‘…my suicide attempt was only my way of trying to escape the permanence of the sun. With frankness, and using my limited psychological knowledge and powers of articulation, I tried to explain to her that I had attempted suicide out of a kind 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.’
The unnamed protagonist in Rawi Hage’s Cockroach attends a psychologist to assess if he should be reinstitutionalised after having tried to hang himself from a tree in the park. His background gives sufficient reason for worry; he’s a self confessed thief who spent his childhood in Lebanon during civil war, he has a history of mental disorder and is delusional as he admits to being a cockroach during his first therapy session: ‘because my sister made me one’.
He feels an unsavoury connection with the cockroaches that inhabit his kitchen, because both he and them belong ‘in the underground’ with the waste and filth washed away by modern society. This is not just a case of poor self image though. He actually believes he transforms into a cockroach at times. At the summit of his delusions he even stands chatting with a man-sized albino cockroach which is leaning against his kitchen door. The mental condition of the anti-hero gradually spins out of control as the story progresses, as one might have guessed from his small talk with a common household pest. He picks fights, breaks into houses and becomes progressively more delusional.
His daily life does not give much reason for cheerfulness. Although a more or less steady job as a bus boy in an Iranian restaurant and an occasional party do provide some stability and a social life, generally life among Montreal’s immigrant society is grim. Not only is the city a cold, dark and unfriendly place, also his social skills do not make many people warm up to him. Whereas he is openly hostile and violent towards men, towards women his behaviour is – although not violent – threatening nevertheless. This takes the form of voyeurism and (sexually) transgressing behaviour. His girlfriend Shohreh, a former political prisoner from Iran, is one of the few people whom he does not antagonize. Their budding relationship might provide his last reprieve from imminent psychosis.
By voicing his annoyances on the preoccupations and idiocies of practically anyone within range, and the upper class in particular, it is made clear that the anti-hero elevated cynicism to a fine art. Stronger still, he has truly lost any positive outlook on life. Anything of beauty or sophistication is brutally levelled by his unscrupulous comments. He regards any outward beauty as a mere disguise for the actual decay and ugliness that’s underneath. While he is frustrated by his own poverty, but also wears it as a badge of honour, because it separates him from the rich and their hypocrisy. Any other immigrant who wants to escape the bleak life on the fringe of society is perceived by him as a hypocrite, denying the true nature of things.
Scenes of daily life are interspersed with therapy sessions throughout the book. Through these sessions it is revealed how he came to have such a bleak outlook on life. His life story finally reveals that his greed made him indirectly responsible for his sister’s death, and subsequently he failed to take revenge for her murder. Hage transforms this disturbing madman into a damaged victim of ill-fated circumstances. Also his poverty might be understood as penance for what his greed has caused. He tells his therapist ‘it is my greed that I regret. Humans are creatures of greed. […] Other creatures only take what they need’. On account of what is gradually revealed he slowly becomes more human though, contrary to his own conception of himself.
Initially I was intrigued by this story from inside a mind on the threshold of psychosis, but at about three quarters into the story, Hage starts to build up to the climax and this is where things start to go off track.
During a chance encounter at the restaurant where he works, Shohreh recognises an important guest there as her tormentor during political imprisonment in Iran. A negligible side track involving arms deals with the Canadian government is introduced and a plot for revenge is hatched. Hage constructs a parallel between Shohreh’s past the protagonist’s trauma. Her revenge might enable him to settle the score with his past.
The disappointment in this turn of events is that it suddenly sidetracks the actual story. The main character is marginalised into a supporting role, in order for Shohreh to enact her vengeance. The connection with his own history remains a bit unpersuasive and the end result appears too purposely constructed in an attempt to bring all story lines neatly together.
Any Cop?: After finishing Cockroach I’m slightly confused. Why does this beautifully built up story come to such an undeserving finish? I feel the actual story got hijacked in service of a clever ending. Although I was intrigued for most part of the book and Hage very skilfully and quite beautifully builds up the main character, the ending seems somewhat artificial. I would have preferred his mental deconstruction to continue as the focal point of the book instead of Shohreh’s retribution. In conclusion I feel a bit cheated out of ever knowing what that story might have been.