Give My Regards to Your Lovely Spouse
Behold the Immigrant Male, North American edition. He is a horror: a debauchee who pleads with a 16-year-old girl to let him ‘see’; a sweaty, smelly, barbaric impostor among his pale-faced countrymen; a scar across their smooth sense of progress and reason, their ‘state of permanent denial of the bad smells from sewers, infested slums, unheated apartments, single mothers on welfare, worn-out clothing’.
That, at least, is Rawi Hage’s idea in Cockroach, his second novel; his first, De Niro’s Game, concerned a young anti-hero’s efforts to escape Lebanon’s civil war. Immigrant literature is hardly a niche industry in the United States and Canada (Hage is of Lebanese descent and lives in Montreal). Indeed, Pico Iyer made the case in Harper’s Magazine that in Canada it is the national literature. We have had striving immigrants (Ha Jin’s A Free Life), bewildered immigrants (Gary Shteyngart’s novels), immigrants who anticipate the multiculturalist future better than the natives (the Canadian crop profiled by Iyer, including Neil Bissoondath and Madeleine Thien), and immigrants who think multiculturalism is dangerously naive, even as they benefit from it.
But we have not had an immigrant as viciously disaffected, as comprehensively alienated, as the unnamed narrator of Cockroach. A runaway to Canada from an unspecified Middle Eastern country (Lebanon, in everything but name) who has failed in a suicide attempt and now trawls Montreal’s poverty-stricken underground, our hero does not believe. The dream of making it, in one sense or another, that is an immigrant’s first buy-in to his adopted culture, that hopefulness and sense of possibility: he won’t have any of it. (I’m talking of course about immigrants to the capitalist West.)
The specific cause of his disenchantment is initially unclear. (It may be that he came to Canada not by choice but because it was the easiest place for a war-blasted refugee to seek asylum – that at any rate is how it seems in the earlier novel.) Our first, dutifully liberal impression is a familiar one: it’s the natives’ fault: the sensible, materialistic, impersonal natives who don’t understand the value of soul and impracticality. ‘Not even a nod in this cold place, not even a timid wave, not a smile from below red, sniffing, blowing noses,’ the narrator complains. ‘How did I end up trapped in a constantly shivering carcass, walking in a frozen city with wet cotton falling on me all the time? And on top of it all, I am hungry, impoverished, and have no one, no one . . .’ The titans of business and industry who stride purposefully down the rain-slicked Montreal streets ignore him, and for the strenuously slumming bohemians he is nothing more than an accessory, ‘the fuckable, exotic, dangerous foreigner’ who is a fool to long for a lasting, genuine connection with these authenticity junkies. They
will eventually float down, take off their colourful, exotic costumes, and wear their fathers’ three-piece suits . . . I will envy them when they are perched like monarchs on chairs, shamelessly having their black shoes shined, high above crouched men with black nails feathering and swinging horsehair brushes across their corporate ankles. At the tap of the shoeshiners, the Brahmins will fold their newspapers, stand up and fix their ties, scoop out their pockets for change, and toss a few coins in the air to the workingmen below. And they will step onto ascending elevators, give firm handshakes, receive pats on their backs, smooth their hair in the tinted glass of high-rises. Their radiant shoes will shine like mirrors and their light steps will echo in company corridors to murmurs of ‘See you at the barbecue, and give my regards to your lovely spouse.’
The narrator is painfully conscious of the charade, but he can’t afford to forgo the rewards of dutifully playing his role – a free meal, an occasional coupling. And so he doles out the minstrelsy in carefully calibrated doses. ‘The exotic has to be modified here – not too authentic, not too spicy or too smelly, just enough of it to remind others of a fantasy elsewhere.’
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