Born into a circus family, raised by a bearded lady after his trapeze-artist mother’s suicide and his Arabian magic carpet-pilot father’s desertion, he was destined to become ‘a knower’, one of those who can see to the core of a person, who can guess their weight by sight and their entire back story by the pinch of their posture.
In adulthood, having left the freak-shows behind, he trawls the Montreal night in search of fares, rubbing shoulders with pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and the drunken and debauched of society but keeping his life, as much as possible, separate from theirs.
His world is small. A voracious reader and hoarder of books, he stretches out every morning, following his shift, on the carpet that had belonged to his father, and masturbates to wild historical fantasies. A part of him lives for the fleeting and — on his part, lusty — conversations with his neighbour, Zainab, a ‘librarian-type’ attending a college course in Islamic Studies. She is friendly and polite, though cautious with him, recognising that his thinking is not always cogent. She is also hiding a secret of her own.
Though ostensibly a loner, a few friends have penetrated his cocoon, such as Otto, a fellow circus-type, a nightwalker named Linda, and Mary, who he’d saved from an abusive cab-ride and who shares his hunger for the literary word, and their stories and interactions give this novel a somewhat episodic feel until the book’s final act, when the city readies itself for its busiest time of year, the Carnival, and the parts become whole in necessarily bloody fashion with a spate of serial killings.
Rawi Hage is a Beirut-born Montreal resident whose 2006 début, De Niro’s Game, earned a slew of major honours, most notably the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and launched him onto the international stage as an essential new voice in fiction. Carnival, his third novel, again turns to the legendary Hollywood actor for inspiration, with a less-than-oblique re-imagining of one of De Niro’s defining roles: Taxi Driver. Film and novel share particular plot similarities, mentally fragile narrators and a dreamy Dantesque quality, but the book is actually more interpretative than derivative, and its prose, delivered in Fly’s Biblically sinuous voice, is a thorough delight.
For all the beauty of its language, though, and the sense of awe, however momentary, that certain of its passages achieve, Carnival is ultimately too self-conscious and too forced as a concept to rank as a truly great novel. Still, Hage is so wildly gifted a stylist and a writer of such a huge imagination that neither can it be considered in any real way a failure.
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