Shortlisted for Canada’s biggest literary award, the Giller Prize, I’d heard a lot about DeNiro’s Game, in particular how it was the first novel for its author, Rawi Hage (Lainey Gossip would call him a First Book Bitch). The novel tells the story of two childhood best friends, Bassam and George, who are living in Beirut in the 1980s civil war. Written first-person from Bassam’s perspective, we watch the two young men take different paths, and respond in different ways, to the chaos engulfing their country. The book is split into 3 sections, with the first two sections taking place in Beirut and the third section taking place in Paris, where Bassam flees to seek refuge with George’s half sister.
This is not a happy book- the title comes from De Niro’s game of Russian roulette in Deerhunter– but I liked it both for its stylized prose and for giving me window into what living through a civil war might be like. Stylistically, the prose is poetic in a maximalist way, almost decorative if that makes sense? If this novel is a picture of Rome burning, Hage wants to show you how the tapestries are warping in the flames. Content-wise, I’ve thought a lot about the themes and the smaller plot points that fill out the story. I try to imagine what I would do if my country descended into a place that was no longer livable- what would I do? How would I feed myself? Despite the uncertainty of when the next shelling might occur, or the lack of a functioning government, Bassam continues to show up for his shifts at the dockyard. I’d never thought about that being an option- I always thought I’d leave for someplace safer, which now feels much more naïve. How would I afford it? How would I get out? What’s to say I would be accepted as a refuge? And where would I go, if everyone I knew was in the place I was leaving? For these and so many other questions, Hage’s novel does a bang-up of job of ‘show-don’t-tell’.
Finally, as much as I liked/appreciated the novel (liked might be too strong given how dark it is), I found novel’s treatment of women problematic (maybe it is a true noir?). I understand that Bassam is troubled- rightfully so given the circumstances that he came of age in- but he consistently fails to respect any boundaries set by the women in his life, and often fails to respect them full-stop. I’m not sure if this was intended to show other larger themes (and I’m sure you could write a term paper discussing boundaries in this book generally), but I’m tired of seeing it played out this way, with women as a mirror to reflect the main character’s feelings and no real agency of their own, especially when they are treated poorly.
CBR11bingo- Far and Away (Living through a middle eastern civil war is far and away from my routine desk job in middle Canadia).