Carnival, by Rawi Hage, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£16.99 / W.W Norton, RRP$25.95, 304 pages

The work of the young Albert Camus was once described as Kafka written by Hemingway – a deft example of the shorthand book reviewers often reach for when trying to pin down new talent. On the cover of Rawi Hage’s third novel, Carnival, a reviewer’s line asks us to “Imagine Camus rewriting Taxi Driver” – which made me think that perhaps this device should be retired for a little while.

Hage was born in Beirut and lived through the Lebanese civil war. Now based in Montreal, he is the author of two prizewinning novels, De Niro’s Game (2006) and Cockroach (2008). The hardback edition of Carnival is such a beautiful object – a vortex of red, white and blue synthetic feathers – that I wanted it to be left as just that, with no attempt to fix the contents via other cultural referents. Like its cover, this is a restlessly energetic and kaleidoscopic work.

Our narrator, Fly, is indeed a taxi driver. And as with Scorsese’s 1976 film, we are kept unsure as to whether he is a lone crusader for the underclasses, or a sociopath. Voracious reader and self-described chronic masturbator, this postcolonial Travis Bickle is drawn from, and drawn to, a different network of immigrant communities in an unspecified North American city. He tells loutish passengers that he is from Brazil, but they soon figure him for a “towel-head” (and end up regretting it).

There are two types of taxi drivers: the spiders, whom Fly disparages, and the flies. Spiders loaf at taxi ranks, waiting for radio dispatch; these boorish men do the airport run and have arrangements with fancy hotels. The flies like him drive alone, picking up the wavers and the whistlers: “No wanderer ever rests on the curb to play or feed.”

From the opening pages, however, we are far from the restrained classicism of Camus. We hear of Fly’s upbringing on the circus trail, an orphan left to roam “between the ankles of gentle giants, the brief hands of midgets, the loving nature of freaks” and under the care of a bearded lady. “I learned of smiling dragons by stretching the skin of the tattooed girl, and I played with the average son of the world’s smallest woman and the world’s tallest man.”

Hage’s Carnival city is its own distinct world, but also a place that calls to mind other fictional metropolises: the arabesques and grotesques of Babylondon in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, for instance, with a similarly rising political temperature. It is impossible to avoid in­voking other authors bec­ause this is a very writerly book. Fly even tries to re-educate middle-class drones and callous chief executives by kidnapping and force-feeding them Amiri Baraka, Heinrich Böll and (in a particularly sadistic moment) Finnegans Wake. As a narrator who is “sometimes honest and other times not”, he evokes by turns the sinister Balram from Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and the over-excitable dwarf of The Tin Drum. When the real name of a customer whom Fly ferries to S&M assignations is revealed to be “Günther”, I took it as an obscure homage to Grass.

The novel unfolds in short sections, each taking its lead from a different passenger in Fly’s cab: drug dealers; Carnival-goers dressed as clowns; homeless men; prostitutes; drunks who fail to find prostitutes, and then refuse to pay.

This wandering, compulsively episodic structure is risky. As with magical realist novels, there is a danger that the reader will stop buying it halfway through, unwilling to keep investing in such restless imaginative proliferation. But Carnival manages to sustain a dark and compelling through-line, one powered by a deep sense of anger about how the turbo-capitalist city works. The Camus reference does come to make sense after all, since the act of senseless violence against an unnamed Arab man in The Outsider is reversed and rewritten here, to tragic effect.

Finally, the tireless narrative structure is sustained by the considerable horsepower purring under Hage’s prose, an engine that can rev or idle as needed. To ensure that he is always reimbursed (and he does always get paid) Fly carries a screwdriver and a feather duster – weapons that lie inert until their time comes. For me the “feathered stick” became one of the most menacing and memorable of Hage’s creations, and an apt emblem for the writing itself: from one sentence to the next it can tickle your fancy, and then bludgeon you over the head.

Hedley Twidle was the winner of the 2012 Bodley Head/FT essay competition


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