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City Of Ten-Thousand Bombs: De Niro’s Game

Monday, January 22, 2007

*Spoiler* It’s chess!De Niro’s Game

By Rawi Hage

I hesitate to use a word like cinematic to describe literature, but with Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game, it certainly feels appropriate. Hage, a visual artist and photographer, bombards the reader with images of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s. Bombs explode, soldiers race down the streets, lovers steal away secretly, and more bombs explode. It is these snapshots of life that create a cinematic feeling. Events unfold like an unedited reel of someone’s video camera footage. There is very little introspection from the narrator, Bassam, which creates the sense that we are ‘watching’ him, as opposed to thinking with him.

Hage’s vision of Beirut at war is evocative and multi-levelled and horrifying. People are in a constant state of fear that their houses will be bombed (not a question of if, but when), yet life must go on; children have to be raised and go to school, young people will fall in love, and weddings and funerals and birthdays and religious duties still have to be observed. The horrors or war become naturalized, and sometimes comical. The book is full of some of the blackest of black humour you’re ever likely to find.

I knew virtually nothing about Beirut before reading Hage’s book. And by the end of it, I still couldn’t explain to you even the basics of the civil war that lasted from 1978 to the early 1990s. But even though Hage doesn’t provide his readers with much context or background information, he paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live in the war-torn city from the perspective of the ordinary person, and that is just as important as any history book full of context and names and dates and analysis.

This is also a ‘guy’s’ book. Bassam is a tough-guy, and his friends are tough-guys. Hage writes the book in the style of guy who has grown up watching his friends and neighbours and relatives being killed, who doesn’t care what people think of him, or doesn’t care how he treats the women he makes love with (but maybe he does, he just doesn’t show it). De Niro is the nickname of Bassam’s childhood friend, George, a tough guy who joins the militia and witnesses first hand the horrors of war. Bassam himself is not an unlikable character. He makes stupid decisions, yet he is surprinsingly adept at living in an outlaw state. But all he really wants is to live a peaceful life, away from the bloodshed. While I was only a little bit sympathetic towards him, at least I understood where he was coming from.

I don’t think De Niro’s game is a brilliant book – at times it feels a little contrived – but it is a real piece of bravado writing. Hage’s prose is so forceful and poetic, that I could smell the streets of Beirut, and see the burnt out cars and the wild packs of dogs and see the 10,000 bombs. A novel like this opens up a tiny part of the world that most westerners only see in news broadcasts depicting bombings or assassinations; rarely do we get to see the human side of these places, or understand what it is really like to live there. Hage’s story is tragic not so much in the terrible events that happen on a daily basis, but tragic in the way that constant violence has left generation after generation scarred and without hope.

Things were looking good for Beirut in the last decade or so, until the most recent retaliation by the Israeli army in the summer of 2006 over two kidnapped Israeli soldiers. While that war has ended for the time being, I can’t help picturing a young man like Bassam living in the wreckage of a bombed-out house, dreaming of Roma, caught up in a new cycle of violence. Let’s hope that like Rawi Hage, he too will have his chance to write his own De Niro’s Game, and re-build his life from the rubble.llewopemearg

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