Deniro’s Game. is an award-winning first novel by Montreal based writer Rawi Hage. This is an interesting book. Set in the 1980’s during the Lebanese civil war, its the story of Bassam and ‘DeNiro’ two childhood friends who grow up in war torn Beirut. Bassam goes on to become a small time crook who dreams of escaping Lebanon while ‘DeNiro” joins forces with the crooked head of the Christian militia that rules his section of the city. It’s not long after DeNiro joins the militia that cracks begin to appear in their relationship. The lure of lawlessness that reigns over the city pulls each of them in different directions.
DeNiro’s Game is not an easy read. It’s difficult to empathize with two impossibly psychotic characters. But that’s not the appeal of this book. The beauty of it is in the writing. Rawi Hage is a rare combination of master poet/visual artist of the written word. There is a lyricism that propels this dark narrative forward that makes this a memorable read. The power of this style is to not only make you see this city in action but also to feel it. He makes you see and feel war.
But what is interesting is that Hage doesn’t let the reader get close to Bassam and DeNiro. You aren’t meant to like these two characters. And maybe that’s the point Hage is making. He pokes fun in a dark way at the choices that people make and what the consequences of those choices are. We are the monsters. We create our own mess and devise our ruin. In an innocuous moment in this book he sheds light on this moment of truth in a conversation between Bassam and Hakim.
“Hakim…asked me if I had finished my book. Yes, I said, but I am keeping it.
He laughed and said, You might have to pay a price for your deeds. But I am willing.”
“But I am willing” is the complicity in violence and the ludicrousness that has created our reality. That is a beautiful moment in this book and points to the absurdity of this life.
There are also two important cultural references. One to Robert Deniro’s character in The Deer Hunter who returns to Saigon to save his friend, played by Christopher Walken. Walken who was forced to play Russian roulette while a prisoner in Vietnam, now willingly chooses to play to feed his drug habit. These are choices with dire consequences, that the misery of his circumstances, allow him to see as an acceptable if not absurd choice for his life. He is willing.
The other cultural reference is to Albert Camus‘ The Stranger. Meurseault, the protagonist in The Stranger, is on trial for the murder of an Algerian man. While ostensibly on trial for murder, his real crime and the crime that he will die for, is his remorselessness and detachment from the loss of his mother. This is a world turned upside down, much as it is in DeNiro’s Game.
When all is said and done this is an amazing book. The complexities of the writing, the themes, the plot and the the cultural references could be discussed and explored at much greater length than this review offers. I can easily see why this book won the Impac Dublin award. It is a darkly humoured, beautifully written exploration of the absurdity of human choice and its consequences.