Photo of Rawi Hage by Nightscream.
Rawi Hage’s latest novel, Carnival, snakes through the streets of an imaginary city, inhaling and exhaling a cast of petty crooks, sex workers and thugs. Hage’s protagonist is a cabbie named Fly, who, as his name suggests, is perpetually in motion. In his taxi, he refuses to wait at stands like the “spiders” with their “hungry cars,” preferring instead to zoom around looking for flagged rides. He only stops in his apartment, and even there he is still just long enough to plunge himself into a fantasy world of far-off places and events, as he jerks his chicken imagining battle scenes from wars long past.
Movement is the meat of Carnival, giving momentum to non-stop encounters with strange characters. Motion, like the novel itself, is not so much about getting there as it is about having the freedom to move. Fly, as Hage tells me, is “always trying to escape, but it’s ultimately hard to escape. How can you live without your senses, how can you really liberate yourself, without these physicalities?”
Fly’s grip on reality isn’t the tightest — he’s an unreliable narrator at best — giving the novel a dreamy, spacey feel, particularly in the many, many (many!) masturbation scenes, in which he uses sexual fantasy to slip through space and time. His own biography is similarly cloudy, mired in implausible details (including his conception on a flying carpet) that suggest the immigrant’s loose or patchworked relationship to history and geography.
“Fly’s relation to history is very problematic. He looks at the wider history, and I don’t think he sees it in such an optimistic way,” says Hage. “I mean, the history of mankind is one of violence, and he tries to exorcize it through his sexual fantasies, tries to rectify it, and he cannot but fail. It’s ultimately a pessimistic novel. He tried to escape all these histories. History is constantly present for him, as well as the consequences of this history. He feels that he’s the victim of all this history, and on a personal level he can’t separate the extension of history and the present. He sees the present in a wider picture.”
Fly is out of place in his own world, with a near-autistic inability to understand social cues and conventions: “after all the strange creatures in my building have settled down, retreated to their stoves to feed themselves, and then moved towards their televisions to receive their daily allowance of vitamin D from the eminent face of the news anchor, I get in my taxi and go out into the night.” This gives him a naiveté that lets him off the hook ethically at times — his relentless pursuit of his neighbour Zainab comes off as rather charmingly misled, rather than as the straight-up sexual harassment it more likely is.
His taxi and onanism are Fly’s means of connecting to the world outside. Hage says that, “Instead of making sexuality a personal thing, he made it more of a universal thing. There’s suffering in sexuality, there’s sadness, the sadness of human being.”
A Lebanese expat, Hage did a turn as a part-time taxi driver upon arriving in Montreal, which no doubt informed many of the book’s encounters and characters, but it’s his delirious prose that makes Carnival work, giving gravity to Fly’s delusions. And he’s not above poking fun at himself, either; at one point, a stripper named Sally spots a copy of Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers in his cab and says, “Listen, I have nothing against masturbation, but don’t you think the act is a bit overdone in this novel?”
Hage describes Carnival, his third novel, as a kind of historical account of the present. “I think in my career so far I’ve shifted from the local to the global and now to the universal or maybe transcendental,” he says. “It’s a progression. Maybe now I’ll go back to the local, and do a circle. I don’t know yet.”
Only recently released, the novel is already accruing accolades, and has been shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Quebec Writers Foundation Literary Awards.
“It’s always a good thing, these acknowledgements,” he says. “You work on something for three, four years, and wait to see the results. It can be brutal sometimes, but it can be rewarding.” ■
Carnival by Rawi Hage, House of Anansi Press 2012, 304 pp., $29.95