De Niro's Game

by Rawi Hage

Published by House of Anansi Press

277 pages, 2006

Buy it online



Ten Thousand Plaudits

Reviewed by M. Wayne Cunningham

A slush pile discovery at House of Anansi Press, De Niro's Game, by Beirut-born Montreal-based Rawi Hage became Canada's 2006 literary find of the year.

De Niro's Game was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, a finalist for the Governor General's Award for Fiction, the winner of the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the winner of the McAusland First Book Prize, Hage's commanding debut novel soared into bestseller prominence and critical acclaim, and for good reason.

Set mostly in the Beirut of civil war Lebanon in the 1980s, the dark, fast paced story involves two long-time youthful friends, Bassam and George, the latter assuming the persona of the Russian roulette playing Robert De Niro of The Deer Hunter. With time on their hands, mayhem on their minds, a motorcycle for transport and a willingness to kill, they roar around the ravaged city, "aimless, beggars and thieves, horny Arabs with curly hair and open shirts and Marlboro packs rolled in our sleeves, dropouts, ruthless nihilists with guns, bad breath and long American jeans."

Bassam recounts stories of their survival in the torn-up section of the city where "ten thousand bombs had landed", "ten thousand bombs had dropped like marbles on the kitchen floor," "ten thousand bombs had split the winds" and "ten thousand coffins had slipped underground." Little wonder he wants to leave, especially with his father dead and his mother soon to follow. But first he and George need money and, to this end, they begin defrauding the casino owned by George's multi-millionaire boss for a stash of exit dollars. But while Bassam is determined to go, George decides to remain, soldiering on in the militia commanded by the same boss he has been scamming.

So the friends follow their stars -- George off to a training camp, Bassam off with George's lying, turncoat cousin, continuing to build the illicit bankroll for his emigration. Between times Bassam's budding romance with Rana, a neighborhood girlfriend, blossoms into the "ten thousand kisses on her body, under a cascade of sweet falling bombs." But there are no happy endings for Bassam, George or Rana. Bassam is betrayed by George's cousin, suckered into delivering drugs, conned into running illegal whiskey, brutally tortured by militia thugs, and blindsided by George who sides with his cousin, and to pile insult upon injury, steals away Rana. But before Bassam leaves for Paris, he and George must settle their scores.

There is no traditional hero in Hage's novel, only a stoic existentialist survivor smoking hash, reading Camus and as accepting of the sky from which "bullets and bombs fell randomly" as he is of the massacre of the marauding dogs left behind by their rich owners and the claims of a miracle at a church where "the tolling of the bell muffled the bangs of bombs."

Bassam is as willing a perpetrator of violence as George, whether in Beirut or in Paris where he seeks sanctuary with the family of George's birth father, lies about his friend, becomes involved in a failed relationship with George's half sister, Rhea, beats a man who blackened her eye, and robs another one he mistakenly believes is her older lover but surprisingly turns out to be a more sinister influence.

The excitement of Hage's action-packed plot is supplemented by his visually and viscerally descriptive language, often of the war's violent impact upon the innocent -- whole neighborhoods destroyed, mothers mourning, a child dying in Bassam's arms. There is no preaching about the excesses of war, only the showing. At times his paragraphs are clipped, just one or two sentences ideally suited for a film script. At others they flow onward for a hundred words or so of free soaring imagination. In all, De Niro's Game is an amazing feat for an author writing in English as his third language -- after Arabic and French -- and well-deserving of ten thousand plaudits. | May 2007


M. Wayne Cunningham is a former community college English instructor and administrator and once served as the executive director of the Saskatchewan Arts Board. His reviews have appeared in Books in Canada, The Mystery Review, Mystery Readers Journal, The Vancouver Rain Review of Books and in a weekly column he formerly wrote for The Kamloops Daily News. He is a resident of Kamloops, British Columbia.