Immigrants write!

I recently read Cockroach by Rawi Hage, largely because I noticed it was set in Montréal and the author had won a large number of prizes, and because I’m always interested in reading about the immigrant experience. This is in part because I find it fascinating to hear the country I grew up in described by outsiders with their own perspectives. I liked the book, although the main characters kind of annoyed me until about halfway through. Still, passages like this about a bar I used to hang out in kept me reading:

I walked down St-Laurent to the Copa and entered the bar. The Anglos of this city love this place — unpretentious, with an air of the pseudo-working class, it even has a fake plastic coconut tree that sways only for those customers who have drunk a great deal. All those McGill University graduates love to hide their degrees, their old money, their future corporate jobs by coming here dressed up like beggars, hoodlums, dangerous degenerate minorities. They sit, drink, and shoot pool. The few old-timers have their stools reserved like Portuguese monarchy. They have blended in with the old wooden bar to become part of the retro decor. And after a certain hour, they sway with the coconut tree. I have never understood those Anglos, never trusted their camouflage.

I like the Copacabana, but I can understand why a bitter exile like Hage’s protagonist would see its clientèle that way. One complaint: in the book, francophone characters are occasionally quoted in French, and not just “untranslatable” phrases like “joie de vivre”, but entire sentences. If Hage were writing for a local magazine (or, for that matter, telling a story at the Copa) that would be acceptable, but I don’t see the point in writing a book in English if one needs to understand French to get all the details. But that said, the French passages are unimportant enough that I would still recommend it to any unilingual anglos reading this, should it be your sort of thing.