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Monday, 17 November 2008

De Niro's Game by Rawi Hage

November 17, 2008

By Suzan Abrams

44-year old Rawi Hage, a Lebanese journalist and an emigrant to Canada once lived through 9 horrifying years of the tragic Beirut war. In later life, the author would rely on a similar tale featuring both discord and enlightenment in his debut novel and world bestseller, De Niro's Game to win the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for 2008 early this year.

This out of a lengthy nomination list.

No doubt, his is a contemporary novel both experimental in style with its preference for straightforward narration and compressed with rude slick conversational gestures and ease of twists in forms exploited for different episodes.

A man's novel, easily. The conventional woman reader would require the necessary ability to stomach scenes of violence and torture amid the eloquent prose.

In the plot's boldness to seek fresh truths armed only with a crude imagination and the narrator's vision of reaching the elusive promised land, Roma; this reader found Hage's writing engaging, electrifying and sexy in no particular order.

Be warned that Hage expounds on a charismatic writing voice - picture the hot-blooded lover whispering in your ear from start to finish. The story may leave you breathless and panting for more. Hage is the master of his own fictitious manouverings, dressings his many chapters with colourful intolerant personalities and commanding his words to dance and swing to the grand sounds of a tempestuous opera.

Yes, such intellectual drama from any powerful book, may seek out the unsuspecting desired spirit.

No doubt that from the many high-layered blurbs splashed about the paperback, the Boston Globe captures its essence most fittingly when it observes among other things, "... Hollywood noir meets opium dreams in a blasted landscape of war-wasted young lives..."

Indeed, one could easily picture a cigar-smoking villian with a bombshell hanging on his very arm, relating the story of his life. A soothing sigh here and a quarrelsome shout there! A kiss here and a punch there! Such goes the tumultuous lure of the novel.

The theme in De Niro's Game, is the fall and rise and fall and rise again of modern-day cynicism when hope takes a tumble from a faithless ladder of belief and straggling dreams. It is of how survival waking up to its final feeble day, refuses to die.

Two intelligent best friends Bassam and George, in the Christian region of East Beirut where bombs fall from planes with dutiful regularity at any hour of the day or night and secret shelters are a daily pastime, wind down their wasteful routine with volatile temperaments and dull jobs. Each must eventually settle for separate complicated destinies as a tough survival pack. Only one may hold the trump card or none at all.

George chooses the thuggish militia as the materialistic chief Abou-Nahra's right-hand man despite Bassam's warning. The ambitious young rebel will later pay a heavy price for it. Under the guise of loyal political banners, George turns into a drug pusher, addict and killer, engaged in revenge, massacres and ethnic cleansing of a Palestinian camp. Where will it all end?

George comes away the loser, crying over his lost conscience and dignity and thoroughly disgusted with himself. The tragedy is that George will cling only to the remnants of goodness and lose forever, his innocence. He cannot regain what he has lost, his criminal acts are designed to stay with him.

Bassam is the wise narrator, insisting on the odd moral, conscience and respect. Bassam does laborous work, unloading crates at a port but dreams of going abroad. Still with a nifty gun as a security blanket, Bassam also exhibits his fair share of flaws.

Where they once sped about on a rusty motorcyle and - and how convincingly here Hage paints out the aura and childlike idealist of a motorcylist who with wind and speed as faithful companions, may feel the whole world to be his - to symbolise their childhood friendship, the trusty vehicle will later give way to expensive cars, jeeps and guns for George while Bassam will come into unexpected fortune and trailing it, a violent incident that will scar his life.

Bassam has a beauty, Rana, for a part-time girlfriend but is unable to hold on to her fiery demands. In regular angry scenes, the possessive Rana threatens to shoot him, kill him. I'm surprised that Hage did not stretch this plot further but instead chooses to abandon Rana suddenly halfway where she fades with no incident.

Indeed while it is made clear that Beirut seems to have turned out the cynic in everyone, Hage makes no bones in sketching out the pain of a never-fleeing dust, poverty, lame jobs, wailing women and essentially, the waste of life.

At first, Bassam narrates his plot with apt sophistication pertaining to the vein of a comic novel. Irony and humour supports the story of family life. Then the voice changes into an embittered growl even as the novel grows darker with the expansion of senseless violence and killings. The reader is not warned when this happens.

Hage's keyword of ten thousand to puppet Bassam's highly-sarcastic and contemptuous thought patterns, is what cleverly lifts the novel out of the ordinary.

The book opens to Ten thousand bombs had landed and I was waiting for George. Later, it goes on. Ten thousand bombs had dropped like marbles on the kitchen floor and my mother was still cooking. Or even, I laid ten thousand kisses on her body, under a cascade of sweet, falling bombs. So you get the picture. Plus, the fact that Hage never allows the reader to forget that there's a war on.

The major limitation to a narration spoken in the first voice is that the character can only draw on what he sees and hears. When George relates to Bassam all the wrongs he has committed, the plot becomes contrived and slightly misplaced. Hage uses this technique to subtly educate the reader on detailed massacres. But because the novel is spoken in the first person and the information has to come via Bassam, the reader can almost sense Hage's frustration at making the scenes of long historical detailings seem the normal course to any kind of confession or conversation.

Yet, with a surprise and wonderfully-mastered end, the brilliant Rawi Hage easily gets away with it.

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