“When I told the therapist about my encounter with the giant cockroach, she was quiet for a moment, and then asked me to tell her more. It was a big cockroach. And we had a conversation, I repeated. What did you talk about? Me. What about you? He said that I am part cockroach, part human. Genevieve was quiet again. She looked me in the eyes. Do you feel part cockroach? I don’t know, but I do not feel fully human. What does it mean to be human? I’m not sure. Maybe being human is being trapped. To be an insect is to be free, then? In a sense. Maybe. Tell me how. You are more invisible. To whom, to what? To everything, to the light.”
The unnamed protagonist of Cockroach is a Middle Eastern immigrant living in Montreal. After a recent unsuccessful suicide attempt, he is forced into therapy with a comfortably middle class therapist named Genevieve. However, the interventions of the mental health system do nothing to mitigate the poverty in which he is living. He manages to scrape by scavenging food through social acquaintances, and sneaking into homes to steal. Stealing is a survival mechanism, but also a mode of revenge, by which he expresses his displeasure with those perceived to have wronged him. He has no family in Canada, and no real friends, though his fraught relationship with an Iranian musician named Reza helps him into a busboy job at a Persian restaurant, and introduces him to an Iranian refugee named Shoreh with whom he begins a romance. In therapy, he recounts his violent childhood to Genevieve, who is captivated by his tale. Out on the streets, he seeks oblivion in drug, alcohol, and sex, and tries to get by until his next welfare cheque arrives.
Cockroach is a visceral and utterly disturbing book that is distinctly reminiscent of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But instead of a bored salesman, we have an alienated immigrant who identifies as a thief. In some ways the protagonist’s existential crisis is more believable than Gregor Samsa’s, since it is brought on by terrible trauma rather than ennui. When he sneaks into peoples’ homes to steal food or seek revenge, he imagines himself transforming into a cockroach, and slipping past all security measures. Like the cockroaches that persistently infest his own home, he cannot be kept out. These delusions reveal his traumatized self-worth, but are also evidence of mental illness exacerbated by drug use. Rawi Hage’s writing is heavily metaphorical, lingering over small moments and seemingly insignificant details.
Hage’s protagonist is canny and manipulative, and his behaviour is often so abhorrent it is difficult to feel the sympathy appropriate to his situation. For me, his relationships with women were the most disturbing. Although he tried to protect his sister from her abusive husband, he constantly sexualizes Genevieve, and invades her privacy. He persuades his boss’s teenage daughter to come to his home and masturbate for him, and in one scene, he seems on the verge of assaulting Shoreh, a woman he believes he is falling in love with. To some extent he is an unreliable narrator, first telling his therapist that he last spoke to his sister after his mother died, but eventually revealing the his sister predeceased his mother. He sees Genevieve’s fascination with his tale, and uses this knowledge to play with her. Though she has good intentions, she cannot help someone who will not accept her aid, badly as he needs it. However, his careful control can disintegrate in a moment, sending him into a jabbering rage. Although I found this book repelling in many ways, it is in some ways a testament to Hage’s skill that he was able to consistently evoke such a visceral reaction. While I cannot imagine rereading this book, or recommending it to anyone, I would be happy to give Hage’s other works a chance.
Cockroach has been a contentious book all week on Canada Reads 2014. It has consistently been the book Canadians most want to see eliminated from the debates, though Year of the Flood, Half-Blood Blues, and Annabel were all voted off ahead of it. Several of the panelists have taken issue with its representation of the immigrant experience, and its ability to fulfil this year’s mission of inspiring change. It was no surprise when Sarah Gadon and Stephen Lewis voted with Wab Kinew to eliminate it, making The Orenda by Jospeh Boyden the winner of Canada Reads 2014. In other circumstances, Kinew could have been a powerful proponent of Cockroach, but he was careful to acknowledge its merits while saving his persuasive firepower for The Orenda. Throughout the week, Samantha Bee was a compelling advocate for this difficult and disturbing book. Her willingness to acknowledge its darkness was key bringing it as far as the final round. I can’t say that I’ve discovered a love for Cockroach, but the fact that it survived to the last day enabled me to really think about my reactions, and consider my criticisms in a way that I might not have done if it had been eliminated on the first day as so many Canadians—myself included—wanted.
Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning title, The Orenda by Joseph Boyden.