we tell our stories.”
Rawi Hage will appear at two events at this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest: Grand Openings, at Performance Works on Tuesday (October 16); and City, at Studio 1398 on Wednesday (October 17). For more information on the festival, go to writersfest.bc.ca/.