War and Movies

DeNiro’s Game

By Faustus Salvador

Published on October 1, 2006

Deniro’s Game
Rawi Hage

House of Anansi Press
$29.95
cloth
280pp
0-88784-196-1

DeNiro’s Game, Montreal author Rawi Hage’s debut novel about a young man yearning to escape war-torn Beirut, takes its title from another fictional work, the 1978 movie The Deer Hunter. In that film, the main characters (played by Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken) are repeatedly forced to play Russian roulette, first in a POW camp for the amusement of their Viet Cong captors, and then later for redemption in the gambling underworld of Saigon. Few contests, if any, are as grim and distressing as pointing a partially loaded revolver at one’s own head and testing fate, yet for the characters of DeNiro’s Game, the rules of Russian roulette are not restricted to bullets alone. Hage has crafted a novel as tense as it is sombre, where guns are more abundant than tap water, abandoned pets wander the roads en masse, and falling bombs make each day appear dimmer than the last.

Set in the early 1980s during the Lebanese civil war, DeNiro’s Game follows the plight-ridden paths of Bassam and George, best friends who spend their days roaming the mean streets of Christian Beirut on a motorcycle, hatching schemes to make money. “We were aimless, beggars and thieves, horny Arabs with curly hair and open shirts and Marlboro packs rolled in our sleeves, dropouts, ruthless nihilists with guns, bad breath, and long American jeans,” Bassam narrates. Their friendship starts to fray, though, when George joins the thuggish local militia that controls their part of the city; before long he becomes increasingly secretive, his authority more threatening. As loyalties are tested and boundaries trespassed, thoughts of fleeing Beirut consume Bassam, whose life turns into a long series of terrifying risks.

I’m not spoiling much by saying there’s a final showdown between Bassam and George. Along with Hage’s vivid descriptions and dramatic use of the cutaway, part of the filmic nature of his novel is its tight movie-like plotting. Films have obviously influenced the surface aspects of DeNiro’s Game, but beneath the grandeur of its tormented larger-than-life characters and its stark settings lies a quiet rumination about wartime life. Besides The Deer Hunter, Hage’s novel shows a kinship with at least one other work of fiction. Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, a book which makes a cameo appearance in DeNiro’s Game but is visible early on in the benumbed tonality of the prose, the pregnant silences between bombings, the conscious lack of sensationalism when violence occurs. When the bombs fall on Beirut, Bassam simply lies in bed and daydreams. To Hage’s credit, these scenes play out as serenely as brewing a cup of tea.

But there are instances of lyricism in DeNiro’s Game, too. In Bassam’s bleak world, whether he’s smoking hashish, ambling past silent houses on a street, or being physically tortured, only his imagination seems to offer him refuge. Hage writes these passages as a startling array of discordant imagery, darkly comical at times, in language as densely woven as an Arabic tapestry.

In recent years more than a few books about the conflicts in the Middle East have been released. Anthony Swofford’s 2003 memoir Jarhead comes foremost to mind, with its marines stirring themselves up while watching Apocalypse Now – a sharp contrast to the image of Lebanese fighters brooding over The Deer Hunter. With DeNiro’s Game, Rawi Hage has written a story not only emblematic of the nihilism of war, but also one that’s as illuminating as it is enjoyable to read.

I met with Rawi Hage in September, a few days after DeNiro’s Game was announced as a finalist on the 2006 Giller’s Prize longlist [It has since been named to the shortlistEd.] We spoke over tea in a Côte-des-Neiges café near his home. A friendly, soft-spoken man, he seemed genuinely surprised by the attention his novel has received.

mRb: When you were a child, you and your family escaped the war in Lebanon. How did you relate to Bassam’s own flight from Beirut?

RH: I think that his determination to flee the war was pretty much me. His existentialist state of mind, where nothing makes sense anymore and you don’t believe in politics or religion and you’re facing a void and everything becomes objective, I remember that was my own at the time.

mRb: Besides being a writer, you’re a visual artist and photographer. What effect or influence did your aesthetic have on your novel?

RH: I think what photography taught me is to situate myself. Before I start any scene, I imagine myself present right in the midst of it – just like in photography. You can’t take a photograph if you’re not physically present.

mRb: You must have enjoyed the abstract aspects of the novel, too. Some of the most memorable passages in DeNiro’s Game are Bassam’s sudden flights of imagination.

RH: I think it’s because I come from the visual art medium where experimentation is the norm. I also don’t come from any literary school, so I took the liberty to do whatever I felt like doing. It’s that liberating feeling of experimenting. I find visual art, the milieu, is very free, maybe because artists don’t make much money and there’s no constraint on the industry.

mRb: What prompted you to start writing?

RH: I started writing by coincidence. A curator asked me to take photographs of artists for a catalogue. I was sent all over Canada and, at one point she asked me to keep notes. I perceived it as bureaucratic work, which upset me, so I started writing her short stories – totally fictitious stories – and she liked them. I wrote more and sent a few to a couple of publications. Later, I applied for a grant to do a book of short stories. The last short story kept evolving and became DeNiro’s Game.

mRb: How long ago was that?

RH: About three years ago.

mRb: And what happened to the book of short stories?

RH: I still have it. I haven’t looked at it yet. I don’t know how good it is, but I’ll take a look at it one day. [Laughs.]

mRb: One of the epigraphs in your novel comes from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel: “And the breadth shall be ten thousand.” The number “ten thousand” appears time and again in DeNiro’s Game.

RH: [Laughs.] Like an incantation.

mRb: Yes. What does that number mean to you?

RH: It’s slang in Lebanese. You say “ten thousand” when you want to indicate a big quantity.

mRb: And the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel?

RH: I’m not religious at all. I guess because I read religious texts, I became non-religious. It struck me how, in a passage in Ezekiel, he ordered his people to build a temple with specific measurements. I found this whole idea of specificity and demarcation very related to wars and borders. Wars are all about defining borders.

mRb: Are you working on another book now?

RH: I finished a second novel for the same publisher and I have 20 pages for a third. The second is set here in Montreal. I wanted to set it here to give something back to this beautiful city. This is home. Finally. mRb

Faustus Salvador is a writer whose articles and fiction have been published in England, Japan, and across Canada.

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