Howling in Beirut

Hallucinatory prose and civil war in Rawi Hage's debut novel

In the rough, intense De Niro's Game, debut novelist Rawi Hage's native Beirut circa 1982 is soaked in history. It remains the "concrete city that has no trees for Judas to hang from." Christians and Muslims engage in seemingly eternal war. "Ten thousand bombs had landed," intones the narrator throughout, and it's never clear whether he's referring to the past week or the past century.

That narrator is a teenager named Bassam, and his friendship with fellow Christian George forms the novel's crux. George's evolution from petty criminal to militant hero to something shadier and more significant is uncomplicated. Hage does a better job with Bassam, who broods on his longing to flee Beirut. The civil war's horrors, which include torture, maimed dogs, and the titular Russian roulette (George's nickname is De Niro: think Deer Hunter) are palpably drawn, as is the tragedy of adolescent innocence run aground. I shudder to think that some of Bassam's experiences are likely the author's own.

Hage's style is hallucinatory, and as you read and reread his gorgeous, grandiose, melancholy catalogs of destruction, you'll find it hard not to think of the fevered dream of Howl. But Hage tempers his poetry with an acerbic tone that perhaps comes from having survived hell on earth: "My mother jumped at every explosion. She called upon one female saint after another but none of them, busy virgins, ever answered her back."

As the book's middle stretches on, readers might join Bassam in desiring a change of scenery. Fortunately, he leaves for France. This final section is revelatory—by the far the novel's best. Paris, too, is soaked in history, except in Paris history no longer intrudes on everyday life. So, in order to sate what has become an addiction to living in consequential times, Bassam imagines the Bastille "ever-burning" and fancies himself a revolutionary. In the end, though, he almost misses his nightmarish childhood. "Bombs are like Morse code signals filled with messages, with words," he says. "But Paris has no falling bombs; Paris is a mute city."

 
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