About the A List

Launched to mark our forty-fifth anniversary, the A List is a series of handsome new editions of classic Anansi titles. Encompassing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, this collection includes some of the finest books we've published. We feel that these are great reads, and the series is an excellent introduction to the world of Canadian literature. The redesigned A List books will feature new cover art by noted Canadian illustrators, and each editions begins with a new introduction by a notable writer. We can think of no better way to celebrate forty-five years of great publishing than by bringing these books back into the spotlight. We hope you'll agree.

Introduction by Colm Tóibín

Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game and Cockroach offer a powerful diptych on the effects of war, as seen by a novelist. In the first novel, the drama happens in public, in the street, in the conflict between individuals, in the way violence disfigures or, indeed, animates every moment of the day. In Cockroach, the war takes places in the gnarled and complex psyche of a single individual. Action and aftermath in these two novels have a way of folding into each other.

De Niro’s Game is set in a recognizable war-torn Beirut. The narrative shape of the two main characters’ lives is dictated by public events. Politics attempts to have precedence over personality; private life is reduced in its scope. In this way, the novel manages to capture something of the daily mixture of claustrophobia, chaos, sheer terror, sexual tension, and heady hilarity in a war-torn city; it dramatizes the pain and petty treacheries and the small moments of pure comedy created by forces beyond the control of the protagonists. The book is shocking; its power is enriched by its immediacy. The action of the war itself reduces the characters’ choices and chances; the tone of De Niro’s Game—its pace, and the sound it makes—attempts to restore the balance.

The novel has an immediate staccato edge framed with luxurious sound. The sentences are either sharp and jagged or gorgeously made. There is no time to be wasted with clotted adjectives or sub-clauses, which would slow the pace or dull the mind. There is also a sense in the way things are observed—colours, say, or textures, or even people—that there will be a need in the future to remember what might soon disappear. Early in the book, pedestrians curse and blame America for what is happening in their lives, but the way the narrator throws out facts and registers feelings takes its bearings from Hemingway and Kerouac.

The writing is smart and brisk. The sentences are filled, at times, with the showy shock of the new. This is a story of “horny Arabs with curly hair,” of young men “with open shirts and Marlboro packs rolled in our sleeves, dropout, ruthless nihilists with guns, bad breath, and long American jeans.” De Niro’s Game is the story of the diction of that sentence as much as it is the story of survival in a time of factions. The novel enacts a war between two styles as much as between two political ideologies. The dominant style longs for the glamour of American prose and American movies. It sets the world of The Sun Also Rises and On the Road, The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider against foolish old bullies, dull traditional pieties, and current pressing loyalties and treacheries.

Language in De Niro’s Game is not a plea for help or a way of asking the world to pity those caught in a war, but it is a bravura performance, a set of grand and sweeping gestures, closer to jazz than journalism. The world of phrases and sentences here is brave and fresh, demanding a glittering response from the reader. This brash, heroic style belongs to the young and to the future. Slowly, however, as the future comes to seem fragile and open to question, a dull, insistent sound enters the novel and sets out to destroy and reduce. Thus. a battle takes place in the very heart of the novel, a battle between systems and styles, which mirrors the battle in the city.

The new poisonous sound is short on gesture and glamour; it is more immediate and noir, stark and informative. It holds in its arms the dull business of death and fear. It is as though Jack Kerouac got stopped by the cops and was asked to account for himself. His tone is tamed, and it wavers between something heroic and careless, and a sour poetry, which carefully registers what happened to two young men in a city filled with war and fear.

Beirut is evoked with loving precision. As in the novels of Rabih Alameddine, such as The Hakawati, Beirut in De Niro’s Game is a Mediterranean city, half-French, half-Arab, before it is a place destroyed by war. The sense of the hot night, the idea of family and community, the openness, the sexual edge to things, the old streets and rooftops, fill the atmosphere even more sweetly because they are ready to be destroyed or made into newsreel for a world half-indifferent to their fate.

Rawi Hage in De Niro’s Game is in possession of a bleak, sour philosophy, which gives the impression that it was there before any bombs were dropped on Beirut and will be there long after the city has been cleaned up and the warring forces made to shake hands. This makes its way into both minute observations and the overall tone of the book, until it emerges for the reader as something deeply-felt, managed with sharp wit, and tempered with a novelist’s sympathy and superb control.