I’m trying very hard – against the tyranny of the clock – to work on a piece of fiction that is set in a nameless contemporary global city and have been thinking a lot about the possibilities and limits of such an approach. Just four or five days ago, I was thrilled to learn of a novel called Carnival (2012) that is masterfully structured around a similar device. It is the third book of Canadian author – and photographer and former cab driver – Rawi Hage (born in 1964 in Beirut, Lebanon) after his highly acclaimed De Niro’s Game (2006; 2008 winner of the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award) and Cockroach (2008). The former is the story of childhood friends Bassam and George who grow up in war-torn Beirut, the latter the tale of a Middle-Eastern immigrant in Montréal.
Back to Carnival – it happens to combine three great interests of mine. One, as I have already mentioned, the present-day cosmopolitan city. Second, the theatrics of amusement. Finally, travel and wandering.
Hage opens his novel of five acts with two rather heavy, mind-bending quotations:
True open seriousness fears neither parody, nor irony, nor any other form of reduced laughter, for it is aware of being part of an uncompleted whole.
~ Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975, Russian philosopher and literary theorist) in Rabelais and His World (1965)
Those who are motionless on the wandering earth: the voyagers. Those who flee over the motionless earth: the stay-at-homes. But those who flee over the wandering earth, and those who are motionless on the motionless earth: what should they be called?
~ J. M. G. Le Clézio (born 1940, French-Mauritian writer and academic) in The Book of Flights (1969)
In a crime-ridden apocalyptic metropolis (most likely in Latin America), there are two types of taxi drivers – the Spiders and the Flies. Spiders wait for customers at the taxi stands. Flies are wanderers, active seekers of wavers and whistlers on the sidewalks. The protagonist of Carnival is a Fly, simply called Fly. He is probably a multi-racial figure – the son of a golden-haired “trapeze artist” mother (buried somewhere between the Danube and the Italian peninsula) and a camel-owning “flying carpet pilot” father (supposed to have originated from beyond the dunes). Fly is raised in the world of tents on the circus trail by a loving hermaphroditic Bearded Lady – in the company of clowns and dwarfs and sword swallowers and lion tamers. At one point, the company of entertainers crosses the Atlantic to find work in a certain “Carnival” city. And so here he is, driving for a living, residing in a tiny apartment full of books and mice. A childhood in the circus has made Fly’s mind and vision poetic and dramatic. He tells Zainab his neighbour, a scholar of religion, “The world is a circus and it will always be.”
Carnival city is colourful – a voracious receptacle of dissimilar people and things. “Otto”, “Aisha”, “Linda”, “Fredao” all exist within it. A Romanian woman is here, a Senegalese man there. Carnival city is chaotic – pimps and murderers freely roam the streets. A brief congress with anyone can be easily arranged, but lasting relationships are painfully difficult. Fly struggles with both lovers and friends.
Danger always lurks behind the all-embracing revelry of makeup and masks. There is no authority that can be trusted, political or economic or religious. Fly is unsparing in his irreverence. He tells a priest, “I believe you are a hater of misfits, a suppressor of clowns’ laughs, scissors to the ropes of mountain climbers, chains to the wanderer, and a blindfold to the knower: a hater of men.”
Fly tries to find a kind of refuge in literature. He finds himself drifting in the realms of James Joyce and Miguel de Cervantes. He thinks of Greek gods and Mesopotamian rivers. But once Otto, his friend, says to him, “Fiction is overrated, Fly. We’ve discussed this. In the times it takes those novelist fuckers to contemplate a few poetic passages, a thousand kids die from malnutrition. Immediacy, man, that’s what counts.”
What, after all, must one rely on in such an anarchic, decaying world full of hypocrites and liars? Rawi Hage does not offer a direct answer. But from the elaborate symbolism, I could extract a message. Fly continues to fly. Though wounded and lonely and imperfect, he remains himself, detached and distant from rigid ideologies and causes. In this universe, there is a beauty in the lightness of his spirit, and in it one finally finds some hope of redemption.