DeNiro's Game

by Rawi Hage
282 pages,
ISBN: 0887841961

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Death and Parataxis
by David H. Evans

Before Iraq there was Lebanon, and more thoughtful policy-makers might have learned from its example that it is far easier to immerse a nation in the destructive element, to plunge it into chaos, violence, and civil war, than to lead it out of such calamity. The metaphor of `nation-building', like all metaphors carried beyond the point at which, to quote Robert Frost, we can safely ride them, becomes a risky mount. It implies that states are things that can be constructed to plan like a solid and well-built house. In the Middle East at any rate, a history of tyranny, colonialism, and social and economic underdevelopment means that states are more like fragile glasses containing those layered cocktails that are more fun to look at than to drink; shake or, even worse, crack the glass, and the delicately balanced layers of nationality, sect, ethnicity, and clan spill together in a toxic mixture that will cause a long and violent hangover.
Rawi Hage's novel, De Niro's Game, takes as its subject the Lebanese civil war of the late 1970s and early 80s, in which a patchwork of political and religious groups, each with their own militias, and backed by regional powers like Israel and Syria with agendas of their own, waged a bloody struggle for hegemony. Hage is not interested in political pretexts offered by the various participants in this vicious and shambolic affair, which, God knows, at a distance of twenty-five years seem pointless enough. (Dismayingly, as I write this, another round in this interminable conflict is threatening to break out). What we get instead is a ground-level view, that of the narrator Bassam, a young Christian struggling to survive in, and preferably escape from, a Beirut that has turned into the equivalent of an urban free-fire zone. "Ten thousand bombs had landed," the novel begins, reducing the city to rubble both physically and socially, blowing to bits the fragile structures of order and authority. Now the only sources of legitimacy are the lawless warlords, and the only meaningful power is the gun in one's hand.
Bassam moves through this treacherous landscape with the coldness and studied cynicism of a Hemingway protagonist. His emotional ties are worn to threads: his father has been killed before the beginning of the book; his mother dies in a bomb blast, an event that arouses a sense of liberation rather than sadness; his relations with his girlfriend hardly transcend the carnal. Bassam's verbal style matches his outlook¨cool, unadorned, unemotional. His only close connection is with his friend, George, with whom he schemes to obtain the money that will allow him to escape to his conception of the earthly paradise, the placid and pigeon-thick city of Rome.
The novel's title is intentionally oblique, and its significance is revealed to us only gradually. "De Niro", it turns out, is George's nom de guerre, inspired by the celebrated actor's performance in the movie The Deer Hunter, regarding which George is evidently an aficionado. After he joins the Christian militia, he becomes, like the character portrayed by his namesake, a cool and accomplished hunter of men. That George should identify so closely with a cinematic fiction is not incidental. If, as we are frequently told, truth is the first casualty of war, perhaps the most catastrophic casualty is the sense of reality as such; when the unthinkable is not simply thought, but put deliberately into practice; when atrocious violence becomes the substance of everyday life, the foundations of normalcy begin to give way. One's world turns into a special-effects-crammed blockbuster, plotted elsewhere and directed by others, in which individuals have ceased to be moral agents and become no more than highly expendable extras.
One of the novel's emotional climaxes is George's account of his participation in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres of September 16ű17, 1982. As he describes how he and his fellow militiamen slaughtered men, women, and children in a blood-drunk orgy¨"bodies rolled into sand, bloated. Blood turned into dark stains, green flies were feeding, bulldozers dug and shoved cadavers in ground holes"¨he has a sudden revelation: "It was all like a movie. All like a movie."
The title has a further relevance: the game in question is the round of Russian Roulette which, in a particularly harrowing scene from the movie, De Niro's character plays with his best friend. It's a game of chance, random and meaningless, whose stake is sudden death. Indeed, chance is the only god left in Beirut, and it hovers over life in the city like a malignant cloud. One character escapes death, running a gauntlet of sniper fire in an open street, only to discover it waiting for him, in the form of a bomb, in his own bathroom. It is no accident that the first scheme Bassam and George come up with for raising money involves outsmarting an electronic poker machine in the casino where the latter is working. Both the poker machine and De Niro's game symbolise the senseless arbitrariness that has come to define the world of Lebanon: despite the patriotic slogans of the warlords and the cynical strategies of Israel and Syria, the civil war looks less like an organised conflict than a crazy round of collective Russian Roulette, a mutual suicide pact carried out with bombs and automatic weapons.
Periodically, Hage's gaunt prose is interrupted by unexpected poetic passages. Here, for example, is one depicting how the violence of the war seems to have colonised and given a new horrific meaning to the familiar ritual of visiting the butcher shop:

"There was a line of women waiting for the meat. Inside, goats were hung, stripped of their skin. White and red meat fell from above, pieces were cut, crushed, banged, cut again, ground, put into paper bags, and handed to women in line, women in black, with melodramatic oil-painted faces, in churchgoer submissive positions, in Halloween horrors, in cannibal hunger for crucifix flesh, in menstrual cramps of virgin saints, in castrated hermetic positions, on their knees and at the mercy of knives and illiterate butchers."

These passages are the novel's most interesting technical innovation, and their distinctive feature is their paratactic structure, the way the elements of the sentence are strung together like so many miscellaneous pieces of laundry on a clothesline, as if the effort to make sense of their juxtaposition has been abandoned in despair. This is, as I interpret it, Hage's attempt to find a literary equivalent of the senseless ruin to which Beirut has been reduced, itself now a city without structure, living out a slow death sentence, its life in fact turned into a sentence with neither shape nor hope of meaning.
The novel itself is somewhat paratactic in organization: Bassam's biography is a flat line, his existence little more than an ongoing attempt to sustain life day by day. His only hope is the prospect of escape to Europe, which, after a successful armed robbery, he is able to achieve by bribing a ship's captain to smuggle him into France, where the third section of the book is set. But if Bassam's situation takes a turn for the better with this change of locale, the same cannot be said for the novel. In fact, the book seems to have unexpectedly decided to become a conventional thriller, complete with elegant cynical diplomats, a sexy and sophisticated heiress for Bassam to bed, and improbable last minute plot twists. Hage may be aware that he is wandering dangerously close to the land of literary clichT; indeed, at times Bassam indulges self-consciously in stereotypical fantasies, seeing himself as a heroic revolutionary and imagining "the operatic howling when I reached the palaces, [the] red-painted cheeks and fat asses under pumpkin-shaped dresses, [the] aristocrats sliding in horror and fear across endless marble floors." But if the last section to some extent disappoints, what remains is an effective portrait of society reduced to chaos by war¨a tragic reminder of a warning ignored. ˛

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