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The Roach’s Revenge: “An Insect’s Play” of Suicide and Survival in Rawi Hage’s Cockroach

Brittany Kraus

2018 Irving and Jeanne Glovin Award Winner 

 

Brittany Kraus (left) at the 2018 FASS Essay

Competition awards ceremony. 

Also pictured is Acting Dean Jure Gantar.

 

 

 

 

Abstract

Through a literary analysis of Rawi Hage’s 2008 novel, Cockroach, I explore the concept of good human conduct as it relates to current discourses of citizenship, exile, hospitality and belonging. I argue that the novel calls into question the degree to which the discourse of the human (and human rights) can exist beyond state apparatuses of citizenship and belonging, and the ways in which good human conduct relies on the fundamental recognition of the other as human. I ask: how does the discourse of the human respond to or fail the migrant, the refugee, the exile, the marginalized other? What are the rights of those without citizenship, without papers, without the protection of the state? When is being human not enough?

Examining the novel as a revenge narrative, my paper focuses on how Cockroach’s unnamed protagonist – an impoverished, Arab immigrant to Montreal – shifts between human and insect form to indicate the ways in which the discourse of the human fails to create the political, social and economic conditions necessary for his survival. The narrator’s omnipresent feelings of exile and estrangement, his disenfranchisement and lack of economic and social mobility, his experiences of racialized and class-based discrimination, and his compulsion to become less human and more insect allows for a reading of this novel through a post-humanist and post-colonial lens, a reading that calls for a more ethical response to and understanding of the plight of the cockroach.

Introduction

 

“I am only half human,” (p. 245) states the unnamed narrator of Rawi Hage’s 2008 novel, Cockroach. His other half, he asserts, is cockroach, an insect notoriously associated with filth, poverty, and pestilence. The cockroach is also, however, one of the most resilient creatures on earth, capable of adapting to various climates and not only surviving but thriving in harsh and inhospitable conditions. As metaphors of pestilence and plague have long been key to mobilizing xenophobic discourses used to demonize and dehumanize the im/migrant subject, the narrator’s “obsession with the vermin” (Abdul-Jabbar, 2017, p. 168) is directly tied to his outsider status as an impoverished, racialized immigrant to Montreal from an unidentified, war-torn Middle Eastern country. By perceiving himself as less than human and desiring to disassociate with the “filth” of humankind (Hage, 2008, pp. 53, 88, 159, 284), the narrator imagines a new world order in which the poor, the displaced, the abject, and the ‘undesirable’ are liberated from the physical and socio-economic structures that “seek to control their bodies and their movements, and ultimately efface their very presence from the public sphere” (Beneventi, 2012, p. 265). His embodiment of the ‘pestilential immigrant’ enables him to survive, however precariously, in a hostile world that excludes him on the basis of his class, race and immigrant status. Assuming the role of a cockroach, the narrator can transgress ‘forbidden’ and unsanctioned spaces, navigating the underground world of Montreal with more ease and invisibility than he can as a poor, Arab immigrant – as a human, that is.

 

As issues of migration, citizenship, security and ‘terror’ are at the heart of our age, examining the role of good human conduct in today’s border-obsessed world necessitates a critical rethinking of what it means to be human, and, more importantly, who is called by that name. Through a literary analysis of Hage’s darkly comedic and subversive novel, Cockroach, I explore the concept of good human conduct as it relates to current discourses of citizenship, hospitality and belonging. In an interview with Rita Sakr in 2011, Hage characterizes his work as deeply “influenced by the crisis of identity and the conflictual nature of the question of belonging” (p. 346). The psychological and physical ambivalence of Cockroach’s narrator – he is half human, half roach – emblematizes the “diasporic split-consciousness” (Dobson, 2015, p. 257) that characterizes a lot of contemporary writing about immigration, exile and the condition of ‘refugeeness.’ However, while the narrator is “torn between staying human and assuming the role of the primitive to survive” (CBC, 2010, para. 4), his mutant identity calls into question the degree to which modern discourses of the human (and humanitarianism) can exist beyond state apparatuses of citizenship and belonging. If, as Giorgio Agamben (1995) argues, the “so-called sacred and inalienable rights of man” (p. 216) are inextricable from the rights of the citizen, then what are the rights of the human who lacks or is denied the privileges of citizenry and status? When, in other words, is being human not enough? What rights does a cockroach have?

I. Becoming Cockroach

 

In Hannah Arendt’s seminal essay, “We Refugees” (1943), she argues that “contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings” (p. 111) – the refugee and the exile, those without homes and political status. Being human, however, is not a guarantee of human rights. In his reading of Arendt’s essay, Agamben (1995) highlights the ways in which the refugee – the “pure man,” in his words – poses a radical threat to the political and legal order of the nation-state:

…That there is no autonomous space within the political order of the nation-state for something like the pure man in himself is evident at least in the fact that…the status of the refugee is always considered a temporary condition that should lead either to naturalization or to repatriation. A permanent status of man in himself is inconceivable for the law of the nation-state. (p. 116)

In other words, human rights are not a priori. Without papers, without citizenship, without legal or political status, the refugee or stateless person is subject to “the fate of human beings who, unprotected by any specific law or political convention, are nothing but human beings” (Arendt, 1943, p. 118). To survive, Arendt (1943) writes, these “mere humans” must continuously change their identities, adopt false accents and fake names, forget the past, and play the role of the happy and well-assimilated citizen: “The less we are free to decide who we are or to live as we like, the more we try to put up a front, to hide the facts, and to play roles” (p. 115).

 

In Cockroach, the narrator’s freedom is jeopardized by his impoverishment, his visibility as a racialized minority in Canada, and his reliance on the welfare of the state. His embodiment of the “pure man” derives not from the fact that he lacks citizenship – he has papers – but rather because he is denied access to the rights and privileges that Canadian citizenship supposedly confers: gainful employment, adequate health care, opportunities for educational and socio-economic advancement, etc. “I assured myself,” he naively states at one point, “that a good, hard-working man such as me could not possibly be left out to burn that last day or be subjected to the rule of cockroaches in the world to come” (Hage, 2008, p. 43). Yet “left out” is exactly what the narrator experiences. He is repeatedly a victim of racialized and class-based discrimination, repeatedly excluded from participation in the civic and economic order of the city. When he applies for a job as a waiter at an upscale French restaurant, for example, the Maître D turns him down, saying “Le soleil t’a brûlé un peu trop (the sun has burned your face a bit too much)” (original emphasis) (Hage, 2008, p. 29). The narrator immediately launches into one of his many spectacular tirades:

Impotent, infertile filth! I shouted at Pierre. Your days are over and your kind is numbered. No one can escape the sun on their faces and no one can barricade against the powerful, fleeting semen of the hungry and oppressed. I promised him that one day he would be serving only giant cockroaches on his velvet chairs…Doomed you will be, doomed as you are infested with newcomers! (Hage, 2008, p. 30)

 

As the narrator threatens the Maître D of the unstoppable invasion of “newcomers,” his body shifts between human and insect form, his “index fingers flutter[ing] like a pair of gigantic antennae” (Hage, 2008, p. 30). His sputtering rage at the injustices of his own life manifests as a promise of revenge and the inevitable destruction of the systematic structures of racism, colonialism and capitalism that denigrate people to the status of bugs. He assumes the role of a mad prophet, a soothsayer of doom: no one can stop the “hungry and oppressed,” he warns.

 

As the mainstream discourse surrounding the global refugee crisis continues to cast refugees and migrants as potential invaders and virulent pests, the narrator’s Kafkaesque metamorphosis from man to cockroach offers a trenchant critique of the ways in which the language of pestilence is mobilized to dehumanize and demonize marginalized and vulnerable people. Indeed, national borders today are being threatened by hordes, hives, swarms, surges and swells of refugee and migrant bodies – anything but human beings. Jeanne Shinozuka (2013) identifies the degree to which this type of animalizing or naturalizing language is motivated by projects of colonialism and oppression: “the exclusion of others is inextricably linked with nature – the primitive and the demonized…Racism and colonialism, as well as sexism, have drawn their strengths from casting various forms of difference as close to flora and fauna and reduced to the interiorized body lacking rationality or culture” (pp. 831, 836). The ways in which refugees and migrants are typically construed as either abject or dangerous, primitive or demonized, therefore operates to mobilize state policies and practices that criminalize and dehumanize them, effectively expelling them from “the realm of common humanity” (Razack, 2004, p. 8).

 

In Canada and other wealthy industrialized nations, these strategies of exclusion manifest in multiple forms, from the continued practice of indefinite migrant incarceration to the increased reliance on – and unerring faith in – biometric technologies to surveil and ‘capture’ the truth of a subject’s identity. Indeed, the whole apparatus of state security and surveillance is predicated now, as Foucault identified, on the question “Who are you?” rather than “What have you done?” (p. 32). Proof of identity – whether in the form of passports and identity documents, biometric data (fingerprints, retinal scans), or confessional testimonies – are essential now to designations of citizenship and status and, by extension, of humanness. It is therefore significant that the narrator describes himself simultaneously as a “master of escape” (Hage, 2008, p. 23). In his cockroach form, he can transgress the limits of his body, crossing borders undetected, crawling through “windows and holes” (Hage, 2008, p. 24) to take what the world owes him, to steal from the rich and give back to the roaches: “The underground, my friend, is a world of its own. Other humans gaze at the sky, but I say unto you, the only way through the world is to pass through the underground” (Hage, 2008, p. 24). As a cockroach, he can evade the technologies of security and surveillance that endanger his (human) ability to survive. As a poor, Arab immigrant living in the post-911, border-frenzied age, he feels “X-rayed…anticipated, watched, analyzed and bet upon” (Hage, 2008, p. 227), constantly under the watchful, punishing eye of the state. As a cockroach, however, the narrator can watch others, invade their privacy and follow their movements: he is no longer the watched, but the watcher.

 

Reduced to the role of a survivor, the narrator is initially inspired by two apocalyptic-preaching Jehovah’s Witnesses to take on the form of a cockroach, a creature, they claim, that will outlast the end of the world: “Only the cockroaches shall survive to rule the earth” (Hage, 2008, p. 7). As a cockroach, the narrator can imaginatively redefine his role as a mere survivor to one of dominance, a creature with agency and power. His fantasy of a post-apocalyptic, post-human world signifies the depths of his feelings of alienation and entrapment in this “cruel and insane world saturated with humans” (Hage, 2008, p. 23). As someone who has had to resort to crime – namely theft and home invasion – in both his country of origin and in Canada as a means of basic survival, his desire to rid himself of his humanity is both a way to escape the punitive gaze of the state and to silence his own conscience. While he has already been ‘caught’ by the state for publicly attempting to commit suicide (and subsequently held in a psychiatric institution), the narrator engages in a variety of legally and morally dubious activities, usually in his insect form, that he could very well be arrested and prosecuted for. As Kit Dobson (2015) notes, the narrator’s “morphing into a cockroach occurs whenever he begins to contemplate any questionable act” (p. 263) of violence or violation. Certainly, this is the case when he stalks his therapist, Genevieve, and later breaks into her home:

The next day, Friday, I woke up early. I returned to Genevieve’s place and watched her leave her house for work. Then I slipped past the building’s garage door, went down to the basement and crawled along the pipes. I sprang from her kitchen’s drain, fixed my hair, my clothes, and walked straight to her bedroom. (Hage, 2008, p. 80)

As the scene progresses, the narrator makes himself increasingly at home in Genevieve’s private, domestic space. He crawls into her bed, sniffs her clothes, looks at her photographs, and fixes himself a sandwich. He begins referring to himself in the third-person: “the stranger in the house”; “the intruder, feeling at home” (Hage, 2008, p. 81), linguistically juxtaposing the figure of suspicion and danger with the image of domesticity and home. When he confesses to Genevieve that he entered her home without her permission, she responds (naturally) with shock and horror. The narrator calls her out for her moral hypocrisy and ethical lassitude: “You tolerated me breaking into other people’s places, I said, but now that it is your own place…” (Hage, p. 260). His statement is a clear indictment of the ways in which refugees, migrants – “today’s ‘global cast-offs’” (Nyers, 2003, p. 1074) – are tolerated, pitied even, until they come into ‘our’ house, arrive at ‘our’ borders, and threaten ‘our’ way of life. The narrator’s rebuke of Genevieve indicates how the language of hospitality is often used to uphold nationalist narratives of compassion and humanitarianism, but is devoid of any real care for human suffering.

 

Despite the narrator’s vehement identification with the abject, the poor and the vermin, he yearns, nonetheless, to transcend his social and economic position, to be, as he once asks Genevieve, “invited in” (Hage, 2008, p. 286). Who wants, after all, to be poor and hungry? To live life as a bug, vulnerable and despised? To “exist and not to belong”? (Hage, 2008, p. 210). The fact that his initial transformation into a cockroach occurs at a moment in which he is worried about how he will survive without money, food or prospective employment, indicates the ways in which the narrator’s ‘cockroach-ness’ is born out of necessity, rather than choice. As his human body mutates into an insect’s, with wings and whiskers and “many legs,” the realities of his life interrupt his surrealist fantasy: “My welfare cheque was ten days away. I was out of dope. My kitchen had only rice and leftovers and crawling insects that would outlive me on Doomsday (Hage, 2008, p. 19). The narrator inhabits the physical form of a cockroach to not only distract himself from the harsh realities of his life, but also to increasingly disassociate with the human “filth” that he perceives as the source of his suffering, those “who more comfortably inhabit the city” (Dobson, 2015, p. 260) because they are able to participate in the taxpaying economy of Montreal while the narrator is deemed a tax burden. As Dobson (2015) argues, the status of the human is not always a given or self-evident:

While…the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights assumes that what a human being is self-evident and then sets out to discuss the rights accorded to such humans, one important function of the neoliberal is to police the borders of the human, allocating differential amounts of humanity to bodies based on their (economic) suitability. (p. 268)

The narrator, who embodies “the desperation of the displaced, the stateless, the miserable and stranded” (Hage, 2008, p. 151) is allocated less humanity than the suit-wearing, tax-paying, card-carrying citizens that surround him. Indeed, as Genevieve reminds him, he owes his life to the state. After his botched suicide attempt, the narrator is ‘rescued’ by state officials who arrest him, institutionalize him, and then take him for psychiatric assessment – all on the taxpayer’s dime: “I am here to assess your situation, she said, and to monitor your progress. Yes, I am here to help you, but you know what? In the end I am an employee of the government. People are paying taxes for you to be here” (Hage, 2004, p. 208). Genevieve’s care for the narrator extends only insofar as she continues to get paid, and he continues to cooperate. He is a ward of the state, she reminds him: he should be grateful. The narrator responds with contempt:

TAXPAYERS, THE SHRINK SAYS. Ha! …Well yes, yes indeed, I should be grateful for what this country is giving me. I take more than I give, indeed it is true. But if I had access to some wealth, I would contribute my share. Maybe I should become a good citizen and contemplate ways to collect my debts and increase my wealth. That would be a good start. (Hage, 2008, p. 65)

The narrator is highly suspicious of the idea that ‘good citizenry’ is synonymous with paying taxes and increasing wealth. Indeed, he grows more and more disgusted with the human capacity for greed, telling his therapist that they are the only creatures who take more than they need (Hage, 2008, p. 243), leaving only the crumbs for the roaches to scavenge. “Bourgeois filth!” he cries, “I want my share! (Hage, 2008, p. 88).

II. Storytelling as Insubordination

 

While the narrator is not able to secure any economic power by the novel’s end, he does exercise a noted degree of agency throughout in his capacity as a storyteller and performer. An unreliable narrator whose diatribes, rants and lurid ‘confessions’ of lust and deviant behaviour are frequently disarming and distasteful, and whose grasp on reality is often questionable, he is able to both strategically and unintentionally blur the lines between fact and fiction, truth and lies, fantasy and reality, human and insect. Considering the novel’s preoccupation with the ways in which human identities are verified and authorized (or unauthorized) by state practices of surveillance and security, the narrator’s refusal to fully cooperate in his therapy sessions, or function as a reliable narrator in general, questions the degree to which narratives of refugee or immigrant trauma have become a form a currency in the economy of state ‘hospitality.’

 

In Canada and other western nations, the refugee determination process requires claimants to prove a well-founded fear of persecution via data – stories, scars, signs of torture – that attests to the trauma of their past and, hence, their right to protection. However, as Peter Showler (2006), a former member of Canada’s Immigration and Review Board (IRB) suggests, the refugee hearing is itself a kind of performance space, in which “fact and fiction, communication and miscommunication…insight and ignorance intermingle and combine to form a story that may or may not capture the truth of a refugee’s experience” (p. 210). Indeed, the weekly therapy sessions the narrator is mandated to attend with his state-appointed counselor, Genevieve, play out as miniature hearings, in which the narrator is repeatedly reminded that if he does not cooperate, if he refuses to give ‘truthful’ answers to Genevieve’s egregiously naive line of questioning, he will be remanded to a psychiatric institution. “Do you want to tell me more about your childhood today? If we do not move forward, if we do not improve, I might have to recommend that you go back to the institution. Frankly, you do not give me much choice with your silence” (Hage, 2008, p. 60). Genevieve, a white, middle class Canadian doctor and a representative of both the ideal citizen and the authority of the state, equates the narrator’s silence with insubordination. He must talk, he must lay bare the trauma of his past, or face indefinite detention.

 

Multiple critics have identified the ways in which refugees and refugee claimants must represent themselves in static and stereotypical ways to uphold Western narratives of hospitality and humanitarianism. Peter Nyers (2006) argues that refugees and refugee claimants are expected to define themselves in relation to their “refugeeness” by emphasizing their helplessness and “general condition of homelessness” (p. xv). According to Nyers (2006), the figure of the “refugee warrior” (p. 103) is viewed as an oxymoron in most western countries. How can the helpless have agency? How can these “speechless and invisible victims of oppression” (Lapierre, 2014, p. 561) have any dignity or self-determination? The expectation for refugees to participate in “the telling of a retelling of a story that is told again and again in repetitive trauma” (Hua, 2000, p. 110) functions not only to affirm Western benevolence but also to confirm the refugee claimant’s legitimacy and right to protection. As credibility is the key criteria used in the refugee process to determine whether a claimant has a “well-founded fear of persecution,” stories of trauma have a great deal of currency and weight, as a claimant’s life may depend on her ability to produce (or reproduce) a credible-seeming story. Beyond the claim process, refugees – that is, people who have been granted refugee status – are repeatedly called upon to speak only of the violence and trauma of their pasts while praising the benevolence and goodwill of the host nation: “Whatever the forum – courtroom, screen, stage, page – the refugee is expected to tell the same kind of story, one which testifies to trauma while supporting the familiar…script about ‘deserving victims and benevolent helpers’ (Dawson, 2013, p. 52). The narrator’s refusal to go along with the script – he frequently lies to Genevieve or ‘skews’ the details of his past –indicates the ways in which trauma stories are frequently rendered “easily consumable spectacle” (Fernando-Granados, 2010, p. 31). In one of his therapy sessions with Genevieve, the narrator criticizes the ways in which his so-called treatment is contingent on his confessions of trauma: “Here – is this what you want? Here these are my tears. Does that make me sane, normal, cured?” (Hage, 2008, p. 142)

 

Genevieve’s cyclopic focus on the narrator’s past trauma effectively functions to deny him of the care and treatment he requires in the present – care that may, in fact, have prevented the murders he later commits, as well as his complete descent underground by the novel’s end. Early on, the narrator describes his rage towards his therapist’s fundamental lack of understanding and insight:

The therapist…brought on a feeling of violence within me that I hadn’t experienced since I left my homeland. She did not understand. For her, everything was about my relationships with women, but for me, everything was about defying the oppressive power in the world that I can neither participate in nor control. (Hage, 2008, p. 5)

Although Genevieve expresses her desire for the narrator’s rehabilitation, for him to “reintegrate into society” (Hage, 2008, p. 76), she conveniently neglects to address the fact that his most basic needs are not being met. When the narrator tells her of his “food envy syndrome” (Hage, 2008, p. 87) – he is starving and desperately poor – she ignores his plea for help:

Was your mother nourishing? Genevieve asked.
With food, you mean?
Well, okay, food. Let’s talk about food.
I like food, I said. Though I worry about food shortages lately.
Did you have enough food in your youth? For now I am interested in your past. (Hage, 2008, p. 49)

 

What the narrator needs is food, not therapy or pseudo-Freudian talking cures. The operative to talk about the past – and only the past – is not only an ineffective treatment strategy, but it also, as Andre Forget (2013) indicates, depoliticizes and decontextualizes his problems: “According to Genevieve, neither poverty nor the hostility he experiences from mainstream Canadian society are to blame for his attempted suicide” (p. 76). The narrator’s suicidal inclinations, his tendencies towards theft and violence, his excessive sexuality and his obsession with the abject – these are all issues, in Genevieve’s view, that are strictly rooted in the narrator’s past, that belong only to his homeland.

 

The therapist’s refusal to concede that the narrator’s problems may be a product of the perils he faces living in Canada, rather than in his country of origin, is indicative of her failure to regard him as anything other than a foreigner, a stranger whose ability to “reintegrate into [Canadian] society” (Hage, 2008, p. 76) rests on his capacity to assimilate, to become less strange. Paradoxically, the stories that excite her, that capture her ear and her attention, are the ones the narrator tells that emphasize the violence and barbarism of his desert homeland, that confirm his difference and otherness in her eyes. The narrator adopts the persona of Scheherazade, the female storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights, to entertain the doctor, who, he perceives, “like sultans, is fond of stories” (Hage, 2008, p. 102). He attributes her gullibility to the privilege of her status as a white, middle class Canadian: “I knew she was hooked, intrigued. Simple woman, I thought. Gentle, educated, but naïve, she is sheltered by glaciers and prairies, thick forests, oceans and dancing seals” (Hage, 2008, p. 454). Yet, while the narrator plays the role of the “fuckable, exotic, dangerous foreigner” (Hage, 2008, p. 199), he does so from a subordinate position:

The barrier between the narrator – a dark-skinned, traumatized, impoverished and psychotic immigrant – and a white, native-born, successful, and wealthy Canadian not personally involved in the sessions but relegated to the task by the government and hired by tax-payers, never disappears. (Urbaniuk-Rybicka, 2011, p.454)

Even as an audience, Genevieve is privileged. If the narrator’s story goes ‘off-script,’ if the story he tells does not accord with what she wants to hear, Genevieve has the authority to diagnose him mentally ‘unfit’ and send him back to the asylum: “That he is accountable to the state’s health system is symptomatic of his pathologized condition as an immigrant, and as an Arab at that. Indeed, the outcome of the therapy sessions will determine the narrator’s life course…” (Kamboureli, 2011, p. 147).

 

Although storytelling is typically perceived as a uniquely human activity, stories can also have dehumanizing effects. According to Abdul-Jabbar (2017), “Dehumanization is…prominent in the novel via the disparaging romantic notion that arriving in Canada marks the end of the immigrant’s woes, the final haven for asylum seekers, and therefore the story of immigration becomes a narrative about becoming human again” (p. 175). The immigrant success story often relies on a rhetoric of salvation, wherein the First World extends a helping hand to a deserving victim, typically from the Third. Everything about the narrator, however, runs counter to the narrative of the successful, re-humanized immigrant. His story of “becoming human again” is interrupted by the fact that he lacks everything that supposedly defines a successful immigrant (and a successful citizen): economic and social mobility, law abidance, community support, mental and physical health, etc. It is no wonder, then, that the narrator attempts suicide. Death offers him freedom from “the world that [he] can neither participate in nor control” (Hage, 2008, p. 5). Death is also a way for him to prove his humanity. As Arendt (1943) speculates, “Perhaps the philosophers are right who teach that suicide is the last and supreme guarantee of human freedom: not being free to create our lives or the world in which we live, we nevertheless are free to throw life away and to leave the world” (pp. 113-114). The narrator’s decision to end his life is, however, a comical failure. The branch he chooses to hang himself on cannot support the weight of his body, and it breaks, plunging him to the ground.

 

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus (1942) writes that “[i]n a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land” (p. 6). Walking the streets of Montreal, the narrator loses all sense of time and place: “Where am I? And what am I doing here? How did I end up trapped in a constantly shivering carcass, walking in a frozen city with wet cotton falling on me all the time? And on top of it all, I am hungry, impoverished, and have no one, no one” (Hage, 2008, p. 9). The narrator imagines everything around him as sinister and imprisoning, especially “the cold, bright city” (Hage, 2008, p. 170) of Montreal. As Abdul-Jabbar (2017) notes, “the city comes to occupy that position of oppressive power” the narrator so desperately tries to escape: it is characterized by its harsh terrain, its unsmiling, unwelcoming faces, its inability to offer the narrator, as well as many of the other refugee and immigrant characters in the novel, any solace or hospitality. The narrator’s feelings of utter isolation and alienation are so intense that they physically manifest in the form of a giant albino cockroach. The white cockroach corroborates the narrator’s suspicion that he is only half human, and becoming increasingly less as time goes on:

But mon cher. The slimy creature at my door leaned its head sideways. The world ended for you a long time ago. You never participated in it. Look at you, always escaping, slipping, and feeling trapped in everything you do…

…You are one of us. You are part cockroach. (Hage, 2008, p. 203)

Characterizing humans as “jealous, vain gods,” the cockroach invites the narrator to join them in their underground revolution, in their “project to change the world” (Hage, 2008, p. 202) and overthrow the corrupt and greedy rule of humanity.

 

Indeed, at the end of the novel, the narrator joins the underground. After killing a rapist and arms dealer in “what is set up as a justified revenge” (Dobson, 2015, p. 269), the narrator casts off his human form entirely, and descends with his “glittering wings” (Hage 305) underground. While the romanticized language of the final passage suggests the narrator’s triumphant escape from the “oppressive power” of the human world – he climbs aboard a leaf “carried along by the stream of soap and water as if it were a gondola in Venice” (Hage, 2008, p. 305) – it also suggests the narrator’s inevitable and permanent exile from the discourse of the human. Having killed a man – and a powerful man at that with ties to both the Canadian and Iranian governments – the narrator can never return to his human form again without facing the punishment of incarceration, possible deportation, and even death. It is also possible that the narrator’s final transformation into a cockroach may signify a second – but this time – successful suicide attempt. Or, as Dobson (2015) suggests, the ending might symbolize the narrator’s descent into “the sewers that humankind already metaphorically inhabits in this novel” (p. 269). In any case, the strange, violent, and unsettling conclusion of Cockroach compels the reader to consider the ways in which good human conduct requires conceptions of hospitality, belonging, and the acceptance of others in ways that first – and foremost – recognize their humanity. Being human should be human enough.

 

 

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The Roach’s Revenge: “An Insect’s Play” of Suicide and Survival in Rawi Hage’s Cockroach by Brittany Kraus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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