Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Randall Moore book club. Latest book.

Rawi Hage's excellent book, DeNiro's Game, makes several mentions of the Albert Camus classic The Outsider. Or, L'Etranger, if you will. The central character, Bassam, reads the book while he is holed up in a hotel in France after escaping war-torn Beirut. And there are many similarities between the two. Where L'Etranger deals with a man who commits a murder, that murder is treated simply as a matter of course. And while it is the central event in the book, it's described in such a matter-of-fact way that we, the reader, don't really know how to feel about it. And the violence in DeNiro's Game is described in a similar fashion. Matter-of-fact, like the thousands of bombs falling all over Lebanon are merely a matter of course, that Bassam is so accustomed to this that it almost doesn't register with him any more. The violence in Camus' main character comes from his own character, but the violence in Bassam seems to come more from his surroundings, and from the apathy that is created by the killings around him.

In L'Etranger, the man who murders is brought up on trial, and part of the prosecution against him centres around the fact that he was emotionless at his own mother's funeral. So too is Bassam fairly emotionless when his mother is killed by a bomb. After all, it's Beirut, and these things happen. Hage has an incredible writing style, and he balances the matter-of-fact, Camus type descriptions of horrific things with poetic and flowery descriptions of emotions and scenery. It seems like an odd juxtaposition of style, but it really works. We get inside Bassam's head almost immediately, and while we can see the beauty of a girl crossing the street or a sunset in the hills, we too are inured to the violence surrounding these sights.

The story basically deals with Bassam and his childhood friend, nicknamed DeNiro. (We find out why later, but I hope people will read this book and I won't divulge the reason for his nickname.) As the war in Lebanon spirals out of control, and opportunists pop up on all sides - the Christians, the Muslims, the Somalians, the Israelis, the Palestinians - we start to wonder who is fighting whom. Bassam himself doesn't really seem to know, or care. All he knows is that there are gun battles and bombs, and who is dropping them and why are seconedary concerns. DeNiro becomes involved with a Christian militia group, led by a shadowy, violent and greedy man who appears to be more interested in financial gain than in a cause of any kind. There is a funny but poignant scene at the front lines, when Bassam's friend Joseph engages in a verbal battle with a Muslim fighter on the other side of the lines. They insult each others' mothers and sisters. They fire bullets at each other. But those bullets always miss. As Joseph says: "I can't kill him - we're going to have a beer after the war".

In the end, Bassam does manage to escape Beirut, and learns more about the war, about himself, and about his friend DeNiro and the extent to which he was really betrayed. The book ends with a rumination on what Camus wrote - there is but one true philosophical problem, and that is suicide. DeNiro's Game is a powerful first novel from Canadian import Rawi Hage, a man who lived through the events he describes so vividly and alternately so clinically. Well worth the read.

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