Hage's Cockroach crawls through Montreal's underbelly

When he was writing his latest novel, Montreal writer Rawi Hage saw a cockroach scuttle through his house.

When he was writing his latest novel, Montreal writer Rawi Hage saw a cockroach scuttle through his house.

It became a central metaphor for his book, Cockroach, whose suicidal and impoverished protagonist often fantasizes about becoming a cockroach.

"As a writer, anything that comes I embrace it, and I figured 'Yes, sure, cockroach.' And I was fascinated how close to the earth it is and that led me to something much more symbolic," Hage said in an interview with CBC cultural affairs show Q.

"I think my character is torn between staying human and assuming the role of the primitive in order to survive," he said.

Hage is nominated for a Giller Prize, a Governor General's Award and a Writer's Trust Award for Cockroach, as he was for his debut novel De Niro's Game. His first novel didn't win any of those three Canadian awards, but it did win the international IMPAC Dublin Award earlier this year.

Hage admits the notoriety that literary success has given him makes him uncomfortable.

"I don't know if I feel happy or apologetic," he said.

"I just go with the flow of it — it's hard for me to say no. Like any author, part of us is very satisfied at the exposure for our book and part of us wants to go back and hide and do our work."

An ugly undercurrent

Discomfort is a hallmark of Hage's work. He paints an unsettling picture of Montreal in Cockroach, one that is violent and poverty-stricken, unfamiliar to those who connect the city with culture and beautiful public spaces.

"I'm not naive about cities, I'm not naive about nations," Hage said. "Just because a city has some culture and looks nice, doesn't mean it hasn't got an undercurrent of violence. Montreal is a large military industrial complex. Under all that beauty there is something very ugly."

The cockroach is not the only ugly image — his protagonist is an immigrant with a dark past, surrounded by other immigrants who have suffered violence or meted it out.

Hage does not allow Canadians to be sanguine about the immigrant experience, though he said Cockroach is not a book about immigration.

"I'm exploring poverty issues, class, religion, fundamentalism, displacement — there are other things to explore through immigration," he said.

In this strange community, attitudes toward the West are ambiguous.

There are a "lot of things to admire about the West. You want to belong to that democracy, you want to belong to that comfort, that society that manages somehow to elevate its own population, but you only want to belong to it after these same values and these same attempts failed in your own countries," Hage said.

The anger and alienation in both his books are not autobiographical, said the author, who came to Canada from Lebanon via New York.

He agrees he is an immigrant success story, but said his dark themes emerge from studying human nature.

"I went to school here. I got grants to write these books. When I needed a hospital, I went to hospital. In a sense these books are Canadian. They are the product of certain values that I cherish. But I don't have to accept everything that is Canadian," Hage said.  

Hage will read this week at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.