Rawi Hage. De Niro's Game

Nouri Gana
Rawi Hage. De Niro's Game. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2006. Pp. 282. $29.95

1 Rawi Hage's début novel, De Niro's Game, is a refreshing addition to the Canadian amalgam of multicultural literature and the stretching horizon of Anglophone Arab-Canadian fiction inaugurated by the visionary inventiveness of Saad Elkhadem and consolidated by the range and breadth of Marwan Hassan's writings. More accurately, it is an irascible but lyrical commentary on the enduring psychosocial and political legacies of the Lebanese Civil War (1975– 1990); and, given its particular but unconsenting Christian perspective, this is indeed a significant contribution to the now fecund literary interrogations of the war by Elias Khoury, Hoda Barakat, Rashid al-Daif, Etel Adnan, and Ghada Samman, to mention just a few.

2 Disturbingly confessional but intransigently antiredemptive, the novel chronicles the vagaries of social relations and, in particular, of friendship as Bassam, the first-person narrator of the story, and his childhood friend, George, attempt to acclimatize themselves to the fanaticisms of everyday violence and to the tribal consciousness that sundered Beirut into a Christian East and a Muslim West, even while Christians and Muslims still live side by side in East as well as in West Beirut.

3 Urged by his friend George to join the Christian militia ( Kataeb) but reluctant to do so, Bassam settles on gambling, thieving, and killing as a means of survival, all the while dreaming about a promissory elsewhere he calls "Roma," and which seems to have found partial utterance in the pursuit of two amorous relationships with two girls whose names start with the letter "R": Rana, a local beauty, and Rhea, George's half-sister, whom Bassam meets when he is eventually smuggled into France. Only belatedly, when he comes to Paris and meets Rhea, does Bassam discover that George worked for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence, and was a key player in the collaborations between the Christian militia and Israel that masterminded the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982.

4 This revelation comes as the final blow to a friendship that had already been jeopardized by George's betrayals and schemes to kill Bassam through various ways, including a confessional round of Russian roulette, with three bullets in the five chambers of George's gun. Unlike Michael (Robert De Niro) in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, Hage's De Niro does not survive the game that earned him the "De Niro" nickname. By withholding the details of George's death to the very end of the novel, Hage arguably contends that to survive the Lebanese civil war is indeed to survive a mindless, "three out of five" game of Russian roulette.

5 Regardless of whether the infamous game was a common practice among the young and furious, it provides Hage with an enduring trope to structure and deliver the lived experiences of the war, the meaning of survival, and the traumatically humanistic task of channeling narrative departures. Herein lies the importance of De Niro's Game, not so much in the fictionalization of its historical context as in the historicization of its fictional frame, content, and enormity. The novel subtly brings into intimate collision the competing layers of myth and stereotype, history and reality that simultaneously empty and saturate war-torn Beirut. Hage performs this feat in a prose at its finest, filmic, incisive, emotionally detached but piquant and breathtaking: "I climbed onto George's motorbike and sat behind him, and we drove down the main streets where bombs fell, where Saudi diplomats had once picked up French prostitutes, where ancient Greeks had danced, Romans had invaded, Persians had sharpened their swords, Mamlucks had stolen the villager's food, crusaders had eaten human flesh, and Turks had enslaved my grandmother."

6 The first two chapters of the novel read like a lyrical song punctuated by the hallucinating refrain of "ten thousand bombs ... kisses ... coffins ... Johnny Walkers" The repetition of the figure of "ten thousand" serves an important narrative and structural purpose. It hammers home two contradicting but coexisting visions of the war experience that the author himself had undergone for nine years in Lebanon: exhaustion and excess. Everything comes in battalions of "ten thousands," only to recede into an uncertainty principle about what is really happening, as if the narrator needed the tautological register to reassure himself that what is happening is really happening. After all, perhaps nothing can destroy Beirut, not even ten thousand bombs, and nothing can reconstruct it either, not even ten thousand hurried kisses. This is arguably the author's caution to the amnesiac urban redesigning and sociopolitical reconstruction of Beirut that is still underway.

7 The third and last chapter is set in Paris, and brings to the fore Hage's literary influences. His protagonist, Bassam, starts reading Camus's The Stranger, a novel about a French pied-noir, Mersault, who decidedly refuses to grieve the death of his mother and remorselessly kills a native Arab. But, while the characterological affinities between Camus's protagonist and Hage's cannot be overstressed, it is clear that Bassam is a Mersault in reverse—an "undocumented" Arab with a gun strolling the streets of Paris and ready, if pushed a little, to kill a French man. This chapter is not only a response to Camus but also to the roots of the Arab and African diasporic revolt in France's banlieux. Throughout, Hage stages the warring psychic habits that continue to mark Bassam's journey in Paris—an ostensibly "mute" city compared to Beirut. Unconsciously, perhaps, Hage's Bassam reminds of Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, or, at least, of his well-wrought adage: silence, exile, and cunning. De Niro's Game is a brilliantly crafted novel and Hage is a talented and versatile writer who will certainly raise the threshold of Anglophone Arab-Canadian fiction.