Beirut-born Montreal author Rawi Hage has created a richly mysterious and surreally grotesque dream for his third novel, Carnival. The novel’s protagonist and narrator, nicknamed Fly, is a taxi driver in an unnamed city in the midst of a carnival celebration. Carnival and Fly’s history are populated by circus performers and prostitutes, clowns and criminals, taxi drivers and drunks.
Fly was born “to the applause of elephants and seals,” a child of circus performers, his mother a trapeze artist and his father a traveler who “owned a camel”—animal imagery begins at the circus and carries on into the tumult of Carnival city, where Fly earns his keep:
I take pride in the service I provide because I and the likes of me are the carriers of this world, the movers and the linkers. Just try to imagine the fate of any great dynasty without the donkey, the elephant, or the camel’s back.
Fly distinguishes between cabbies who roam the city with their lamp lit looking for fares (Flies), and those who sit and wait for calls (Spiders). Fly is of course the former, a wanderer like his parents, buzzing about Carnival city, collecting fares from a cast of characters who exist quite happily on the seedier side of life.
Carnival is another example of Hage’s gift for imbuing cities with deep, rich character: the war ravaged Beirut in the Dublin IMPAC award-winning De Niro’s Game; a slummy Montreal in the darkly comedic metamorphosis story Cockroach; and now the surreal and grimey masquerade of Carnival city. The city in this novel is not much different than Fly’s circus upbringing—the bearded lady he befriends as a child is paralleled by a transvestite passenger he picks up as a cabbie, the strongman by a musclebound goon. The abnormal and the grotesque of the circus is analogous to Fly’s everyday life—and ours as well.
The plot of the novel is driven by Fly’s episodic encounters with the people he picks up while driving cab: prostitutes, drug dealers, and murderers, among many others. The novel is composed of short vignettes all bound within five acts. The vignettes aptly mirror Fly’s profession: the reader is taken on brief rides, meets a barrage of strange characters, some of whom will ride again, others only disappearing into the crowd of Carnival city. A crime narrative pushes the plot towards its climax and denouement, carrying the books through its final fourth and fifth acts. Fly’s colleagues begin turning up murdered, as do members of the city’s upper class. As the city and the novel are both carnivals—the festive period approaching Lent—it is no surprise that Carnival ends in significant death.
Fly is a fantasizer, chronic masturbator, and bibliophile. When left alone in his book-crammed apartment, he reads or lies on the floor indulging in bizarre historical masturbation fantasies. Fly as imagines himself a Turkish soldier:
As my father’s carpet reached the ceiling, I looked at the shores and I ejaculated in between the two colliding histories and felt fortunate to be alive, lucky to have water and to be able clean myself after these horrific battles that leave you smeared with mud, blood, wire cuts, and bruises.
Fly’s fantasies are inspired by his Babelian collection of books, “a library that contains the world, as the blind Argentinean would say”, and Carnival itself is a love letter to stories and fictions. Fly is guided from history to history by his collection, stopping “on the page where Moses split the sea” then flying off again to cavort with the daughter of the Visigoth he himself had slain. As a child, Fly is read French classics by the bearded lady in his childhood circus home. Fly is later bequeathed a collection of books by his professor friend, who is also responsible for Fly’s nickname—bestowed upon anyone who visits the professor’s home and becomes entangled in his web of literature. Fly is not only a wandering insect, collecting stray fares, but a little bug entrapped in a web of literature.
Fly acts also as a white knight for literature, urging his friend Otto to punish one of Fly’s love interest’s husband, “a hater of books.” Dressed as a clown, Otto forces the husband to read and report on a novel: Finnegan’s Wake. “Good,” Fly says. “Let him suffer.” Later, Fly lends his neighbour Zainab, who he attempts to seduce for most of the book, The History Of Court Jesters and appropriately The History of the Comic Grotesque, because in Carnival Hage has created a tragicomic grotesque of his own: a traditional arc played out over five acts, composed, empathizing, and rejoicing in the “low”—the dens of drug dealers, dead bodies and adulteries, transvestites, and the backseat of a cab.