You just can't leave this book unread! Rawi Hage has surpassed himself this time. This is his third novel, the first being the memorable De Niro's Game which deservedly won the Impac literary award. His second novel, Cockroach, somehow left me cold so I was a little nervous buying this one. But it stunned me! On the jacket front, the Toronto Life is quoted saying 'imagine Camus rewriting Taxi Driver' which is so apt in reflecting the shinning quality of his writing and imagery but Hage has a sense of humour that Camus would die for!
The narrator in the book is a taxi driver who was born into a circus, the son of a trapeze artist and an arab stuntman with flying carpets both of whom died leaving their son in the care of a 'bearded lady', a 'freak' in the circus. When he is still an adolescent, the circus dies and he ends up in a nameless city in America which I assumed to be New Orleans, not least because of the title of the book, Carnival. And the whole concept of circus and carnival provides the backdrop to his story as he sees life as a circus with a world peopled by clowns and masked people - some heavy metaphors here. But though his tale may be allegorical, it is full of compassion and love for the outcasts and oddities of the world.
Our taxi driver is called Fly - 'flies' being the taxi drivers who tour the city picking up fares as opposed to the 'spiders' who sit and wait at ranks for calls from the dispatcher. And so with Fly we meet an astonishing array of individuals from criminals to priests, all of whom have a story and earn his respect or anger regardless of their status. His upbringing in the circus gives him an acceptance of the ugliness and seaminess of city life while at the same time seeing great beauty in small things.
For Fly is a philosopher with a passion for books. His apartment is filled with towers of books and one enters it through a tunnel of books which he arranges 'by character, the colour of their skies and the circumference of their authors' heads ... in accordance with my own empirical measurements to use the British norms of philosophy'. So Rousseau is located near the window because 'there is nothing like the cure of fresh air for cases of bladder infection, paranoia and Cartesian thinking'.
And Fly, while being a supreme example of a pure Christian soul, has no time for organised religion linking all religious beliefs to the same delusional source - the original fear and disappointment of men.
He rails against the 'brooding types' who go to caves and mountains waiting for God's revelation through 'the smoke of a pack of cigarettes' while, at the same time, he recounts a conversation with God who reveals to him that 'those desert lots of Semitic Arabs, Syriacs, Aramaics, Nestorians, Nabateans and Jews got it all wrong ... that bunch of archaic literates'.
One can't help having a suspicion that Hage had a lot on his mind and used Carnival as a vehicle to offload some passion. In fact, it is hard to pass a page without coming across a sentence one wants to retain and quote later. But if he does, it doesn't grate on one and the friends Fly has and who stay with him throughout the book are wonderfully described and embodied and have a reality rare in fiction. There are also pieces of great beauty such as when a clown in festival chants: 'I shall chase the clouds and stop the rain and save your lives from this endless charade of puppets and strings!'
Carnival is published by Hamish Hamilton, paperback, £12.99