DE NIRO'S GAME by Rawi Hage (Anansi), 280 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
De Niro's game makes the reader feel as if the world is frozen in time.
Set in Beirut during the most intense stage of Lebanon's civil war, the novel makes clear how wide are the chasms between ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East. And against the backdrop of the 15-year war, it reveals the consequences for people when all-out conflict is the daily norm.
Young adults Bassam and George are best friends whose close bond is being torn apart by their divergent opinions about the hostilities.
As chaos spreads through the streets, Bassam becomes obsessed with escaping the city and following his romantic childhood dream of living in Rome. When his mother's death orphans him, he's thrust into an uncertain future in a foreign land.
Meanwhile, George embraces the hedonistic underworld that emerges in the wake of the civil war, living by the adage that death comes only to the feeble and overlooks those who challenge it head-on. He assumes the nickname De Niro, in reference to a scene in The Deer Hunter where actor Robert De Niro plays Russian roulette to secure his freedom from captivity, a fitting parallel to George's fearlessness, self-destructive lifestyle and sense of being imprisoned within his own self.
When used effectively, Rawi Hage's rapid jumps from one violent incident to another evoke television war coverage and expose the reader to the bleakness of the combat zone. Yet his occasionally cartoonish imagery at times detracts from the novel's seriousness.
Hage does show how an inescapable war dehumanizes Beirut's citizens by turning them into, as he puts it, "creatures closer to dogs than to men," irrevocably altering the lives of its survivors.