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Rawi Hage’s ‘Carnival’ a display of literary derring-do

Rawi Hage, author of “Carnival”

Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail

Rawi Hage

Satire. Parody. Irony. Ambiguity. Every form of laughter this side of uproarious guffawing – the smile, the chuckle, the suppressed giggle, the nudge nudge, wink wink – comes into play in Rawi Hage's Carnival. His third novel (after De Niro's Game and Cockroach) is both his funniest and his most serious book, despite its logic-defying monologues, over-the-top exaggerations, sexual braggadocio and irreverence. There's advance warning of all this in the initial epigraph from Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World: "True open seriousness … is aware of being part of an uncompleted whole."

Given that Hage has been reading Generation Y's most influential cultural theorist, we're right to expect Carnival to be less concerned with any actual festival than with the presentation of polyphonic truths through Rabelaisian skewering of reality with the grotesque and the carnivalesque. There are roughly 50 characters in Hage's cast, all socially damaged, and it's a hopelessly naive reader who expects to hear the truth from any one of them. Truth needs a multitude of carrying voices. It cannot be held within a single mind, it cannot be expressed by a single mouth despite the current faux-czarist craze for "staying on message" in politics and professional sports.

What can be said simply is this: What I thought of Hage and Cockroach is reaffirmed and reinforced by Carnival. The things that make Rawi Hage a major literary talent include freshness, gut-wrenching lyricism, boldness, emotional restraint, intellectual depth, historical sense, political subversiveness and uncompromising compassion.

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Fly, the first-person narrator who shares the stage (Carnival is divided into five "Acts") with an impersonal presence, is a child of a circus trapeze artist who ends up driving taxi in an unnamed city that could be Montreal (Hage's current permanent address) or New York (where he first lived after leaving Lebanon).

Fly "navigate[s] the city, ceaseless and aimless," randomly encountering "the wavers and the whistlers" in the drink-addled, drugged chaos of the city's core at night. Sometimes he provides safe passage for strippers and prostitutes. Other times, he's a drug dealer's unquestioning driver. But he's never a spider, a driver who waits at taxi stands for radio dispatches and occasional passersby. During working hours, Fly stops and shares the spiders' world only long enough to grab a meal and listen to the talk of the day at the Café Bolero: To stay longer in their "parlours" risks ensnarement in the web of gossip and insults.

Hage spent enough hours driving taxi part-time before the IMPAC Dublin Award propelled him to worldwide literary prominence to write a superb taxi driver's book, but that's not his intention: Fly and his clients are minor elements within a larger picture that operates out of an entirely different aesthetic than Richard Elman's novelization of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver.

When not in his car, Fly (who is a megalomaniacal self-mythologizer) interacts ineffectually with the unconventional, accidental family that formed around him after his father abandoned him to become a devout Muslim and his mother committed suicide. Or he holes up in his apartment, where he can lie down on the magic carpet he inherited from his father and masturbate. His phallus when stroked becomes a kind of time machine that moves only backward, allowing him to reprocess historical events with himself as the imagined hero.

History is one of many subjects Fly studies. His apartment is so filled with books that only the narrowest of pathways exist between rooms and within them. There is scarcely enough space for more than the carpet and rudimentary eating. Most of this library is a gift from Professor Alberto Manuel, who died when "a section of the library fell on his head and killed him." With a nudge in the ribs and a tip of his workingman's cap to Alberto Manguel's patrician international bestseller The Library at Night, Fly ceaselessly arranges and rearranges his fiction to reflect his "subjective impression of the book and its main characters' lives. Dead protagonists take priority over triumphant, happy-ending characters, but are surpassed by books with open endings, books that don't have grand moral conclusions."

That's precisely the kind of novel Carnival is. The Germans have a term for this kind of literary derring-do that struggles to come to terms with the past: They call it Vergangenheitsbewältigung, and apply it to Günter Grass's Danzig Trilogy. It's rarer in Canada, but not unknown. Recent examples include Daniel Poliquin's La Kermesse (a small-town fun fair) issued in English under the title A Secret Between Us in 2007; Don Akenson's An Irish History of Civilization, in 2005. Like them and like Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers (1966) before them, Hage's Carnival owes much to too many sources to enumerate.

Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof's most recent book is Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984.

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