Sudden Death for the Home Team

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By Nigel Beale,
who is host of "The Biblio File" radio program and can be reached at www.nigelbeale.com
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

DE NIRO'S GAME

By Rawi Hage

Steerforth. 277 pp. $23.95

A thick helping of recognition was recently served to the Beirut-born Rawi Hage for his first novel, "De Niro's Game," winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the world's richest prize ($153,000) for a work of literary fiction.

"De Niro's Game," which was published in the United States last year, presents a portrait of two childhood friends living in war-torn Beirut during the early 1980s. Juxtaposing edgy imagery with the repetitive calm of beautiful Arabic poetry, the novel explores the lives of Bassam and George, young men who must choose either to stay in Beirut relying on stealth and violence or live in alienation abroad. Bassam dreams of escaping, and to make money for this he schemes with George to skim proceeds from poker arcades and smuggle bottles of counterfeit whiskey. George, on the other hand, chooses to stay and is forced into military service. He maneuvers his way through the ranks and lives a mad-dog life of sanctioned crime. Hundreds of thousands of bombs fall in this book as the boys maraud and chase women. It's a hallucinatory vision of how war corrupts even friendship. Written in English and calling upon Arabic poetry and French philosophy, "De Niro's Game" forms an intriguing trilingual hybrid that should cement its appeal worldwide.

At the Blue Met literary festival in Montreal last month, Hage said that his novel is "an uncompromising look at a place in conflict, from the inside, presented in a true way, with artistic merit." Immediately, he was concerned that this statement smacks too much of hubris, but he noted that only the artists talk about this war. No monuments were raised to commemorate it. "Too contentious," Hage said. "There is no consensus between Christians and Muslims on what happened. No truth commission. No one mentions it. People wanted to forget."

The feel of the novel is frenzied, with great movement and cinematic cuts. Passages of reflection, contemplation and quiet suddenly break to violence. This, explained Hage, is what the war was like for him. "You can't go out because you don't know where the bombs will fall," he said. "There's a madness to it. As a kid you're an uncomprehending observer, filled with a haziness, a mixture of fear and adrenaline, a chemical reaction." Although the movement and shards are exhilarating, at times this technique becomes distracting, incomprehensible, in ways similar to passages in Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient."

Russian roulette, which featured prominently in the movie "The Deer Hunter" (1978) starring Robert De Niro, strongly affected young men in Beirut at the time, Hage explained. A macho attitude mixed with drugs made this deadly practice popular with those in the militia, who had lots of guns to play with. Explaining its prevalence, Hage said the game was "an extension of a life of violence that starts out directed at the other and then turns inward, as self-loathing."

Hage was born in East Beirut in 1964, taught mostly in French by Catholics but also schooled in Arabic grammar, literature and poetry. In 1975 falling bombs and the loss of family members shattered his middle-class existence in a prosperous country. But despite the war, he grew up surrounded by books and smoky rooms full of his father's quasi-intellectual friends: a salon with lots of storytelling in it and talk of poems, history, literature and language.

Fascinated by the West, at 18 he went to New York, joining his older brother, who was studying there. In many ways, Hage said, the city was similar to Beirut, an intense, noisy, crowded place. With limited English and his family thousands of miles away, he struggled emotionally, having to live daily with news of bombs dropping at home. Never comfortable in New York, he applied for Canadian residency and moved to Montreal in the early 1990s.

"De Niro's Game" is a work of literature, but due to its subject matter it also contributes to history and memory. Hage stays away from conclusions, preferring to present ambiguous, complex characters as representatives of humanity's dark side, which he believes we should all face and talk about. If anything, the book champions secularism and highlights the evil of which organized religion, regardless of brand name, is capable. Attacking God so directly makes the book a statement against all religion, Hage says, against the imposition of narrow standards of morality on society, not just in the Middle East, but around the world.


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