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De Niro’s Game

by Rawi Hage

There’s an adjective that has too long languished in the negative camp of book reviews. I’d like to reclaim it. Calling prose “flat” is usually one of the less hurtful ways of saying that a book has sunk into eye-glazing boredom. It implies a lack of shimmer, as if all prose has to be showy, or has to undulate from within.

Applied to Rawi Hage’s debut novel of violence and revenge in the bombed-out streets of Beirut, the word flat is praise. Throughout this novel Hage barely wavers from a flattened, declarative style that feels weighted with that particular dread that characterizes places where bombs rain down and most people have access to firearms. In the midst of its civil war, Lebanon is a place where nothing stays upright for long. Beirut has been flattened, and the aspirations of those who traverse its rubble have been destroyed with it.

Hage’s style suits his surroundings: blunt, quick sentences, marked by occasional poetic flourishes. It isn’t a surprise when Hage’s narrator, a young, aimless man named Bassam, starts reading a copy of The Stranger. Hage has not quite recreated Camus’s bleak classic with De Niro’s Game, but he is upholding its fine tradition. There are echoes of Camus throughout, right down to Bassam’s inability to conjure up any emotion at his mother’s funeral. As she is laid down beside the husband she had fought with and screamed at all her life, Bassam looks upon his parents’ graves and notes: “Now still, two corpses devoured by slimy carnivore worms. They were at each other’s throats under the moist earth.”

The war has battered Bassam. He barely holds down a job on the docks. He quantifies the destruction of his city in denominations of 10,000: “ten thousand bombs had split the wind.” Few career options are left for Bassam and George, a similarly disenfranchised childhood friend who carries the nickname De Niro. De Niro works at a small betting parlour and forwards the profits to the Christian militia. After eyeing a possible scam, the two friends begin to funnel money toward themselves. De Niro gets more involved with the Christian militia, draws closer to its leader, and enters into a world of drugs and vice. He is soon funnelling heroin to some of the more pathetic French left in the city.

Although it does have its twists and turns, this is not a tightly drawn thriller or heist novel. Thankfully, Hage aims for a deeper comment about Beirut, as he captures the overall malaise and despondency of the place. Bassam dreams of escaping to Rome, but a crippling inertia keeps him in his home city. His love affair with a beautiful local girl ossifies along with his feelings.

It is not the most uplifting subject material, but Hage’s striking images rise out of the bizarre day-to-day life of a city at war. In one blackly hilarious scene, he describes the packs of posh poodles and chihuahuas that now run feral on the streets after their rich owners have fled to Paris. “Yes, we might all die any minute from falling bombs and bullets,” one local dryly notes. “But if we get rabies from expensive dogs we might have an epidemic here.”

Then there is De Niro’s game. Russian roulette – à la The Deer Hunter – is a symptomatic pastime of a city without hope. When the lifestyles of the two friends start clashing, De Niro’s game rears up again.

Bassam eventually gets to France, where he meets George’s bourgeois half-sister. Having made his escape from Lebanon and now finding himself amidst the plenty of a peaceful European city, he is asked to explain his life back in Beirut. It’s in this section, thankfully, that some of the flatness in Hage’s writing disappears, if only to allow a brief glimpse of Bassam’s humanity. When George’s sister asks about the brother she has never seen, Bassam tells the story of their Beirut lives in a selective way. He takes liberties with the reality of the city he left behind: “and when I saw how happy she was, I changed names, I planted trees … I made people dance and laugh, even under the falling bombs.” Bassam is able to construct a better Beirut, a luxury that is only available to those distanced from its reality.

In a way, Hage has done a similar act of reinvention. He’s vividly retrieved a time of pockmarked streets, cratered houses, and despair. But Hage, who survived nine years of civil war, is not planting any trees or prettifying the area in this look back. This is a grim, flat book. Hage’s flatness gives it the right tone of bruised emotion, disconnectedness, and violence; it’s what makes this such an effective debut. Thankfully, De Niro’s Game ends on a note that hints that Bassam’s life will someday become richer. Who knows? It may even shimmer when Beirut is far behind him.