Book review: Carnival by Rawi Hage

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One shouldn’t judge a novel by the blurb, or blame the author for it. That said, he ought to exercise some control, in his own interests.


by Rawi Hage

Hamish Hamilton, 289pp, £16.99

So when his blurb-writer declared that “Carnival is a tour de force that will make all of life’s passengers squirm in their comfortable, complacent backseats”, Rawi Hage should surely have thrown up his hands and cried, “For God’s sake, no!” The backseats are there because the narrator is a taxi driver called Fly, but how a backseat can be complacent beats me. Furthermore, how many people who might buy the book want to be made to squirm?

Fortunately the novel isn’t half as bad as this recommendation makes it sound, or at any rate no more than half as bad. There are lots of fine things in it, and one warms, though with reservations, to the author’s – or his narrator’s – sympathy for his huge cast of oddballs, eccentrics, failures, derelicts, and criminals. Moreover Hage, Lebanese by birth but now a Canadian citizen, writes a tumbling galloping prose which veers from the demotic to the occasional high-flown literary passage. He has a keen eye for detail and an ear for how people speak.

There are individual scenes which work very well, and are sometimes comic and sometimes moving. Yet, taken as a whole , it is incoherent and tiresome, and the ending with a succession of corpses littering the stage, as if the author had got bored with his cast and decided to get rid of as many as possible, is absurd.

Fly cruises the streets of an unnamed city where there is apparently a perpetual carnival. He picks up passengers, hears their stories, enters sometimes into their lives. They are mostly screwballs, though some are criminals and others rich men and women who exploit the poor (and sometimes cheat Fly of his fare). One of the wearying features is the sheer oddity of most of the characters – even when they are not wearing a clown’s nose or are dressed in some carnival costume. For all the occasional moments of brilliance, Hage falls into the trap of seeming to believe that bizarre people are more interesting than the common run of apparently normal humanity. They aren’t; there are only easier to write about. Since one reviewer had the audacity and stupidity to compare Hage to Albert Camus – “Imagine Camus rewriting Taxi Driver” – one feels bound to remark that Camus knew better – wrote a lot better too.

Actually, you know on the first page that you are in for a deal of self-indulgence when you learn that the narrator was reared in a circus, and this is confirmed when you learn that after the death of his trapeze artist mother, he was brought up by the troupe’s Bearded Lady. He learns to read, becomes a bibliophile after he inherits a library from a professor, and when his day’s or night’s work is done lies on the floor imagining himself the hero of adventures, and masturbates. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Meanwhile he lives “in a building that hums with strange people, rodents, and insects who come and go as they please”. This is not unusual behaviour for insects.

There is no plot as such, but a succession of loosely-linked passages; and this entitles the novel to be described as picaresque. It has the qualities of the genre – liveliness, variety, inventiveness – but also its defects; you could juggle the sequence of passages without spoiling the book.

What is most annoying is that Hage is undoubtedly a writer of real talent. He has a lively imagination and a way with words. There are moments of genuine feeling too, but more often than not these lurch into sentimentality, whores with hearts of gold and all that. The novel displays a lack of self-discipline and any sense of structure. You feel it could go on for ever, and I can’t imagine that many readers will not find themselves skipping whole sections.

Never mind: Hage’s previous novels, De Niro’s Game and Cockroaches, have won prizes as well as plaudits from reviewers, and it’s likely that this one will do likewise. “Exuberant, imaginative and playful” are among the epithets applied to them. There are echoes of Salman Rushdie, or resemblances to his novels, and some will think this a fine thing, and 
others not.

• Rawi Hage is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 19 August.