Tuesday, 23 April 2013

De Niro's Game

De Niro's Game - Rawi Hage
(Winner of the Impac Dublin Literary Award 2008)

Full of bomb blasted poetry, De Niro's Game takes us deep into a shattered world, where language digs through the archeology of a city to find a barren future in a bloody past. Beirut is the setting for most of this book, a place of chaos and memory, where the anarchic and bourgeois live hand in hand: "Ten thousand bombs had landed on Beirut, that crowded city, and I was lying on a blue sofa covered with white sheets to protect it from dust and dirty feet."

The book centres on the friendship between two young men who have been friends since childhood, the narrator Bassam and George, a.k.a. De Niro, a war orphan. There are clear parallels with Mean Streets with the attraction of being outside the law magnified by the difficulties of living in a war torn city where you have to wait in line for everything. After all, "Thugs never waited in lines."

The streets that they ride through are bomb scarred and history haunted -  "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, Mamluks had stolen the villagers' food, crusaders had eaten human flesh, and Turks had enslaved my grandmother."The mixture of nationalism and personal grievance is clearly a dangerous and combustible cocktail but it is tempered by a kind of millenial fatalism. Is this not as it has always been, and always will be? A land torn apart, again and again.

Hage introduces wider political questions in the same way, burying them in descriptions like this description of the women of Beirut "inside their houses": "They washed like meticulous Christian cats that lick their paws under small European car engines that leak corporate oil extracted by exploited Nigerian workers from underneath the earth where devils roam, and worms gnaw on the roots of dead trees that are suffocated by factory fumes and the greedy breath of white skinned engineers." The world is a labyrinth populated by shark toothed minotaurs sitting in penthouse boardrooms while in the margins people live lives open to death, the little tin-can skin of security opened by war, or poverty, of exploitation or coercion or all, and also more.

This way, we get a broader viewpoint from a narrator who is, on the surface, telling his own story. His story is of the dream of escaping the city where all he could do was wait for death which was all pervasive: "Ten thousand bombs had fallen and I was waiting for death to come and scoop its daily share from a bowl of limbs and blood." He is living the archetype of a dead end life and has become infected with the violence and hopelessness of his surroundings: "The few jobs I got at the port were not enough for cigarettes, a nagging mother, and food. Where to go, who to rob, con, beg, seduce, strip and touch."  The war is like an infection which is running through the cities streets into the inhabitants veins. There is waste and pain everywhere, old and new. "The sea that is filled with pharaoh tears, pirate ship wreckage, slave bones, flowing rivers of sewage, and French tampons." There is only one light left shining in Bassam's world - "those who leave never come back, I sang in my heart."

At the beginning there seems to be some tenderness left in Bassam but it is gradually squeezed out by what he sees and hears. It all becomes about what he can take and the volcanic pressure of his pain and anger. There is not much place for better feelings, or long term ambitions. The false gaiety of war rings out: "A man with a thick moustache put his hand on my shoulder and said, There is nothing in this world, my friend. Nothing is worth it; enjoy yourself. Tomorrow we might all die." Who comes to the top in this world? It is not the meek anyway. We are introduced to a dark menagerie of characters such as "a local brute commander who walked with open feet like a duck, wore heavy boots in heat or cold weather, whose smell assaulted your nostrils, whose petty theft of vegetables and poultry was reminiscent of a medieval monk on the crusaders' path."

There are a lot of contrasting realities presented. We get a picture of the difficult lives of the poor women. Bassam rips at his mother's heart by his refusal to enter underground shelter when the bombs are falling but instead often going outside on the streets. As in Gravity's Rainbow, the bombs, because unpredictable, become part of the divine for some. They hold the mystery of life and death in their metal shells. "A bomb fell not far from me. I looked for the smoke, waited for the moaning and screams, but there were none. Maybe the bomb had hit me. Maybe I was dead..."

And when the bombs stop, what have these women to emerge for: "The bombing had stopped, and women had come out of their holes to gather tender meat for their unemployed husbands to sink their nicotine-stained teeth into and seal their inflated bellies." Other, rich women have left for safer pastures: "They had apartments in Paris, and husbands who imported cigarettes, containers, and car parts, who coughed in Swiss banks at wooden mahogany desks occupied by nephews of factory owners, grandsons of landlords of African cocoa fields dotted with workers with bruised fingers, who worked under many suns, who worked on Sundays and Fridays."

There is a side effect to the abandonment of their homes by all these rich women. Their pet dogs are left behind, dogs that ate better in their masters homes than many of the people of Beirut: "The rich were leaving for France and letting their dogs roam loose on the streets: orphan dogs, expensive dogs, potty-trained dogs, dogs with French names and red bow ties, fluffy dogs, well-bred dogs, China dogs, genetically modified  dogs, and incestuous dogs that clung to one another in packs, covered the street in tens, and gathered under the command of a charismatic three-legged mutt. The most expensive pack of wild dogs roamed Beirut and the earth, and howled to the big moon, and are from mountains of garbage on the corners of our streets." This builds into a set piece where the dogs become seen as a menace by some and the militia are called upon to solve the problem. "The Christians won the battle, the battle of the hundred dogs."

This is in some ways the parallel of the truly dark heart of this book, the horrendous massacre at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shantilla. This seems to mark the end of George's desire to live. Some things are worse than death. "We moved like thunder through the Sabra and Shantilla refugee camps."
"We moved further in, and Israeli aircraft dropped eighty-one-millimetre illumination flares. The whole area was lit up; it was like being in a Hollywood movie. And I am De Niro in a movie, George said." What he sees, and does, leads him to say: "No, Bassam, the torture chambers are inside us."

Their friendship will be sorely tested and perhaps what is left will be no more than the shadow of friendship, shards of memories moving under the skin like shrapnel: "images from childhood bounced on the table: two boys pissing in the corner of angled walls, shooting doves with wooden guns, thieving candies with little hands, and swinging wooden sticks to herd car wheels down the city hills, wearing cheap open sandals, mouths pounding purple chewing gum, pockets bloated with marbles, chasing Indians and African lions with slingshots and crooked arrows, praying on bruised knees, confessing in foreign tongues while surrounded by flames that danced like our stolen cigarettes did at night in narrow alleys and under the stairs."

Also addressed is the purpose of stories. Do we tell them to comfort or to confront? Can lies truly comfort, especially if the are not credible? Are our stories who we are? Bassam imagines "A princess" "waiting for a fisherman to solve the riddle and take her back to her lost palace, where she would rejoin the caliphate in a garden of jasmine and amber, and stroll through the arches of Baghdad before the invading armies burned her favourite books and destroyed thousands of tales." There is a desire to rewrite history, to go back and make it better. But perhaps the only way forward is to acknowledge the past.

For just as stories cannot change the past so bullets can only do what bullets do kill, maim and create fear. They cannot transform: "I cursed my pursuers in my own language, and waved my hand, daring them to accept that my bullets would kiss their high boots, shred their leather jackets, enlighten their shaved heads, rewrite their tattoos, colonize their souls.."

In some ways this is a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and how he must dig with a knife through the flesh of his past to edge out the shrapnel words of truth. It is a hard book, full of violence and horror, but a true book.

1 comment:

  1. The suggestion of poetry amongst the quotidian horror of war brings to mind 'Waltz With Bashir'...