Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Carnival by Rawi Hage

This is a difficult book to review. If you are a reader who enjoys experimental literature, then this novel will likely appeal to you, if not seem right-down brilliant. For those who don't have patience for unconventional prose, however, and who are not impressed when an author foregoes a structured story, then chances are that you will find this work a waste of time. To use an analogy, this book is like abstract expressionism, i.e. fans can make a valid case for why it's high art, while detractors can make an equally strong case for why monkeys could make better art.

This novel does not have a plot per se, but rather a context with recurring characters. Set in an unspecified city in the Americas that has a carnival, the book revolves around a taxi driver named Fly.  Raised in a circus, (his mother was a trapeze artist and his father a "man from the East" whose piloted a flying carpet), Fly was raised by a bearded woman after his dad disappeared and his mother subsequently hung herself. After leaving the circus, he travelled to the Americas where he ended up working as a taxi driver, while reading a mountain of books during his spare time.

Fly drives around the city observing and interacting with an eclectic set of characters: Linda the prostitute and her tragic son Tammer; the attractive Zainab; the revolutionary Otto; the drug dealer Zee. Certain passages in the book are beautiful, with a masterful mix of poetry and first-rate prose. In fact, at its best, this novel produces a hypnotic, even hallucinatory feel that is captivating. Unfortunately, this literary "high" cannot be sustained throughout the entire book. In my view, too many parts of the novel seem forced, as if the author were striving to produce the perfect sentence and paragraph, but instead created pretentious passages. That said, as someone who likes experimental novels, I found that the positives far outweighed the negatives.

3 out of 5 stars