the underground man in montreal: rawi hage’s cockroach

According to the jacket copy, “The nameless narrator of Rawi Hage’s COCKROACH is an Arab immigrant who has failed at everything, including suicide, so he settles into a restless refuge among the human detritus of the Montreal underworld. He uses his court-ordered therapy sessions to spew surprisingly witty and descriptive bile about his life among the thieves and miscreants of the city, seducing his psychiatrist with his transgressive monologues and the intensity of his belief that he is part insect. He eventually finds work as a busboy, a position which allows him to maintain his social invisibility and listen in on the illicit schemes of the clientele. When he discovers a dark connection between one of the customers and an Iranian waitress whom he is infatuated with, he resolves to use his worthless life as currency to purchase a small measure of justice for her.”


I like to pass by fancy stores and restaurants and watch the people behind thick glass, taking themselves seriously, driving forks into their mouths between short conversations and head nods. I also like to watch the young waitresses in their short black dresses and white aprons. Although I no longer stand and stare. The last time I did that it was summer and I was leaning on aparked car, watching a couple eat slowly, neither looking at the other. A man from inside, in a black suit, came out and asked me to leave. When I told him that it is a free country, a public space, he told me to leave now, and to get away from the sports car I was resting against. I moved away from the car but refused to leave. Not even two minutes later, a police car came and two female officers got out, walked towards me, and asked for my papers. When I objected and asked them why, they said it was unlawful to stare at people inside commercial places. I said, Well, I am staring at my own reflection in the glass. The couple in the restaurant seemed entertained by all of this. While one of the officers held my papers and went back to the car to check out my past, I watched the couple watching me, as if finally something exciting was happening in their lives.They watched as if from behind a screen, as if it were live news. Now I was part of their TV dinner, I was spinning in a microwave, stripped of my plastic cover, eaten, and defecated the next morning just as the filtered coffee was brewing in the kitchen and the radio was prophesying the weather, telling them what to wear, what to buy, what to say, whom to watch, and whom to like and hate. The couple enjoyed watching me, as if I were some reality show about police chasing people with food-envy syndrome. 

I thought, I will show this happy couple what I am capable of. One of the officers came back from her car, gave me back my papers, and said, You’d better go now if you do not want trouble. So I started to walk. And when I passed the man outside his restaurant, I spat at the ground  beneath him and cursed his Italian suit. Then I crossed the street, entered a magazine store, flipped through a few pages, and came out again. I watched that same couple from behind the glass of the entrance to an office building. Now, all of the sudden, they had something to say to each other, so they had started to converse. And I watched the owner come to their table and talk to them as well.

Excitement had been injected into their mundane lives. I bet they even got an apologetic complimentary drink on the house at my expense. Bourgeois filth! I thought. I want my share!

Finally the man stepped outside. He buttoned his blazer, put his hand in his pocket, pulled out his keys, and pointed a small electronic device at a blue BMW. The car responded, opened its locks, blinked its lights, and said, I am all yours, master, and all the doors are open for you.

The man smoked a cigarette outside while he waited for his woman to exit the restaurant with a fresh-powdered nose. I crawled to the edge of the pavement, rushing with my many feet, my belly just above the ground; I climbed the car wheels, slipped through the back door, and waited on the floor. The man opened the door for his partner and slipped her fur coat in. From below I could see her fixing her hair in the mirror. They both buckled up. The car purred, and neither of them said a word for a while. When we reached the highway, the woman said something about the place, then something about the food. She asked the man if he remembered the owner’s name. Alfonso, the man said. I believe I have his card here. He passed it to her. She glanced at it and threw it on the dashboard, and neither of them retrieved it. Then there was silence again.

At last the woman said something about the other Italian place, the one they had gone to last time, with Helen and Joe. It is quieter there, she said. St-Laurent Street is becoming too noisy and crowded with all kinds of people.

I knew what the bitch meant by noisy and all kinds of people.

The man must have nodded or not responded.

He was the driver.

She was the driven.

I was the insect beneath them.

At last the car stopped, and the man reached for an electronic device. He pressed it and opened the garage door. I waited until they got out, until the car beeped, blinked, and burped again. Then I dragged myself along the garage floor, avoiding patches of oil from the car, manoeuvred around golf clubs, and slipped under the door and onto the house carpet. When the couple passed me by, I froze in a corner, watching their well-mannered feet.

The woman balanced on one foot and pulled down a stocking, giving her leg a lustier white, silky colour. The man was rotating ice in a whisky glass. He sat on the sofa, untied his tie, and flipped through the TV channels. She went up and then came down the stairs. Now she had on a nightgown, made of a kind of see-through material. And she had plump thighs, ones I had only glimpsed just above the knee at the restaurant. At the time I had been more distracted by the sight of the large plates of food. The woman asked the man if he was coming to bed, and the news anchor was silenced before he had the chance to finish the word “famine.” And then both the man and the woman went upstairs and made noises, opening brass faucets and scrabbling toothbrushes against their gums.

Their gargles and their spit rushed through the pipes to join the toilet flushes. I sat downstairs on the sofa and finished what was left of the man’s drink. Then I went up the stairs, crawled up the bedroom wall, and from above I saw them sleeping, both on their sides. The bed was large and high above the floor, balanced by two small dressers filled with medicine bottles, hardcover books, earrings, and tissues. The woman’s thighs were exposed now, and this gave me an uncontrollable urge to fly down and land on the bedsheets and extend my arms like two antennae and extract sweet nectar from between her open legs. She tossed around, exposing different shades of her long thighs. The man, his back to her, snored quietly.

I went and stood at the door of the bedroom. I watched them dream of SUVs, cottages, and business deals, comparing dresses and cigars at high-end cocktail parties. I put myself inside the dreams and helped myself to a few shrimp cocktails and picked up a few hors d’oeuvres from the waitresses’ drifting trays. I ordered another glass of whisky and rotated the ice inside it counter-clockwise to counter the stuffiness of the room. Then I followed the man with the expensive car to the bathroom at the party. As he knelt to wash his face I passed him, took a leak in a urinal in the wall, jiggled my organ, and made sure the last drop was out before slipping my penis back inside my trousers. I went back towards the hall and, without washing my hands, I pulled up my zipper and closed that dramatic scene.

At the couple’s home I stole his gold ring, his cigarettes,a Roman vase, his tie, and his shoes (I took the time to carefully pick clothes that suited my dark complexion). Once I had finished checking myself in the mirror, I slipped under the garage door. And I crawled, glued to the wall, my insect’s wings vertical now and parallel to the house’s living-room window. Then I walked the dreadful suburbs. Along the beautifully paved roads I made my way through a few dentists’ houses, computer programmers’ lawns, executives’ sailboats covered in plastic and maple leaves, and all the while I feared that golf clubs might escape the garages and swing in pairs and chase me for a raise. But what I feared most of all was the bark of dogs who smelled my unwashed hands.

As I walked away from the suburb, the dogs’ barks went up like the finale at a high-school concert. Filthy dogs, I will show you! I said and ground my teeth. I pulled down the zipper on my pants and crawled on my hands and feet like a skunk, swaying from side to side and urinating on car wheels and spraying every fire hydrant with abundance to confuse those privileged breeds and cause an epidemic of canine constipation. Down with monotony and the routines of life! I laughed, knowing full well that some dentist would soon be waiting for his little bewildered bundle of love to get on with its business. I laughed and thought: Some dentist will be late for trays of paralyzing syringes and far from the reach of blinding lights that hover above mouths like extraterrestrial machines inspecting the effect of pain on humans trapped in pneumatic chairs. And I rejoiced and howled (causing more confusion) at the thought of a salesman stuck like a turtle in traffic, late for his work, flipping through catalogues, rehearsing apologies, and mumbling about dogs’ damnation.

—from Rawi Hage, Cockroach (House of Anansi Press, 2008)

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