6 things you need to know about Cockroach


Cockroach is one of the five contenders for Canada Reads 2014. Comedian Samantha Bee chose it as the book she will defend during the debates March 3-6 on CBC Radio, CBC Books and CBC-TV. 

If you haven't had time to read Rawi Hage's award-winning novel yet, never fear! The Canada Reads team is here to give you what you need to know about this book so you can head to that cocktail party (or, uh, book club -- we won't tell!) with confidence.

1. The novel takes place in Montreal


Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Cockroach is set in Montreal during a bitterly cold winter. Most of the main characters are new immigrants trying to make a new life in their adopted country. Cockroach highlights the struggles of these marginalized people and shows a side of Montreal that some people may be oblivious to -- the gritty underbelly of the city.

The narrator of Cockroach lives in this grittier Montreal; he hangs out in the bars on St-Laurent and tries to find work in restaurant kitchens. He feels a sense of community with other new immigrants, "runaway artists, displaced poets, leftist hash-rollers, and ex-revolutionaries turned taxi drivers."

2. We never learn the narrator's name


Cockroach is narrated by a man who has relocated to Montreal. Although the narrator brings the reader into his intimate world, where he shares his fears, history, fantasies, dark thoughts and sometimes illegal activity, there is still one intimate detail left unrevealed -- his name.

This anonymity is in line with how the narrator feels generally. He feels invisible to society at large and having the reader not know his identity reinforces this.

3. And we never learn where the narrator is from


The narrator is welcomed into the Persian community, but he himself is not from Iran, and his home country is unspecified. The narrator is from the Arab world and speaks an Arabic language. It is clear that he comes from a country suffering from civil strife and corruption but a particular conflict is never mentioned. 

4. The narrator lives in abject poverty


When the narrator first introduces himself he is unemployed and scrambling to find any kind of menial work. Finally he land a low-paying job working in a kitchen as a dishwasher. His apartment is described as filthy and overrun with cockroaches, and he often goes hungry. He's a master thief and sometimes can supplement his meagre income with things he steals. But he is often just scraping by.

5. The narrator attempts suicide


Because of his suicide attempt, the narrator is forced to see a court-ordered therapist. It's in these therapy sessions that he talks about his inner thoughts and his past, but it's unclear if he's actually telling the truth or making up shocking stories to get a reaction from her. The therapist seems ill equipped to deal with his revelations, and fills the therapy session with naive questions about his childhood and drug use.

6. You guessed it: Cockroaches are an important element in the novel


The cockroach imagery takes many forms in the novel. There are actual cockroaches running around the streets, workplace and home of the narrator. But the narrator also identifies with the cockroach metaphorically. Cockroaches are numerous, live in crevices and scuttle around underfoot. But they also have wings, and are resilient -- as they say, it's the cockroaches that will survive the apocalypse.

The narrator often thinks of himself as a cockroach when he needs strength: "I alternated my six cockroach hands and distributed the pain of those blows. And when my palms burned and ached, I fanned my cockroach wings."

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