The second novel by Lebanese-Canadian author Rawi Hage, Cockroach explores the oft-invisible (under)world of refugees in Canada. Hage’s unnamed protagonist, a Lebanese refugee who fled from war-torn Beirut, is the reader’s guide through this underworld as the reader follows him from his court-mandated therapy – where his therapist routinely misunderstands cultural differences and nuances as symptoms of the protagonist’s, rightly diagnosed, mental illness – to his apartment in a run-down old building he shares not only with other migrants and refugees but also with a gaggle of white wannabe-hippies who the narrator believes “will eventually float down, take off their colourful, exotic costumes, and wear their fathers’ three-piece suits” (21), to his various misadventures throughout the streets of Montreal and his job at an Iranian restaurant where his musician friend Reza sometimes performs. Although the reader follows Hage’s protagonist throughout the entirety of the novel, he is not a sympathetic character and must be read with a strong sense of irony imbued with gallows humour – a fact lost upon some early reviewers. This irony comes through as unfounded criticisms of all those around the narrator, including – but certainly not limited to – his friends Reza and Farhoud, his would-be girlfriend Shohreh, other migrants and refugees to Canada including a man known only as the professor and the protagonist’s future boss, and the white Canadians whom the protagonist encounters, ranging from his more intimate acquaintances, such as his therapist Genevieve and his upstairs neighbor Mary, to complete strangers eating in a restaurant. The protagonist experiences delusions of grandeur in relation to these characters, often admonishing them at the consequence of bolstering his own ego, though it is uncertain if this is a tactic acquired through his own lack of self esteem or if he truly believes it to be the truth. In all likelihood this is a method of self-preservation insofar as he is able to preserve his sense of self in a system built to wear away at his sense of self.
In tandem with these moments of ironic deprecation of others, the protagonist often imagines himself metamorphosing into a cockroach in a Kafkaesque fashion – albeit these are not permanent changes. While some critics (see above) have taken these moments as literal, it is vastly more productive to understand these magic realist moments as indications of dissociation in the protagonist wherein his body becomes foreign to itself and he is left to see himself as he believes others, especially rich white Canadians, view him: as vermin. The establishment has worn away at his psyche to such an extent that he is no longer able to consistently inhabit his own body and instead must regress into the – metaphorical, not literal – embodiment of complete other. In so doing, Hage’s novel masterfully highlights the psychological impact of precarious existence experienced by many refugees within the Canadian state.