Rawi Hage on his award-winning novel Carnival

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (16/12/12)

There's a Fellini-esque quality to Rawi Hage's latest novel, Carnival. Reading it is like looking into a literary kaleidoscope. The book is populated by vividly colourful characters -- some real, some imaginary -- who tumble through vignettes -- some real, some imaginary -- that are then stitched into five acts.

The book takes readers on a strange, sometimes uncomfortable, often funny and poignant journey, in the company of the narrator Fly, a taxi driver. He's a wanderer who loves books and has such an extensive library that "a carnival of heroes bounces from every corner" of his apartment.


Rawi Hage was born in Lebanon in 1964 and now makes his home in Montreal. At one time he drove a taxi in both Montreal and New York City. In a recent interview, Hage told The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright that he had once promised himself never to write about the life of a cab driver. But he broke that vow: "I couldn't help it," he said. "It's so rich as an experience that I think for a writer it's hard to resist not to gather these stories and put them on pages."

In the book, Hage divides cab drivers into two types. "I noticed while I was driving cab that there are two kind of taxi drivers," he explained. "Those who wait on the stand -- and I call them spiders, because they wait to catch a client and make a living -- and those who wander around. I was part of the latter camp. " Much of the book, he said, is taken up with "people who live on the margins, people who are always transient," whether by choice, by nature or because of circumstances.

Hage described the main character, Fly, as "somebody who is of this world, but not in it," and added that he tends to be fascinated by characters who are outsiders. He himself was an introvert as a child. "I always felt as an outsider," he said. "And I think my experience was even magnified by leaving Lebanon and finding myself in a very different country and circumstances. When I arrived in New York I was alone at the time and the cultural shock marked me."

The setting of the novel is Carnival City, an imaginary place. Hage chose a fictitious setting for the story, he said, because "it's more of a temporal novel, more than based on a place. I wanted to do this imaginary place so not to be tied up with one location. There's a transcendental tendency to go beyond locations in that novel." However, he also said that much of the material is based on his own experiences as a cab driver in Montreal and New York.


When asked about his view on the role of the novelist, Hage identified his own approach as "the criticism of life. " But he also acknowledged that an element of entertainment is necessary. "It's a commitment to read a book, so there should be something that captures you and keeps you going, or interest," he said. "But I think also there are many kinds of readers. I know readers who refuse to read a book unless they feel there's an educational side to the book... Other readers are more inclined to be attracted to [the] poetic side of writing, or political. And also there are novels that can easily combine all these elements."

Is social comment part of being a novelist? "I think all novelists tend -- and maybe I'm being optimistic here -- but [they] tend to start or decide to become novelists to change the world, maybe in a naive way or in a very ideological way," he said. "But all in all, I think we're all contributing to culture, and I'm a firm believer in culture. And it's a fact in society. So in that sense, yes, we're all [socially] engaged."

Michael Enright ended the interview by asking Rawi Hage what character he would be if he were in a circus. Hage laughed. "Probably a clown."

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