Carnival by Rawi Hage and Ballistics by D W Wilson: Dashboard existentialists

Two Canadian novelists stretch and expand the fictional geography of their native land in their new books.

The novelist Rawi Hage has a socio-political vision that he expresses realistically and also in symbolic terms. His fiction drops the reader into a space where abstractions take on solid form and allegory coexists with the allegorised – as if George Orwell had created a human community to accompany the animal one that represents it. The author of a novel set in his native Beirut, De Niro’s Game (an allusion, by way of The Deer Hunter, to Russian roulette), and another set in his adopted home of Montreal, Cockroach (immigrant life through a Kafka-tinted lens), Hage has opted this time for an imaginary setting, an English-speaking city that hosts a large annual carnival. But rather than him having, for instance, a carnival standing in for a multi-ethnic melting pot, we get both sides of the equation. The narrator, Fly, explains: “There is no better place for an exile to hide . . . than among a horde of humans in masks re-enacting the periodic cycles of life and death.” It’s a burst of clarity on an already clear topic, delivered towards the end of a novel that feels louchely opaque and guarded about its intentions.
 
Perhaps as a joke, Hage has given his loose narrative a formal architecture. The curtainraising announcement of Act I is followed by these opening words: “I was conceived on the circus trail by a traveller who owned a camel and a mother who swung from the ropes” – though what follows could be nobody’s idea of a confession or apologia. Instead, the book flits between slice-of-life impressions and a sense of crisis. A plot of sorts materialises from nowhere at the end of Act II and then disappears for most of Act III, before returning in a rush of incident as extreme as the earlier digressive casualness.
 
Hage’s prose is stark in tone but verbally busy, importing imagery from every direction and discipline. Named after the class of taxi driver to which he belongs (“flies” roam the streets where “spiders” wait to be des - patched), the narrator refers to the taxi he drives as “my boat”, “my airplane”, “my home” and “my library” and sees the people around him in terms both nationalistic (a Turkish receptionist is easy to bribe because that’s how things went in the Ottoman empire) and atavistic (Fly’s customers are “owls” and “hyenas” and “nocturnal apes”; human beings are “talking apes”). Numerous vocabularies angle to impose an underestablished significance. The result is about as bleak as fiction can get and still be whimsical.
 
Except for the occasional unexpected visit from a beleaguered friend, Fly’s social life is confined to café chit-chat – this is heightened reality with more than its share of the mundane – and his only ritual is masturbating daily to historical visions in which he prevents the occurrence of some genocidal or imperial atrocity. Until he gets involved in low-level crime (and then without relish), he is in essence a pair of eyeballs on wheels – eyeballs unusually given to glazing over with boredom and popping with anger and contempt. The city’s topography is blandly nonspecific (“Main Street”, “the highway”, “the market”, “the bridge”) and Fly’s picture of urban unease trades not in capitalised nouns or landmarks you can put into Google but in artfully flattened stereotypes of recognisable phenomena. At a hospital, he comes upon “a faint chaos . . . of doctors disguised in aprons, pointing magic wands at nurses in angelic uniforms and muffled tap shoes, waving bandages mistaken for egg rolls”. Out on the road, he notes “the parade of teenage boys driving with hands that dangle in the manner of caged animals, their menacing eyes scouring the long thighs above spiked heels”. Men who work out are “inflated balloons with broken cords, always walking as if they are taking their first step on the moon”. These are tickling comic formulae but it is hard to det - ermine their implications for Hage’s project.
 
On the whole, Hage does without any form of governing logic, but an undertone becomes steadily more audible: the superiority of secular knowledge to nationalist and religious dogma. Despite holding to a teenager’s vision of utopia (a beach with ball games and women in bikinis), Fly is a salivating autodidact with a frame of reference ranging from Alexander to Zorro, and his flat is crammed with works of literature and history, organised according to some variant on the Dewey Decimal system that gives a prominent role to “the colour” of a book’s “skies” and “the circumference of their authors’ heads”. Pursuing a remote and calculatedly anonymous existence, uncoopted by any clan identity beyond that of “fly”, he is devoted only to his “arsenal of books”, the majority of which come from the wild-man, dissident and post-colonial traditions from which Hage also claims descent.
 
About 50 pages after the book starts rem - inding you of Bohumil Hrabal – that is, at around page 50 – Fly reads a passage from Too Loud a Solitude, Hrabal’s spirited novel about his experiences compacting waste. It is a precedent that perhaps explains this book’s dazing fidelity to a series of vignettes which, lacking a thread, slips too easily from the mind. Hage used to drive a taxi and the book presents a trove of impressions similar to those unleashed by Hrabal in his book, in which the writer evokes with as much irate energy and deranged pathos as he can recover (though in this case not quite enough) the shaggy underdog’s existence from which writing has helped him to escape.
 
One of the services literature provides is a kind of armchair tourism and Hage has introduced readers to a place – a magical-realist Montreal – that we haven’t seen before. No better-known to most readers of fiction are the towns of eastern British Columbia overlovingly surveyed by the 27-year-old D W Wilson in his first novel, the flinty comingof- age story Ballistics, a follow-up to his story collection, Once You Break a Knuckle. Like Hage, Wilson employs a central metaphor that leads a double life, “ballistics” referring both to causation in a family’s history and to the gunshots that played a causal role. “How it all began – that’s a good question . . . It’s like asking when a bullet starts toward the beer can,” explains Alan, a philosophy student who leaves his spiralling thesis and no less tameable girlfriend back in Toronto to spend the summer in the Kootenay Valley, where he was born. Alan sees himself as the endpoint of a knock-on process and the composition of his personality is traced in a sustained piece of “primal self-cataloguing” that draws on an appropriately broad range of factors, the lifestyle prevalent in his home town, Invermere, accounting only for why he can “handle a firearm and drive stick”.
 
After the grandfather who raised him has a heart attack, Alan drives west into a fire engulfing the Canadian Rockies to find, at Gramps’s behest, the father he never knew. On his way, he encounters (also for the first time) his other grandfather, Archer, who met Gramps back when he was just Cecil, after he discovered Archer on his land and shot him in the leg. They became friends, unofficial relatives in a ramshackle extended family (Archer’s daughter, Linnea, got involved with Cecil’s son, Jack) and lovers of the same woman, Nora, who started as Cecil’s fiancée and ended up as Archer’s wife.
 
Once or twice, Wilson appears to get lost in the time scheme: it is odd for Alan to say that someone “studies” photography when even the period of reminiscence that the book records took place “some time ago”. Odder still – and with more serious repercussions for the reader’s pleasure – is the decision to give Archer part-time control of the narration, producing an effect as obtrusive as that of the “ballistics” metaphor. Given that Alan knows the full layout of events by the time he starts narrating, there seems to be no need to delegate the release of information to another source. Rather than being mutually enriching, the two voices get in each other’s way, sapping the book of momentum.
 
They also double up on each other, providing, over 380 closely printed pages, too full a helping of this writer’s habits. A prose style that starts off as bracing, even breathtaking – Wilson can make a simile and a verb out of pretty much anything – loses impact through lack of modulation. Wilson has a taste for such sentences as, “Maybe a person’s fate is decided more readily by the decisions they don’t make” (the italics on loan from John Irving), but description is the gift he is keenest to cultivate – rightly, though he does it to excess. A 4x4 has a “smell of Old Spice and sloshed beer”; stubble is compared to “steelwool” and hair to “sewing-thread”. Some passages seem to work their way round the senses: “It looked like the mountains had sprouted hairs. I couldn’t even smell smoke anymore . . . My teeth felt fuzz-coated . . .”
 
Though Wilson’s home turf lies about as far west of Montreal as Milton Keynes does from Tehran, Wilson has a passport in common with Hage and is eligible for the same awards (the Giller Prize, for which Hage has been twice shortlisted, is the most prestigious). It isn’t clear what unifying qualities the national literature of so diffuse, though oft-caricatured, a nation could be said to possess, and on one level the things that Wilson and Hage share are not strikingly Canadian. Writers from all over the world display, like these two, a devotion to the first person and a preference – the costs of which are clearer than the benefits – for introducing dialogue without punctuation. But perhaps the idea of being a Canadian writer is being exploited as a licence. The recourse to a method and philosophy that might be called dashboard existentialism, though tiresome when practised “south-of-the-forty-ninth” (Wilson’s word), is offered in these books without irony or apology, as if the limits of a sweaty-palmed, dewy-eyed sensibility, downbeat but capable of affirmation, could be offset by a backdrop we haven’t seen before.
 
Leo Robson is the lead fiction critic of the NS
Rawi Hage's new novel takes place in an imaginary English-speaking city which hosts an annual carnival. Photograph: Getty Images.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Jonn Elledge and the Young Hagrid Audition

I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. Except I didn’t.

I’ve been dining out for years now on the fact I auditioned for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, for the part of “Young Hagrid”. It’s one of those funny stories I tell people when a bit drunk, under the no doubt entirely wrong impression that it makes me sound like I’ve lived an interesting life.

Except, when I came to write this thing, I realised that it’s not actually true. I didn’t actually audition for the part of Young Hagrid at all.

Technically, I auditioned to be Voldemort.

Let’s start from the beginning. In November 2001 I was in my last year at Cambridge, where I split my time roughly equally between pissing about on a stage, writing thundering student paper columns about the true meaning of 9/11 as only a 21-year-old can, and having panic attacks that the first two things would cause me to screw up my degree and ruin my life forever. I was, I suppose, harmless enough; but looking back on that time, I am quite glad that nobody had yet invented social media.

I was also – this is relevant – quite substantially overweight. I’m not a slim man now, but I was much heavier then, so much so that I spent much of my later adolescence convinced that my mum’s bathroom scales were broken because my weight was, quite literally, off the scale. I was a big lad.

Anyway. One day my friend Michael, with whom I’d co-written quite a bad Edinburgh fringe show eighteen months earlier, came running up to me grasping a copy of Varsity. “Have you seen this?” he panted; in my memory, at least, he’s so excited by what he’s found that he’s literally run to find me. “You have to do it. It’d be brilliant.”

“This” turned out to be a casting call for actors for the new Harry Potter movie. This wasn’t unusual: Cambridge produces many actors, so production companies would occasionally hold open auditions in the hope of spotting fresh talent. I don’t remember how many minor parts they were trying to cast, or anything else about what it said. I was too busy turning bright red.

Because I could see the shameful words “Young Hagrid”. And I knew that what Michael meant was not, “God, Jonn, you’re a great actor, it’s time the whole world got to bask in your light”. What he meant was, “You’re a dead ringer for Robbie Coltrane”.

I was, remember, 21 years old. This is not what any 21-year-old wants to hear. Not least since I’d always suspected that the main things that made people think I looked like Robbie Coltrane were:

  1. the aforementioned weight issue, and
  2. the long dark trench coat I insisted on wearing in all seasons, under the mistaken impression that it disguised (a).

Most people look back at pictures of their 21-year-old self and marvel at how thin and beautiful they are. I look back and and I wonder why I wasted my youth cosplaying as Cracker.

The only photo of 2001 vintage Jonn I could find on the internet is actually a photo of a photo. For some reason, I really loved that tie. Image: Fiona Gee.

I didn’t want to lean into the Coltrane thing; since childhood I’d had this weird primal terror that dressing up as something meant accepting it as part of your identity, and at fancy dress parties (this is not a joke) I could often be found hiding under tables screaming. And I didn’t want to be Hagrid, young or otherwise. So I told Michael, quite plainly, that I wasn’t going to audition.

But as the days went by, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This was an audition for a proper, actual movie. I’d always had this idea I must have some kind of talent*, and that Cambridge was where I would find out what it was**. What if this was my big break?*** What if I was being silly?****

So when it turned out that Michael had literally started a petition to get me to change my mind, I acceded to the inevitable. Who was I to resist the public demand for moi?

And so, I graciously alerted the people doing the casting to the fact of my existence. A few days later I got an email back inviting me to go see them in a room at Trinity College, and a few pages of script to read for them.

The first odd thing was that the script did not, in fact, mention Hagrid. The film, I would later learn, does include a flashback to Hagrid’s school days at Hogwarts. By then, though, the filmmakers had decided they didn’t need a young actor to play Young Hagrid: instead that sequence features a rugby player in a darkened corner, with a voiceover courtesy of Coltrane. The section of the script I was holding instead featured a conversation between Harry Potter and a character called Tom Riddle.

I asked my flat mate Beccy, who unlike me had actually read the books, who this person might be. She shuffled, awkwardly. “I think he might be Voldemort...?”

Further complicating things, the stage directions described Riddle as something along the lines of, “16 years old, stick thin and classically handsome, in a boyish way”. As fervently as I may have denied any resemblance between myself and Robbie Coltrane, I was nonetheless clear that I was a good match for precisely none of those adjectives.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I went to the audition. I don’t suppose I expected Chris Columbus to be there, let alone Robbie Coltrane ready to embrace me like a long-lost son.  But I was expecting more than a cupboard containing a video camera of the sort you could buy at Dixons and a blonde woman not much older than me. She introduced herself as “Buffy” which, given that this was 2001, I am not entirely convinced was her real name.

“My friends always tell me I look like Robbie Coltrane,” I told her, pretending I was remotely enthusiastic about this fact. 

“Oh yeah,” said Buffy. “But he’s really... big isn’t he? I mean he’s a huge guy. You’re more sort of...”

Or to put it another way, if they had still been looking for a young Hagrid, they would have wanted someone tall. I’m 6’, but I’m not tall. I was just fat.

If they had been looking for a Young Hagrid. Which, as it turned out, they weren’t.

The section I read for was included in the final film, so with a bit of Googling I found the script online. It was this bit:

TOM RIDDLE Yes. I’m afraid so. But then, she’s been in so much pain, poor Ginny. She’s been writing to me for months, telling me all her pitiful worries and woes. Ginny poured her soul out to me. I grew stronger on a diet of her deepest fears, her darkest secrets. I grew powerful enough to start feeding Ginny a few secrets, to start pouring a bit of my soul back into her...

Riddle, growing less vaporous by the second, grins cruelly.

TOM RIDDLE Yes, Harry, it was Ginny Weasley who opened the Chamber of Secrets.

I mean, you can see the problem, can’t you? I don’t remember this many years on what interpretation I put on my performance. I suspect I went beyond camp and into full on panto villain, and I dread to think what I may have done to communicate the impression of “growing less vaporous”.

But what I do feel confident about is that I was absolutely bloody awful. Five minutes after arriving, I was out, and I never heard from Buffy again.

So – I didn’t become a star. You probably guessed that part already.

In all honesty, I didn’t really realise what a big deal Harry Potter was. I’d seen the first film, and thought it was all right, but I was yet to read the books; three of them hadn’t even been written yet.

I had some vague idea there was an opportunity here. But the idea I was missing a shot at being part of an institution, something that people would be rereading and re-watching and analysing for decades to come – something that, a couple of years later, at roughly the point when Dumbledore shows Harry the Prophecy, and a tear rolls down his cheek, would come to mean quite a lot to me, personally – none of that ever crossed my mind. I’d had an opportunity. It hadn’t worked out. Happened all the time.

I do sometimes like to think, though, about the parallel universe in which that audition was the start of a long and glittering career – and where the bloke who played Tom Riddle in this universe is scratching a living writing silly blogs about trains.

*I don’t.

**I didn’t.

***It wasn’t.

****I was.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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