Thursday, April 9, 2009

BOOK: DeNiro's Game by Rawi Hage

DeNiro's Game by Rawi Hage, 273 pages

Orbis Terrarum: Lebanon; IMPAC Dublin Prize, 2008

I shouldn't have liked this book, but I couldn't help myself. Set in Beirut during the civil war of the 1980s, the main character Bassan and his friend George are teenagers, trying to be big men in the neighbourhood. They carry guns and try to intimidate people, they carry out petty crimes - petty during a war situation is all relative though, and try to take advantage of the fighting rather than getting involved. Lots of testosterone which doesn't usually appeal to me. But the descriptions and the writing kept me hooked, as well as the ability of the author to make me care for the main character.

I pulled out my gun and shot at the hills, and at the birds, and the echoes of my shots bounced on stones, and lamented and boomeranged treacherous syllables back to me. p 134

Like that. While I usually don't like paragraph long sentences, I found myself rereading long passages to appreciate the similies and images Hage brought together. And while some sentences felt like a lesson on how to write different similies for the same situation, I liked how he was able to go in a full circle with his metaphors descriptions and lull me along.

Ten thousand bombs had landed, and I was waiting for George. first line

George and Bassan are like brothers, but gradually the situation pulls them apart. George goes to work for the militia, fighting, and gets more involved in the war. George's nickname is De Niro, after Robert DeNiro, and the title of the book comes from the scene in The Deer Hunter where the soldiers play Russian Roulette with a bullet. That's what made me so sad/angry about the war: that boys grow up and playing this game is no more dangerous to them than walking down the street, and the outcome is just as random.

War and the effects are the main theme. Bassan can't stay in Lebanon. His family is gone and if he stays, he will have to fight. How he has learned to live to survive makes it too hard to live any where else. The effect on one person of living in a war zone is shown and it made me very sad. This book won the IMPAC Dublin prize in 2008 and I can see why, as in a quiet beautiful way, one person's story is told within the larger context of war. There is lots of violence and sex and drugs, since the story is about young men and war, but the writing is so beautiful against this horrific backdrop, that this contrast becomes a part of the story.

Bombs fell, warriors fought, people ate, and the garbage piled up on the corners of our streets. Cats and Dogs were feasting and getting fatter. The rich were leaving or France and letting their dogs roam loose on the streets: orphan dogs, expensive dogs, potty-trained dogs, dogs with French names and red bowties, fluffy dogs, well-bred dogs, china dogs, genetically modified dogs, and incestuous dogs that clung to one another in packs, covered the streets in tens, and gathered under the command of a charismatic three-legged mutt. The most expensive pack of wild dogs roamed Beirut and the earth, and howled to the big moon, and ate from mountains of garbage on the corners of our streets. p. 31


  1. Great review! I'm like you - this is not the sort of book I would expect to enjoy. Lately it seems like I've been enjoying all the books I expect to hate, and vice versa, so maybe I'll give this one a try.

  2. Hmm . . . sounds a bit too depressing for me!

    I've given you a Splash Award - see this post.

  3. I can see why you ended up liking this one. The setting and subject matter really interests me. You've written a great review, Elizabeth.

  4. I usually don't like the testosterone-y war novels either, but lately I've found a few that I really love. Judging by the prose samples, this could be another. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

  5. Great review! I have been meaning to read this book but never got around to it! One of these days!

  6. I got almost halfway through this one but then had to take it back to the library last year. I need to check it back out and finish it.

  7. I read this book this month, too, and never thought of reading it for Orbis Terrarum because Hage is Canadian and I'm in Canada. But, like you, I found this book really engaging. I couldn't put it down. It was shocking and yet beautifully haunting. I wrote about it here. Did you find it depressing, though? I didn't. But I did shed tears after I put it down. Lol.

  8. P.S. Incidentally, too, aside from saying the same things about the book and writing down the same passage, we also posted on the same day.. April 9th.


Thanks for commenting, so nice of you to visit.

(I'll try without the letters for a while - so please dont be a spammer! Let's try no anonymous users)