‘For Religious People, Everything Has Already Been Done’

Sarah Irving continues her coverage of the Edinburgh International Book Festival; on Monday, she attended a talk by Rawi Hage and Tash Aw, called “The World in Grotesque Technicolor“:

By Sarah Irving

aw_hageAccording to Lebanese diaspora novelist Rawi Hage – now resident in Canada – his latest book, Carnival, was “fuelled by the Middle East”. It seems an unlikely impetus behind a novel in which an orphaned circus child joins the ranks of the taxi drivers of an unnamed Canadian city, categorising them as “spiders” or “flies” and identifying individuals not by name but by call number.

But, says Hage, “there are different conversations going on in this book, and one of the main conversations is between [central character] Fly, an irreverent atheist, and his pious neighbour. But instead of being journalistic [about the Middle East], I took to a theological discourse.

“Fundamentalism is about certainties. This is about the acceptance of finiteness, of death, of change. The problem of fundamentalist thought – and I particularly attack monotheism – is that for really pious people someone else being creative is not accepted. For religious people, everything has already been done”

Hage fully acknowledges the religious roots of his Carnival motif. “It’s ritualistic, which brings in the whole issue of religion. Carnival has a multiplicity of characters, a freedom. When I was writing this book I was simultaneously a writer, a dancer, a person on a stage”.

But even the famous lawlessness of the Carnival has, he says, its constraints. “It was defined by the seasons, it represents freedom within a form. And in my cynical, suspicious way of looking at things, I think the church approved of carnival because they wanted more babies, to make more farmers.”

Despite these sentiments, Hage – along with plenty of other critics of organised religion, this blogger included – is keen to distance himself from perhaps the world’s most high-profile atheist at the moment, Richard Dawkins. “He wasn’t a influence, I assure you,” he says, citing instead Rabelais as an example of those who use “humour as a means of defiance to religious institutions.”

It won’t surprise readers of Hage’s earlier novels, De Niro’s Game and Cockroach, the he laments what he sees as “a new tendency to present novels as polite texts. I don’t think they should be polite. Novelists should oppose society.”

But despite Hage’s deft, sure, tight prose and pugnacious views, he also seems to expose in himself a vulnerability which intertwines with his writing and personal history.

“I’m lonely,” he says frankly, in a wide-ranging discussion with Tash Aw about the experience of physical dislocation from the place of one’s birth. “I left because of the war and for economic reasons, but also for what the West represented to a middle-class person who was educated in a semi-Western education. There’s a curiosity about the West – in my case about French culture. I went to a Catholic school and studied French and Arabic, so France represented this place, a space that’s part of your identity but you’ve never experienced it. My first choice was Paris but I didn’t get the visa.”

As Aw points out, ideas of diaspora and dislocation are often tied up with assumptions about nostalgia and sadness. But, he notes, “leaving is a relief” for those without “nice lives” to leave behind. “People like me, and I suspect Rawi, need some geographical distance to refresh ourselves,” Aw suggests. Hage’s response? “Yes, but I complain about it!”

But both Aw and Hage’s novels paint a more complex picture of the diasporic experience. Aw depicts the grinding, demeaning jobs of the poor both at home and after migration, and questions the contemporary obsession with ‘choice,’ pointing out that for the reviled ‘economic migrants’ to industrialised nations, the ‘choice’ is often between humiliating treatment in a foreign country or dire poverty at home.

Hage – who himself has done many of the menial jobs into which the West corrals its refugees and migrants – delivers an equally complex view of diaspora. His characters have, presumably, elected to start new lives in foreign countries in the hope of something better. But amongst his ‘spiders’ and ‘flies’ we encounter one man who apparently awakes (sleeping even whilst driving) when he sees the colour green, which reminds him of the hills of home. But in the constrained urban environment of the refugee, this comes only as the green ‘go’ light on the road, or occasionally a plate of salad in a cafe. The only glimpses of life and consciousness he shows are at these fleeting moments, ‘home’ condensed to this one stripped-down signifier.

Another nameless taxi driver, meanwhile, spends “twenty hours a day” in his cab, refusing to wash and pissing in a bottle. But, it emerges, he is also a “renaissance man,” learned in science and the arts. Understandably, though, he seems intent on repulsing the people he is forced to serve, grasping at the tiny amount of power their need to get from A to B gives him by subjecting them to the (literally) vomit-inducing smells of his body.

“Being a writer is part of that isolation, you always feel that sense of isolation” says Hage, suggesting that there is currently “more and more of an appetite for transnational, spatially detached novels of cosmopolitan exile.”

Whether people have moved between countries or simply travelled the huge distances within nations such as Canada or China, “we live in different languages and different places which we try to reconcile.” He suspects, though, that “perhaps it is easier to go to a totally new place, it it lonelier to be an outsider in one’s own culture.”

[http://www.sarahirving.co.uk] is author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, and has been a journalist and reviewer for over a decade. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and is dipping a tentative toe into the waters of Arabic-English translation.