BEIRUT: The plot of Rawi Hage's debut novel, "De Niro's Game," begins with a motorcycle ride, ends with a train ride and straddles over a boat ride somewhere in between. These journeys lay down a pattern of narrative thresholds, though their lines don't always correspond directly to plot progression, geographic movement or character development. Each of the novel's three sections, for example, is named for a city - Rome, Beirut and Paris - but
at least one of them exists only in the central protagonist's imagination (and arguably all of them are constructs of the author's imagination).
The field on which "De Niro's Game" plays out is one where the goal posts are moved so often and so swiftly that the overall result is madness, which makes sense, after all, since the novel is set deeply in the 1980s insanity of Lebanon's Civil War. As such, those three rides seem to signify three steps that take the reader further down into the muck surrounding some hard kernel of the real.
Born in Beirut in 1964, Hage left Lebanon 20 years later, after a few bouts of time spent in Cyprus. He emigrated first to New York, where he lived for nine years, and then to Montreal, where he now works as an artist, curator and writer.
All this is to say that "De Niro's Game" does not match Hage's autobiography. The book is not a self-indulgent memoir masquerading as a thinly veiled novel. The story of Bassam and George, two childhood friends who grow up and grow apart, is spiked throughout with imagination, a crucial ingredient for the cocktail that is fiction, even as it skims across factual events, such as the 1982 Israel invasion of Lebanon, the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayel (referred to in the novel only as "Al-Rayess") and the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Nor is "De Niro's Game" the story of two innocent bystanders or condescending, morally correct observers. Bassam and George are no angels. Rather, they are thieving little thugs who come of age in an atmosphere of lawlessness that makes every encounter - be it a problem over a parking space, a casino con job or a counterfeit whisky-running operation - an occasion to test one's outsized ego and overblown masculinity.
The friendship between Bassam and George starts to fray when George drifts deeper into the local militia while Bassam, the first-person narrator who is the more nihilistic of the two, stays out. They betray one another silently through clenched teeth as the novel's tension level ratchets up.
By the third section of "De Niro's Game," Hage is spinning a full-on thriller, as the sex, drugs and guns of the first two sections link up to espionage, political intrigue and murder.
"De Niro's Game" has garnered rave reviews in Canada and the movie rights have already been optioned by Strada Films (one of Atom Egoyan's producers). At present, Hage is hard at work on his follow-up, now well into the final editing stages.
In addition to the novels, he writes brazen, stylized short stories and produces bold, biting artworks, such as a series of color photographs called "Developing and the Underdeveloped," comprised of lurid, Juergen Teller-esque portraits of wealthy Lebanese smiling brightly next to their maids and house help.
Sometimes he combines text and image together in collages. For a black-and-white photography series entitled "Crime," he tacked on a visceral 50-word intro that illustrates how much creative writers can do within a limited space (a slight expansion on Hemmingway's six-word story: "Baby shoes for sale, never used.")
But the story of "De Niro's Game," says Hage, demanded straight prose and no images. "I had that need to tell ... Photography was no longer accommodating a cathartic need, so I chose [Anton] Chekhov's slightly bigger 'slice of life.'"
In fact, "De Niro's Game" began as a collection of short stories, the writing of which was supported by a grant from the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres in the Canadian province of Quebec.
"I wrote the novel in ... 13 months," says Hage, 42, in an interview with The Daily Star conducted over email between Beirut and Montreal. "The book started as a short story with a vague theme ... I was contemplating something on war and suicide ... Somehow 'De Niro's Game' evolved into a novel. I just kept on writing. I had a blurred story line in my head."
What makes the novel work, however, is not only the inventiveness of the story itself but also the richness of Hage's writing, no small feat considering he wrote "De Niro's Game" in English, his third language after French and Arabic.
Intensely cinematic, his prose style jumps between fast-paced action, where the language hits the page like the rat-tat-tat of gunfire, and liquid metaphors that languidly twist, turn and coil one after another. Hage doesn't simply cast over details; he penetrates them, connects them to wider issues related to class (among other things) and renders them in deliciously foul language as well.
"De Niro's Game" is named, of course, for "The Deer Hunter," Michael Cimino's 1978 film about three friends (played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage) from blue-collar Pennsylvania who all go off to fight in Vietnam, where they are forced to play Russian roulette when they are captured by the North Vietnamese.
George's nom de guerre is "De Niro," and he too has a penchant for Russian roulette, a game that functions in Hage's novel as it does in Cimino's film - a symbol of random chance and senseless violence that encapsulates the entire endeavor of war and makes any moral posturing about it seem wretchedly useless.
At least one critic has argued that Hage's novel should have been called "Walken's Game," since it was Walken's character in "The Deer Hunter" who stayed in Saigon to play Russian roulette professionally, his mind cracked by that point, addicted to the adrenaline rush of near death, along with the hard drugs that came part and parcel with the game.
But to be fair, the movie's most popular poster had De Niro pointing a gun at his temple, and as Hage remembers it, there were plenty of young men who played Russian roulette in Lebanon during the war, stupidly imagining themselves invincible, whether inspired by the film or not, concerned with the details or not, getting them tellingly wrong or not.
And "The Deer Hunter" isn't just any Hollywood movie. In the words penned in 1979 by the most mainstream of American film critics, Roger Ebert, "It is one of the most emotionally shattering films ever made."
It's not too much of an overstatement to suggest that "De Niro's Game" is as ambitious and as affecting. In all the novels that have been set during Lebanon's Civil War - books by Elias Khoury, Rachid al-Daif, Hoda Barakat and many more - none have so aptly captured the shabab, the young men who didn't necessarily start the war or even consciously register its beginning. It was just always there, not only influencing masculine identity but actually constructing and perpetuating it.
"Looking back," says Hage, "I realized those war days and shelter nights were somehow ludicrous and inconsistent with any reason or common sense ... At the time I was obsessed with the idea of leaving. And I know many other young men were seriously thinking of leaving."
And in Lebanon today, many of them still are.
It may be tempting to say the subject of the Civil War has been exhausted already. But arguably it will have to remain the coming of age story for at least another generation or two.
Hage makes no bones about this, and he considers "De Niro's Game" very much a part of the collective memory project that has been taken up loosely by Lebanon's artists and writers, while the country's politicians, many of them implicated, have dropped it.
"My memory of the war is not chronologically complete," he admits. "I left in the midst of it. And there were periods where I stayed in Cyprus for months. But gathering memory is an archeological process. One should preserve what is found, gathered, collected and if necessary even add and speculate. To construct or to falsify a memory is certainly a better option than the void."
"De Niro's Game" by Rawi Hage is published by House of Anansi Press