House of Anansi Press, 2012
Hardcover; 289 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1964, Rawi Hage, as a child, experienced both the Lebanese civil war and exile in Cyprus. He eventually emigrated to New York City, where, isolated and lonely, he found work as a warehouse labourer and a cab driver. His New York years proved to be a dark time in his life, one he has described as being, in some ways, more difficult than the war years in Lebanon. It was during this period, however, that he discovered a talent for photography, an aptitude which shaped the next phase of his life. He began studies at the New York Institute of Photography, continuing at Dawson College (photography) and Concordia University (Fine Arts) after moving to Montreal, Canada, in the early 90′s. He has exhibited in Canada and internationally, and his works are included in the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s collections. According to a Quill & Quire author profile Hage’s subsequent transition from visual artist to author was serendipitous — a chance experimentation with short stories inspired by the subjects of a photography project led to publication in literary magazines and, eventually, to the publication, in 2006, of DeNiro’s Game, his first novel. Critically acclaimed from the start (shortlisted for both the Governor General’s and the Giller) DeNiro’s Game swept Hage to the forefront of the Canadian literary scene in 2008, when it won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award — the world’s richest prize for a single work of fiction. His second novel, Cockroach, was published a mere two years later, and was again recognized on shortlists for both the Giller and the Governor General’s awards. Carnival, his latest work, was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for 2012, losing to the recently reviewed Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy.
The son of a trapeze artist and an itinerant carpet merchant, a circus orphan raised by a Bearded Lady, Fly, as the protagonist of Carnival is known, is the ultimate outsider, even before the demise of the circus precipitates emigration. After burying his mother “somewhere between the Danube River and the heel of the Italian peninsula” Fly and The Bearded Lady head to the Americas, the home of her distant cousin who “lives in a city where a carnival takes place.” This “Carnival City” is never named, but has settled in my imagination as a composite of New Orleans and Montreal.
An observer by inclination and experience (he performed as a weight-guesser in the circus) his job as a cab driver in the Carnival City provides ample opportunity for Fly to observe and mirror the parade of humanity which flows through and past his cab every day. Fly’s sense of reality is, for the most part, anchored in the day-to-day details of his life as a cabby. He leads a humble, unassuming existence, living alone in a small apartment, (surrounded, however, by an extensive library of surprising sophistication and depth) eating and sleeping and working, preferring to drive mostly at night. Although reclusive by nature, his interactions with others seem, in general, impeccably proper, kind and respectful. For the most part, Fly’s gaze is non-judgemental, his commentary merely recording and reflecting the range of behaviour he observes, although much of this behaviour, seemingly, falls far below his personal standards. On one point, however, he is obdurate: “the customer always pays.” Failure to recognize the value of a fellow human’s labour, be they cabby, prostitute, or shopkeeper, is, for Fly, it seems, a moral line in the sand, and he proves ruthless, implacable and violent, if necessary, in its defence.
The series of short vignettes chronicling Fly’s daily interactions are loosely draped over a larger narrative line — the story of Otto and Aisha — a social-activist couple who befriend Fly in his early years in the city, helping him when he needed it most. The high costs of a commitment to the ideals of equality and justice are documented in Otto’s history, and his story hangs as a sombre backdrop to the more quotidian struggles of the inhabitants of Carnival City.
In counterpoint to the prosaic facts of Fly’s existence lies his imaginative life, and from the start, parsing the precise state of Fly’s mental health is problematic. Besides his wildly improbable early history, there are the troublesome issues of his book-hoarding behaviour, and his highly idiosyncratic indexing system, which, as he explains it to Zainab, a concerned neighbor, whose quiet, scholarly ways Fly finds attractive, reads like a textbook flag for compulsion. His childhood recollections of the difficult time between his father’s defection and his mother’s suicide, provide ample psychological fuel for a dozen compulsions and repressions, and evidence of an early conflation of sex with flight. When he matter-of-factly notes that,
Now when I remember my mother and her collection of bare-assed companions, when I lie back on one of my father’s carpets and float above the world, I journey through those ancient lands of guns, trenches, and blood, the troubled lands of Slavs, Germans, Latins, Assyrians, Arabs, Turks, Kurds, and Greeks. In those nations where young men were drafted and women wept and populations were transferred and people starved and burned by the millions, I witnessed, I rectified, and I flew again.
he presents as, at best, delusional, with a potentially dangerous saviour complex. Further, Fly suffers from “episodes” and as Zainab, notes, there are times when he is “not all there.” A local doctor of dubious morals, but, one assumes, adequate credentials, diagnoses “some malfunction in the brain,” based on symptoms which include shifting eyes, jerky hand movements, and conspiracy theories involving librarian monkeys. Fly himself takes no pains to conceal the fact that he frequently resorts to masturbation to induce hallucinatory “flights” on his father’s magic carpet, as a means of dealing with his sense of imprisonment in his daily existence. As Fly describes,
When the fantasy is right, when the world is rescued and saved by the ecstasy of my creation, when every word is valued, every conversation timed, and every bullet hits its target, when the folly of history comes to a fitting end and short dictators are slain on Christmas Day by orphans with guns, it makes me happy…
Taking the pragmatic view, Fly’s story is all too familiar — an essentially decent soul, and one possessed, it must be said, of a remarkable, gentle dignity, but isolated and relegated to the fringes of society by mental illness. And yet, there is something compelling about Fly, that defies classification and dismissal, something revelatory in a Quixote-esque fashion. Perhaps it is that he does witness, and in many matters, large and small, rectify. It is Fly who protects the dignity of the Bearded Lady, when she dies, who extracts fair wages for fair work, both for himself and for others, from drunken boors with the ferocity of an avenging god, who feeds lost souls, who helps a customer escape her abusive husband (although, in the end, he can not save her from the church) and who catches Otto, brave warrior in the fight for truth and justice, when he falls. Perhaps it is because his incantations are infused with great force, beauty and historic sweep, and because he speaks truth to power, fearlessly.
When Fly defends a fellow cabby being threatened with legal action by the wealthy father of two boys who had tried to rob the man, this encounter, as recounted by Fly, ensues:
Mr. Patel, I said, I shall be brief. My friend did what he did because he was scared. We taxi drivers are under threat all the time. In our profession, we are vulnerable. I am here to ask you to reconsider and to drop the lawsuit. The truth is your kids misbehaved and my friend did what he did to protect himself, out of fear for his life…
The man interrupted me. Your friend broke the law, he said calmly.
And who doesn’t break the laws? Does your grand enterprise always obey the laws when it ravages these lands from above and below? When it pollutes villages and rivers with poisonous liquids? And how many deformed faces and crippled kids should sue you back?
When Fly, a non-believer, is accused of being evil, by a Christian priest somewhat befuddled by a recent near-death experience, the following exchange occurs:
Well, Father, I think the only evil is you and your lot of delusional believers who make women suffer, who tell Africans to abstain from sex and not to protect themselves. I believe you are a hater of misfits, a suppressor of clowns’ laughs, scissors to the ropes of mountain climbers, chains to the wanderer, and a blindfold to the knower: a hater of men. But you are also a lover yourself, a lover of power and buffoon dictators, a protector of arms dealers and thieves, pardoner of hypocrites with pious tongues and dirty hands…
May God forgive you, my son.
May your god, if there truly is one, forgive himself for these inferior creations.
In these utterances (and others like them) Fly identifies and voices the reader’s inner outrage provoked by the basic injustices of life– one which, in everyday life, seems to be more often buried and denied than acted upon, perhaps out of a sense of futility. The final statement also echoes the ancient Gnostic belief that this world was created by an inferior god — providing a hint of some of the deeper philosophical considerations upon which Fly’s story rests.
His watchful ways, and his experience with what Hage calls “the other side of things” make Fly wise, although this wisdom is disguised in a humble, perhaps slightly mad cabby, who exists, precariously, on the fringe of society. This, coupled with his penchant for speaking truth to power, as noted previously, identify Fly as that most powerful of literary characters: the Fool. Frequent references to clowns and jesters percolate through the story. Fly, for example, keeps clown figurines on his cab’s dashboard and lends his neighbour Zainab books from his library entitled The History of Court Jesters and The History of the Comic Grotesque. When he asks her,
Is there anything on earth or in heaven more potent than a good dose of mockery and laughter?
he might just as well have been voicing the Fool’s credo. At least since Shakespearean times, the Fool has also been associated with his sceptre — a sort of rod or wand which he carries with him. Fly has his feathered stick — a baton of sorts he keeps under his cab seat, for protection, and which he wields as necessary, in the service of truth and justice.
Compare Jan Knott’s much quoted description of a Shakespearean fool,
The Fool does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good.
Shakespeare Our Contemporary, page 136
with the Bearded Lady’s observations about what separates the circus folk (of whom Fly is one) from their audiences:
We know that after this grand act of life nothing is left but the dust beneath the elephant’s feet and the sound of the monkeys’ clapping. When they come to you with prophets and promises of heaven of honey and mills, remember that we are no more than flowers having our last glance at the world before we die, with grace and with gratitude for the wonders we witnessed, for the magic box we built, the animals we loved, the carpets we flew, the stars we encountered after the spectacle ended and the spectators were left to lament and to wait for the coming of their phantom trains to take them to their imaginary heavens.
The key to Fly’s character came from a comment made by Hage in an interview with Michael Enright on CBC Radio, in which he explained that his approach to a novel “is as a criticism of life.” Entertaining the reader, he says, is secondary to role of the story as protest. The protest results from the continuous contrast between the light (the ideals of truth, justice and compassion as represented by Otto and Aisha, the goodness of Fly and a few others) and the dark (the myriad, banal individual moral failures that make up the human carnival) As J.M.G. Le Clezio, the writer quoted in the book’s epigraph, and whose influence is felt throughout, says,
Life is full of madnesses. They are only little everyday madnesses, but they are terrible if you look closely.
The coolly observant Fly forces the reader to look closely, and the protection traditionally afforded to Fools allows him to criticize, and give Hage’s protest a voice. As Fly notes,
Man’s laws are self-serving, nature’s laws are arbitrary, and God’s laws, (…) are in need of some serious updates.”
Hage’s writing has, in the past, been preoccupied with issues of war, isolation, alienation and the immigrant experience, his style noted for its juxtaposition of workaday prose with intense, incantatory passages. These qualities continue in evidence in Carnival. There is a haunting sense of restless and sad impermanence, which infuses book from the outset — a sort of distillation of the loss which occurs when connections to one’s homeland and culture are severed There is, as well, a jaded weariness that comes from a familiarity with war and other various atrocities of which we humans are capable. A number of Fly’s euphoric oratories hold hints of just such experience. It is Hage’s brilliance to have linked, through Fly, the immigrant sense of impermanence, isolation, alienated witness, and often, at least temporarily marginal position in society, to the traditional role of the Fool and to have thus so effectively shown us to ourselves.
Fly’s mythic beginnings, his experience with alternate realities, his link to the world’s history and pain through his library, his role as a witness to human foibles, and his, at times, soaring prose imbue him with an “out of time,” quality. Like the wandering planets described to him by a good doctor, Fly is an aimless wanderer, and lost. But he “gets to know more and reach farther places.” When Fly says that the clown’s intention
was never to step on the elephant’s feet, never to sing in such a horrible voice, never to wobble in clothing that was not his own, shoes that could never be tied, flowers that spat in the crowd’s face. His real intention, ladies and gentlemen, was to bring the audience to their senses, let them realize that soon all would be coming to an end, and that all shall disappear to no return,
I am inclined to believe him.