In his novel Cockroach
(2008), Lebanese-Canadian author Rawi Hage uses an unreliable narrator to explore the complex politics and emotional challenges of Montreal’s vibrant immigrant community.
The story is told by an unnamed man who talks about his attraction to his therapist, Genevieve. He confessed to her in his last session that he had attempted suicide by hanging himself in a public park; a passing jogger noticed him and cut him down. He also confesses that he believes he is part cockroach, and that at times—especially when experiencing lust—he partially transforms into a cockroach, growing antennae and experiencing other physical changes. He has been forced into therapy due to his suicide attempt.
After his therapy session, he goes in search of Reza, an Iranian musician who owes him money. He searches for Reza at the local café and then later goes to his house. Reza’s roommate allows him in. He searches the man’s room, reflecting that he met Reza at the same party he met Shohreh, a waitress he has fallen in love with and who sometimes sleeps with him. He robs the apartment of food before leaving.
The narrator tracks Reza through the cramped, poor neighborhood in which he and other immigrants live. When he attends therapy sessions, Genevieve presses him to talk about his childhood and life before coming to Montreal; after relating a memory of his sister inventing a game in which he was an insect, he offers only flashes of violence and horror. It becomes clear that Genevieve may mean well, but she has no understanding whatsoever of what life is like for immigrants such as the narrator, or of what he might be dealing with.
The narrator reveals that Reza is a master seducer who survives and finds money for drugs by charming and living with a succession of women; many of the immigrants in the narrator’s world get by with similar scams and short-term grifts. Although he despises Reza as much as anyone else, they have spent considerable time together taking drugs and conversing, and Reza may be the closest thing the narrator has to a friend.
The narrator survives largely through petty crimes committed against his neighbors and friends; he enters their apartments and steals whatever he can find—food, money, objects to sell. He recalls a party he attended at his neighbor Mary’s apartment where vegans brought food that he took him with him; although he despises vegans for their pretensions, he returns to her apartment to steal more. With every crime, he feels himself becoming increasingly a cockroach and less a human. His hatred for other humans—with the sole exceptions of Shohreh and Genevieve—grows as well. His life is increasingly insect-like, a constant scramble for food and resources and constant flight to escape punishment or death.
Shoreh and the narrator sleep together, and he tells her stories of being tortured in his home country. She tells him similar stories. They commiserate over seeing people they thought they had escaped by coming to Canada also travel there, but as people of means and privilege. She tells the narrator that at the restaurant where she works as a waitress, she recognized one of the wealthy customers—Shaheed, the man who had tortured her when she was a political prisoner in Iran, who had raped her and then forced her to abort the child she conceived.
The narrator hallucinates a six-foot-tall albino cockroach and discusses his existence with it. He decides that he must protect and avenge Shohreh, determining to assassinate Shaheed.
Genevieve encourages the narrator to get a job in order to have money and be part of society. He gets employment as a busboy at a restaurant Reza works in. There, he meets Sehar, the young daughter of the owner. She is attractive and flirtatious with the narrator. He observes her masturbating and despises her, seeing her as someone who has abandoned her roots and become wholly Canadian.
At therapy, he admits that his sister married a terrible man who beat her; he planned to murder her husband, but in the end, he could not do it, and later the husband beat his sister to death.
Shohreh and the narrator plan to assassinate Shaheed on an evening they know he will be at the restaurant, eating. Acquiring a gun, the narrator returns to the tree where he tried to hang himself to inspect it for cockroach bites, questioning his sanity. On the appointed night, he enters the restaurant, and, losing all connection to reality as he shoots, imagines that he has finally become entirely cockroach and slips down under the floors and ground into darkness.