Cockroaches … not so bad after all?

23 Nov
Writer Rawi Hage at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Fes...

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A man who sees himself as part man, part cockroach. This, as the basic premise of Rawi Hage’s newest novel, Cockroach, instantly evokes Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where one Gregor Samsa awakens to find that he has become a gigantic insect. Having been exploited for years by his family, his transformation makes physical the dehumanization which had been slowly taking place all of his life. His relatives’ abdication of any responsibility towards him and eventual disownment of him complete the process of his self-effacement.

For Hage’s protagonist, on the other hand, the cockroach comparison is cause to revel. Enjoying the opportunity of seeing himself as sub-human, he refuses even to name himself, and remains anonymous throughtout. His dichotomous self-perception, unlike Samsa’s, is neither abused nor forbearing; on the contrary, his half cockroach state elevates him. It provides him with freedom (to do as he pleases, without shame, without guilt); it releases him from the human condition; it even allows him his sanity.

Cockroach is set in Montreal and covers a series of events in the life of its impoverished narrator, an immigrant from an unspecified Middle Eastern country. He has attempted suicide: not out of desperation or abject misery, but “out of curiosity, or maybe as a challenge to nature, to the cosmos itself, to the recurring light. I felt oppressed by it all. The question of existence consumed me.” Clearly, in spite of his dire living conditions and employment situation (first jobless, later restaurant busboy), our narrator is intelligent, thoughtful, and highly capable. For him, life must still be worth living to be lived. His lifestyle is less a forced necessity of circumstance than a choice; considering that his poverty is, to a certain extent, self-imposed, Hage prompts the reader to question society’s typical definitions of success.

Following the suicide attempt with which the book opens, the narrator has obligatory weekly therapy sessions with Genevieve. An educated white middle-class professional woman – or “doctor”, as he initially insists on calling her – she embodies all that he is not; despite this, and despite the empathetic nature of her profession, it is the narrator who is the more “human.” Genevieve sees their sessions together as a necessary part of her job and an unfortunate by-product of society’s focus on rehabilitation, a means of giving something back to the tax-payers (because “some of us actually pay taxes, you know.”) For her, therapy is an unfortunate part of the legal system, and it is doubly unfortunate that it is she who is the therapist. When querying why the narrator is the way he is, Genevieve asks questions that cater to the conventional – about his mother, about his childhood; even when he mentions priests, she assumes that they must have been abusive. From the standpoint of her world, she can neither see into nor sympathise with his. Even when he tells her that his sister’s husband beat her, her response is (drily, stereotypically): “how do you feel about that?” And when the session is nearing its end, no matter what he is telling her, nor where is in his telling, she simply interrupts. “Our time is up.”

But the narrator displays genuine capability for human empathy. He breaks into Genevieve’s home, not to steal, but in order to see the person behind the doctor who asks and does not tell, to gain access to the inner life that she will not reveal to him. Not knowing what she is like makes him almost incapable of stopping wondering: “this made me curious about her past, her childhood of snow and yellow schoolbuses, quiet green grass and Christmas lights, her Catholic school that forbade flames, cigarettes, and orgasms.” In the absence of a noble conception of what it is to be human, the narrator is willing to consider people at every level of their psyche. He sees little difference between probing their likes and dislikes and probing the intricacies of their sex lives. Without an idea of guilt, he does not see what there is to be ashamed of in something as natural as sex. After all, would the cockroaches keep their conquests secret?

While Samsa’s metamorphosis in Kafka is visible to all, only the narrator of Cockroach perceives himself to be cockroach-esque. Yet he is open with others about his insect form, just as he is comfortable in front of others in a human form that is frequently dirty or unwashed, covered by clothes that are torn, dirty and smelly. He is entirely at ease with his life, and at ease, too, with his desire for more. His social life is lively; the days that he spends in solitude neither worry nor trouble him. The object of his lust, Shohreh, a beautiful Iranian, responds to him easily, and they become lovers and friends.
Their encounters are fulfilling and beneficial, as they each open up about their pasts. And the narrator repeatedly proves himself most capable of providing comfort to another human, in a way that Genevieve could not. At one point, Shohreh tells him a story that has traumatized her. His reaction is gently understanding, yet direct. He assures her of his help. But he is also insightful and highly considerate of her mind-state: “Then we lay on our backs and we both looked up and pretended to fall sleep under the wooden ceiling and above the mattress, enveloped by smoke and the haze of our breathing.”

Hage’s protagonist is self-absorbed in a way that Gregor Samsa can only dream of. Nothing that he says or does shames him; indeed, the very concept of shame does not seem to exist for him. He even tells Genevieve that he saw his boss’ teenage daughter “playing with herself,” to which she is, unsurprisingly, horrified. Yet one wonders if, rather than judging him as either immoral or amoral, he might simply be honest in situations where others might lie. It is to Hage’s credit that this protagonist encourages one to question social practices, as well as the morality of those who hide what they do not want known.

For instance, the narrator discovers that one of his acquaintances, an immigrant Parisian professor who enjoys belittling him for his destitute state, is in fact claiming the same social welfare. The narrator is shocked by his lies and his purposeful depiction of superiority. In a world where all humans are trapped by their pasts, the narrator’s method of escape seems better – cleaner, one might say – than the conventional immersion in things material. He lives dirtily, but professes his dirt. You begin to think that he might have a point when he claims: “maybe being human is being trapped.” Maybe being a cockroach is freedom, because it is honest.

Hage says the image of the cockroach appealed to him because “it’s the closest thing to the earth. It’s the closest thing to the underground. Somehow, it enters people’s places with ease. It’s functional and metaphoric at the same time.” It is the imaginary other self that affords the narrator to embrace what he is as a human, “Yes”, he says, “I am poor, I am vermin, a bug, I am at the bottom of the scale. But I still exist.”

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