This year’s IMPAC shortlist was quite eclectic, as we noted when it was released. One side effect of this is that the 2008 IMPAC won’t have an impact on the “Prizewinners” tally that we keep. The upshot, of course, is that the IMPAC shed its spotlight on some less well-known names, including this year’s winner: Beirut-born, Canadian novelist Rawi Hage, who won for his debut effort, DeNiro’s Game.Andrew reviewed the book for us last year, writing “Less a political tract than a survival story, DeNiro’s Game illustrates how a war breeds anarchy which then gives way to militia rule.” Elsewhere, The Globe and Mail covers the award and offers an excerpt from Hage’s acceptance speech.
The IMPAC Award is one of the more interesting prizes we cover. Its longlist is composed of nominations from dozens of libraries around the world. The upside is that the books are an typically an eclectic bunch (especially in the very long longlist) and that they represent the choices of a very different group from the cadre of critics and literary luminaries that usually decide awards. The downside is that thanks to the award’s arduous process, it is several months behind other prizes in recognizing books. For example, the 2008 award is made up of books published in English in 2006.Tardiness aside, the IMPAC is typically interesting, and this year’s recently unveiled shortlist is no exception. In fact, unlike last year when some quite well-known books made the cut (and Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses took home the prize) this year’s list is devoid of household names and has no overlap with any of the “major” book prize shortlists. Here are the shortlisted books:The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas (at the Complete Review)The Sweet and Simple Kind by Yasmine Gooneratne (interview)De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage (Andrew’s review)Dreams of Speaking by Gail Jones (review in The Guardian)Let it be Morning by Sayed Kashua (review in the Boston Review)The Attack by Yasmina Khadra (excerpt, at the Complete Review)Winterwood by Patrick McCabe (review in The Guardian)The Woman who Waited by Andrei Makine (review in the New York Times)
The first thing you’ll notice is the urgency. Our hero’s youthful voice flirting with maturity, ready to move and ready to take you with him, whether you’re ready or not. Even when he’s waiting, you sense the activity, the plans and schemes to move his life along, to leave for pastures greener, or in the meantime, to bear the ten thousand bombs falling all around him.Ten thousand bombs. This is Beirut – 1982. The civil war has been raging in Lebanon since the mid 70s and would continue for many more years. For Bassam and his best friend George, this is the only life they’ve known. In DeNiro’s Game, the first novel by Rawi Hage, that life explodes onto the page, as Bassam dreams of escaping the day-to-day horrors of a city under siege. A city at war with itself.Fuelled by longing, by testosterone, Bassam does whatever desperation demands of him to acquire the money to leave. All the while we sense Beirut’s past weighing heavily on Bassam’s shoulders:”I climbed onto George’s motorbike and sat behind him and we drove down the main streets where bombs fell, where Saudi diplomats had once picked up French prostitutes, where ancient Greeks had danced, Romans had invaded, Persians had sharpened their swords, Mamluks had stolen the villagers’ food, crusaders had eaten human flesh, and Turks had enslaved my grandfather.”Bassam’s childhood friend George eventually joins the militia, plunging head-first into the hell that governs their lives. George lives life one step closer to the extreme, constantly tempting fate. This is where the title comes in: George is nicknamed DeNiro by many of his cohorts, who share his fascination for the Russian Roulette game played out in the film The Deer Hunter, literally a death-defying game which becomes almost a rite of passage for George and others in his group.Meanwhile Bassam deals with life in a broken city. The horrific and the mundane become one:”Ten thousand bombs had split the winds, and my mother was still in the kitchen smoking her long white cigarettes.”And an awareness of mortality mixes with youthful arrogance. Bassam tempts fate in his own way:”Death does not come to you when you face it; death is full of treachery, a coward who only notices the feeble and strikes the blind. I was flying on the curved road… I was a bow with a silver arrow, a god’s spear, a traveling merchant, a night thief. I was flying on a mighty machine that shattered winds and rattled the earth underneath me. I was a king.”Less a political tract than a survival story, DeNiro’s Game illustrates how a war breeds anarchy which then gives way to militia rule. Thuggery. And for two young men living by their wits, it’s eat or be eaten.I left Beirut when I was two years old. The civil war was still a few years off, but the whole region was unstable. And so my parents, with little Andrew in tow, packed up what we could, left behind a lot more, and abandoned the life we knew to begin a completely new one in Canada.Bassam’s neighbourhood – that’s where we had lived. The town in the mountains outside of Beirut where Bassam and George would temporarily escape the city – that’s where my grandfather was from – and was basically our second home. These neighborhoods and towns had existed for me as idyllic pre-war photos that my parents and I would periodically pore over in our comfy Canadian living room. Then on the evening news, a different Beirut – a Beirut of snipers and militias and bombed-out neighborhoods.This novel is the first thing I’ve read that draws it all together and takes it home. It would have been simple for my family to not make the life-changing decision that they made. Then I would have been like Bassam or George, growing up in a perpetual state of civil war surrounded by drug-running and siege-survival. And while my temperament, even as a youth, tended to be gentle and contemplative, I wonder how a brutal youth would have changed my very nature. And on the flipside, how different Bassam and George would have been had they been spared the never-ending rain of ten thousand bombs.