Sunday, August 31, 2008

Portrait of the Artist as a Cockroach?

Help me out here.

I have, in blog after blog, been choking on extremely sour grapes, been maintaing that some Lebanese boatman had stolen my thunder by not only beating me to my regular publisher, but getting two awards, notably the Giller, worh $80,000 and leading to sure fame.

Well, let's get real. I did win an award from House of Anansi Press, but it was only enough to keep me drunk for a week, as for the Giller, I didn't even apply. You have to be published by Anansi first; then you try for the Giller.

As it turned out, all my friends at Toronto's Anansi were suddenly gone, some women took over and the next thing I know, it's "Ivan who?" All my scripts were suddenly rejected, with a "better luck next time".

This, after twenty years of Anansi playing games with me, getting me the Ontario Arts Council grant, giving me the go-ahead for more work, and finally, with the change in ownershp, I seem to get, "F*ck-off Ivan. This means you."

Well, enter the Lebanese Boatman. The boatman, a refugee from war-torn Lebanon, succeeded grandly with his first novel though Anansi Press, something called De Niro's Game.
It was based in part on Robert DeNiro's The Deerhunter, a movie out of the past that I recall depressingly flat, and I did not want to see or read that kind of script again.. War and gambling ; people more or less out of my own background, tossing dice for life in Vietnam and gambling , almost for fun with anybody, even the Viet Cong. I had walked out of he movie, muttering, to myself, "WTF".

So that was The Deerhunter? , huh? After all the advance reviews and trailers. What a waste of film footage (except maybe for the ethnic wedding scenes, which were certainly colourful).

But gee, we suddenly have a matrix going here, a matrix for still another work of this type, and out comes The Lebanese Boatman with his "De Niro's Game", from the point of view of a Maronite Christian, escaping from the hell of Lebanon in the Eighties. Well yes. That part of the story we can sympathize with. But while imitation may be flattery, it seems more like fellatery.
It's about a gambler, but this time in war and revolution-torn Lebanon of the Eighties; but there is even no attempt to even hide my Boatman's idea, taken from The Deerhunter, and blatantly labelled, De Niros Game.

Well what happens next. Success. Not such great reviews after the book was published by Anansi, but the Giller prize for the Lebanese Boatman all the same.

I was jealous. Of course, I was jealous. The Boatman's script and my own script dealing with another theme hit House of Anansi Press at about the same time.

There was a wobble. Six months of waiting. Then the company asking for more time and patience.

Then finally, The Boatman gets in with fanfare, and I get rejected and pretty well called a prick.

Ain't life teejus?

So I ate crow, and then couldn't hold back my resentment and anger, told Anansi they hadn't seen the last of me and began to write again.

So I am in the process of once again tailoring my literature, hoping it would fit Anansi, when wham! Another novel by the
Lebanese Boatman.

Ah. Not so fast this time, Rawi.
Critics will rarely pan a first novel, but by the second, you are fair game. The Boatman has a new title out, "Cockroach", also by Anansi. And did the Toronto Star ever give it to him.
They did, unless my reading perception was off.

Reviewer Jeff Pevere begins thusly:

"The defining difference between the narrator of Rawi Hage's Cockroach and his best-known literary precursor in Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis is that the former is quite content believing he is a bug. It's his natural state, a way of existing in a world that demands a certain subterranean facility just to get by. It's always served him well:

"I was the master of the underground. I crawled under beds; camped under tables, I was even the kind of kid who crawled under cars to retrieve the ball, rescue the stranded cat, find the coins under the fridge."

If the conviction that he was a cockroach helped Hage's narrator survive a trauma-stricken childhood in war-torn Lebanon, it has proven an equally functional delusion in Montreal, where Hage's unemployed, thievery-prone, sex-obsessed protagonist spends his bone-chilled days scheming for scores, meals and retribution. As a cockroach, he can go where he pleases, take what he fancies and scuttle imperceptibly down the nearest drain. "The underground, my friend, is a world of its own. Other humans gaze at the sky, but I say unto you, the only way to pass through the world is to pass through the underground."

Cockroach, the former Montreal cab driver's second novel, following the much-awarded and justly praised De Niro's Game, is a continuation of a sort. Whereas the first book described the harrowing condition of moral oblivion necessary to childhood survival in a war zone, Hage's new book considers this state as it applies to getting on with life in a new country. And that is not an easy task, despite the comfortable mythology of renewal that countries like ours offer to people who stagger here from the smoke and ruin.
A certain crust is necessary to simply make the shift from chaos to comfort, and to accept the complacency of a culture that offers refuge but remains infuriatingly blind. It's enough to make a man angry, or to convince him that prevailing through hell has brought out the thick-shelled bug in him..."

At the beginning of the novel, Hage's narrator is more convinced than ever of his creepy-crawly destiny. Not even a suicide attempt could kill him. So on he must go, negotiating a world where living is conditional on not feeling anything beyond self-sustaining appetite. Ask for nothing; take what's necessary.

It's an absurd state, certainly, but both the comedy and creepiness of Cockroach stem from the strangely rational nature of our hero's delusion. As someone who has witnessed what he has, and who has been forced to live with his role in the death of a loved one, Hage's bug-man dwells in the vertigo zone between his past and present. While that might make a man crazy enough to think himself an insect who can crawl through drains and infiltrate the apartments and homes of anyone he chooses, it's a craziness born of an insane situation."


Well, yeah, okay. The man has suffered. And that entitles him to somehow emulate Franz Kafka.
But once again "steal" from another author, also a "Czech" like the hero of the Deerhunter?

Come on now. Stealing from the best is okay, but not so consistently.

You may think a relative pipsqueak like me has no right to criticize a Giller prize winner.
But gee, my pips and squeaks are nothing compared to critic Jeff Pevere's last paragraph in his review of "boatman" Rawi Hage's COCKROACH. To wit,

Hage's Cockroach is not an inspirational novel. But it is a perceptively funny and knowingly unsettling one, drawing us along on the churning currents of one man's hard-earned misanthropy. At once wise in his perceptions and dangerously unbalanced, the man telling this tale offers a model for surviving that has little or nothing to do with the benevolence of the country that has offered him haven, and everything to do with the insect that crawls from the corpse of deadened emotions.


Well dog my cat. Or, er, cockroach?

Did Mr. Pevere describe the "cockroachesness" of a cockroach and almost condemn the author?

Anybody else interpret this last paragraph as an extermination?
Am I reading, through my green eyes, too much into this?

Oh my.


Jo said...

To me, the last paragraphs seems to "damn with faint praise" the fellow's book. Basically the reviewer is saying it's not great, but it's not bad. That was my take on it.

Obvioulsy the writer has picked up a theme that seems to be working for him. If the first book won a Giller, people are going to read the second book simply by reputation.

Don't forget, the Middle East seems to be the centre of everything right now, so any novels feature the turmoil of someone who lives there are going to be well-received. When the Cold War was on, everything was about Russia.

That, unfortunately, seems to be the way it is. said...

Well analyzed, Josie.

Damn. My timing is eccentric and I'm getting old.

Why did not I, thirty years ago, descibe myself as a political exile out of Russia? :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Frankly, I didn't care for Kaffka's version. I sure doubt I'll read this one. Sounds like this guy is doing the literary equivalent of rap music. He's "sampling." said...


Why do I want to agree with that?

ea monroe said...

Ivan, the Cold War is back on! Time to get your Russian exile book dusted off! ~Liz said...


Yep. I'm a Georgian. Always have been a Georgian. :)

the walking man said...

Maybe if the cockroach wrote from the perspective of life in a Canadian Lebanese restaurant, established by Canadian tax dollars for an ex-pat cockroach from Lebanon?

As for your own Giller, bash America and John McCain as it's hypothetical new president...any American bashing book would be well received, even on the NY Times list.

The review had one telling word..."misanthropy" which by its very definition bashed the reviewer.

Anonymous said...

Rawi Hage was nominated for, but did not win the Giller prize. The prize you're no doubt thinking of is the Impac prize, which is the world's richest literary prize at 100K Euros. So clearly there are people out there who think he's a pretty good writer. Aside from that, your criticisms of his work, whether they are valid or not, are irrelevant as you're using his success as a reason for your failure. A real writer doesn't worry about what other people are doing, they worry about themselves.
Why don't you stop blogging and write a novel, one that people want to read?

JR said...

Enough with all this reading into the review. I've got an idea for ya, not very original, but I think it'll work. How 'bout this story line: A Lebanese Boatman goes to Whitecastle? Throw in a couple of bugs too. And why do I think of spiders when I see the word Anansi?

Jessica said...

I'm not sure I understand why someone would be writing about a cockroach. ;-) said...

Anonymous #1,

Thank you for correcting me on Mr. Hage winning the Impac, and not the Giller prize. I guess I should have been reading the Google information more carefully.
On my blog above, I was just wondering if critic Jeff Pevere had subly condemned Mr. Hage's second book in his review in the Sunday Star. Brings to mind an Anglophone joke in Quebec. "In Montreal, they call me de artiste, but in Toronto, they call me de cockroach"...or something like that.

It is no secret that the House of Anansi has, over the years, issued a whole series of dogs which nobody read, the only reason for their success being Canada Council grants and arragements beween government and the publishing house.
The House was nevertheless always short of money and my earlier novel was turned down because there was just no money to print it.
So had said James Polk, the past editor.

I went esewhere and managed to publish my "The Black Icon"
though the Bradford Witness Publishing company, in a magazine called TOPIC.
I wrote my first novel when Mr. Hage was just getting his baby teeth, but in Canada, as had been said about our Olympic efforts, everybody hates a Canadian achieving success, and they will pull you right down.

We love foreign content. Look at TV drama and our bestseller lists. And it is no secret that when athirtyish person tries to get into the CBC, for example, he or she is told, "You gotta be 23 and exotic.."...Hm. Wonder how it is that I never got in. As for a Canadian achieving international literary success overseas, there is a Canadian payola Mafia there which pays the sellers and sometimes the buyers to bring the book up on the overseas charts.Padding. And we pay for it.

But a foreign genius can make it on his own, even in Canada with an astounding work like "Smilla's Sense of Snow" with a theme that is almost Canadian (Heroine is an aboriginal woman from a small community). Curious that that book was written by a Dane named Peter Haeg, whose nname, oddly, sound so close to Mr. Hage's. Smilla's Sense of Snow is a masterpiece, which really, cannot be said for either De Niro's Game or Cockroach.
(Kafka's Metamorphosis, of course, was a masterpiece about that cockroach but I guess we cant' discuss source material here...Just want to say all masterpieces are best sellers, but not all best sellers are masterpieces)... But then I doubt whether Mr. Hage's "Cockroach" is going to get too far up the charts. If it does, it'll likely be because of the Ottawa mafia. Mr. Hage is certainly ingenious. Like Borges; he takes a literary work, finds its secret and then goes to produce one of his own.

Anonymous. I sense that your are probably an insider, maybe even connected to Anansi.

But I am probaly wrong for how could an editor pen a sentence like "A real writer doesn't worry about what other people are doing, they worry about themselves."

Singulars and plurals, dude, or dudette. said...


Yep. You can work around a theme. said...


Anansi is ideed the name of a Tanzanian spider.

Seems about forty years ago, some unpublished writers on CUSO grants overseas, all tried to be writers and failed. They, along with a genius named Dennis Lee decided that it was impossible to be published in Canada and they started a company called Anansi, after the spider.
A tight-kknit group, whey said they were looking for new authors but over the years they seem to have published only themselves.
One of them Margaret Atwood, went on the fame. The rest remained obscure.
Robert Fulford's quip on the late Anansi author Matt Cohen: "Heh. The talent Matt Cohen thought he had." said...


This so reminds me.

I tried something like that once (Mr. Hage not being the first).

One reviewer said to me,
"Guess what?
There is one more a..hole in Toronto who thinks he's Franz Kafka." said...


This so reminds me.

I tried something like that once (Mr. Hage not being the first).

One reviewer said to me,
"Guess what?
There is one more a..hole in Toronto who thinks he's Franz Kafka." said...

Mark(The Walking Man):

Right on.

I could write about a hurricane that fizzled and even then the Bush administration botching the job.
Something like Divine Intervention too on the Republican National Convention. Looks good on them.

Anonymous said...

I have no connection whatsoever to Anansi.
I am, however, puzzled by your attitude toward Rawi Hage. First of all, the guy's 44 years old, which hardly makes him a youngster in the literary landscape. You seem to think that if he didn't exist your work would be better recognised. The fact of the matter is that what Rawi Hage does has no bearing on you. Anansi is a mid sized publisher, one of about a dozen in this country, and the fact that they decided not to publish you has nothing to do with him. Are you mad at Lisa Moore, Michael Winter, Sheila Heti, Bill Gaston, or any of the other few dozen people published by Anansi? I just don't see how singling out Hage is reasonable.

The supposition that there is a payola scheme which makes books bestsellers in foreign counties so that they can sell here in Canada is beyond ridiculous. Canada is one of the smallest markets in the world in terms of raw sales. There's no economic model under which it would make sense to do this, even if it were possible.

I am in the publishing business. And what I do know is that no one in their right mind would want to work with a writer who has such a bitter, small minded attitude toward their craft. Your work has failed to attract a readership, and that's no one's fault but yours. This would be the case were Rawi Hage never born. He's nothing more than the lightening rod for the electric bolt of your paranoia. If you really do consider yourself a writer you do yourself a huge disservice with these sorts of attacks on people. I, for one, will be sure to do you no favours.

the walking man said...

Anonymous do no favors by posting could of at least left your name so Ivan could have saved a stamp.

As one who doesn't play the publish me game anymore I will say that half the reason for not playing, in any market, is because I personally got tired of the collective editors thought that, "I am God to these people who think they can write as well as my last accepted writer" thinking.

Editors edit because they can't write beyond the technical use of the language, most I have ever met fail to see heart. Not because they don't have one but rather because they don't know how to place it, using words in the publics eye.

Which by the way most accepted writing is done not for merit's sake but rather because the publishing house thinks it will make money, thereby preserving your job.

What, did your pepperoni and mango pizza not sit well with you last night? Or are you just hungover and just feel like using the red pen before you even see a submission..."Oh this is shit! The cover letter was not properly formatted to begin with Dear God, lord and master of the printing press,please accept..."

I only have two more words for you, that even in your prejudged world of what is shit and what is shinola you should understand...fuck you. said...


I was just about to make an instinctive response to our "anonymous", but you did it so much better.
And, let no reader kid him or herself. You did it eloquently.

Monique said...

What can I say? Do as Monroe says Ivan, times are looking grim. said...



You mean Liz Monroe?

I have tried getting the audio on your Miiddle Ditch site, but I think I'll have to take my computer into the shop again.

Ah well there are emoluments on the way along, at least for my first novel, which had gotten tattered at the Newmarket Public Library an had to be replaced.

...Hell, a request for more of my work from anywhere is good news!

Here is something I just got from the Newmarket Public Library.



Receipt No. L618

Date of Donation. Auguist 11, 2008

Received from Ivan Prokopchuk
54O Timothy Streeet
Newmarket, Ontario L3V 1P9

Eligible amount for gift tax purposes...................19.95
(fair market value of property)

Description of Donation:

Novel--The Black Icon, by Ivan Prokopchuk.

Date receipt issued August 22, 2008

Authorized signature L. Peppiatt, acting C.E.O.
Treasurer, Nemarket Public Library.

No news at all, I suppose, would be bad news.

Take care.

Donnetta Lee said...

Stealing from the best--but not consistently. I love it!

And Kafka. I caught an old movie this weekend. Directed by Orson Wells. He also co-starred in it with Anthony Perkins. It was taken from a Kafka piece and was very weird, but held my attention. I didn't get the name of it, though. I love Kafka. But sometimes a bug is just a bug.

Oh, well. Get your Georgian voice out and get going!

Donnetta said...


Seems everybody copies or produces Kafka, even though poor Franz Kafka never got anything published in his own lifetime; seens he really didn't want to.

But he had a friend, who turned out to be Kafka's prosyletizer after Franz' death. That man was Max Brod. Here is Wiki:

Brod, Max

(b. May 27, 1884, Prague, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary [now in Czech Republic]--d. Dec. 20, 1968, Tel Aviv, Israel), Czech-born, German-language novelist and essayist known primarily as the friend of Franz Kafka and as the editor of his major works, which were published after Kafka's death.

Kafka had instruced Brod to burn all of Franz' msnuscripts, but Brod published them anyway; to our gain, I suppose, in these paranoid times.
As for the movie you refer to, Donnetta, I think it was THE TRIAL.


Anthony Perkins stars in the main role of Josef K. The rest of the cast includes Jeanne Moreau, Suzanne Flon, Romy Schneider, Fernand Ledoux, Akim Tamiroff, Michael Lonsdale, Elsa Martinelli and Welles himself. Like many Welles films, The Trial was made outside the studio system with a very low budget and a haphazard shooting schedule. It was filmed mostly in the disused Parisian railway station, the Gare d'Orsay, with a French crew. Despite the problems he encountered during the project, The Trial is notable for being one of the few films other than Citizen Kane over which Welles had full control, and which was released in the form he intended. He was offered full control by the Salkind family, as long as he adapted an out-of-copyright literary masterpiece and made it in Yugoslavia. The deal collapsed in mid-shooting, and Welles had to relocate the picture to Paris.

Welles took great liberties with Kafka's novel and said he was more interested in 'capturing the essence of Kafka' than making a scrupulous interpretation of the book. [1]

"Sometimes a bug is just a bug." That's great.
O Lord. Now we come to cigars :)

Anonymous said...

I truly believe that we have reached the point where technology has become one with our society, and I am fairly certain that we have passed the point of no return in our relationship with technology.

I don't mean this in a bad way, of course! Societal concerns aside... I just hope that as technology further develops, the possibility of copying our brains onto a digital medium becomes a true reality. It's one of the things I really wish I could encounter in my lifetime.

(Posted on Nintendo DS running [url=]R4i SDHC[/url] DS NetPost) said...


What if you're in the middle of sex and somebody presses START?

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