De Niro’s Game – Rawi Hage

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Winner of the 2008 International IMPAC Literary Award, Shortlisted for the Giller Prize 2008

I picked up
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De Niro’s Game after a recommendation from Claire at Kiss a Cloud, but I’m afraid that I didn’t love it as much as she did.

The book follows Bassam and George, childhood friends growing up in war-torn Beirut. As you can imagine it isn’t a pleasant read – graphic scenes of death and destruction fill every chapter.  The whole atmosphere of the book is one of helplessness and depression. I appreciate that this is probably a very realistic picture of what life is like for people living with war, but it meant that I found it a very difficult book to read. There didn’t seem to be any spark of hope, only choices between two equally terrible outcomes. I found it difficult to bond with the characters and their violent, vulgar attitude further distanced me from them.

I can see why Claire loved this book – the scenes were described vividly, and the story was both shocking and compelling.

That night, through the flames of a million candles that brawled inside the neighbourhood houses, I walked. Under those lights, hazy behind nylon sheets that covered our broken windows, I walked the streets with no dogs. I walked, and the candles danced inside a city with injured walls, a city void of light, a broken city wrapped in plastic, and plastered with bullet holes.

At times I became annoyed by the repetition. I realise that it was a powerful means to describe the situation the people were faced with, but if I read the words “Ten thousand bombs had fallen” one more time I think I’ll scream!

Overall, this is a beautifully written book, but the futility was too much for me.

stars3h

 

Have you read De Niro’s Game?

Can you enjoy a book which deals only with devastation?


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27 Comments

  1. Simon S says:

    What an odd title for a book which is about what its about? Sounds intriguing but not quite enough for me to rush out and buy it as have quite a few similar books that people have recommended more, but thanks for popping it on my book radar Jackie!

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, The title refers to the fact they have nicknames for each other and one is named De Niro. It is just about life in a worn-torn city and the best way to cope with/escape from the atrocities.

  2. Sandy says:

    I think there is a time and place for books like this, but if you read them in the wrong mood, you’re a goner. I get so much death and destruction with my WWII obsession, that I don’t have much room left in my heart or energy in my brain to deal with much more than that!

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I don’t mind war books, but I like them to have someone showing human kindness, or finding happiness within the destruction. This one is bleak all the way through.

      1. lizzysiddal says:

        “This one is bleak all the way through” … like real-life can be then. Sounds right up my street!

        1. Jackie says:

          Lizzy, Yes, I’m sure it is realisitc, but it isn’t something I enjoy reading. If you’re OK with the harsh, graphic violence and language then give it a try – I’d love to know your thoughts.

  3. Beth F says:

    I haven’t read it and doubt I ever will. I’m just not that interested in war books. Okay, I take that back — I’m not that interested in war books that take place after about 1900. Maybe because I knew people who fought in all the wars the US was involved in the 20th century — not enough distance.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, I often struggle with books about war, but I don’t think the period of history makes any difference to me. A war which took place yesterday can be just as depressing as one that took place 200 years ago.

  4. Jenny says:

    I promised myself I was going to read more books set in countries not my own, but this sounds a bit too grim for me. I have a low tolerance for violence in books – shame, because I’d heard a lot of good things about this one.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, There are quite a few graphic scenes in this book, so I agree that this is a book which should be avoided if you are a bit squeamish.

  5. Laza says:

    I read this for class last year, and I really liked it. EXCEPT for the ending. It was too coincidental. My professor was on the panel that chose the book for the IMPAC award and he said they almost didn’t give him the award b/c of the “twist” ending. Having said that, I thought it was beautifully written. Yes it was unrelenting but so is war. The part before he escapes is the best part of the book because it’s listless, disturbing, and eye opening.

    I totally understand not wanting to read graphic scenes, but it doesn’t bother me for the most part. The only book that ever seriously disturbed me to the point where I had nightmares was American Psycho. Now THAT book was graphic.

    1. Jackie says:

      Laza, It is really interesting to know your professor was on the panel for the award that year. I didn’t really mind the ending, but I love finding out details like that!

      I don’t mind reading graphic scenes, as long they are in context, but I do like them to be broken up with hopeful scenes – even if they are flashbacks to before the war. The never ending misery of this book just wore me down.

      I’ll make a mental note to avoid American Psycho though – I think that may be too much for me!

    2. claire says:

      Laza, I felt the same. The twist ending was the only part I didn’t like too. It was too contrived. But I really loved everything else.

  6. Steph says:

    I haven’t read this one, but I did see a copy of his newest book, Cockroach, when I was at BookPage a few months ago. I read the first chapter, but I found it much darker and a lot more “grungy” than the books I normally seek out.

    I think Disgrace by Coetzee is a book that almost solely focuses on devastation and loss, but I thought it was wonderful. It was very bleak though, and certainly took its toll on me as a reader.

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I didn’t realise he had a new book out. I may look into it, as I do like his writing style – it was just the darkness of the whole book which put me off.

      I haven’t read Disgrace yet – I really need to get round to that soon!

      1. claire says:

        Jackie, thanks for trying it out! Although, if I’d had known you a little longer then, I would have recommended something else to you instead of this, as you’ve been pretty clear in your posts what type of books you like and not like. But then at least you didn’t give it 1 star, haha!

        Anyway, I say don’t read Cockroach since you didn’t like this. I’ve read it and as expected liked it but not as much as De Niro’s Game. Cockroach is much, much darker. And the protagonist is way angrier. A lot of readers didn’t like it for its anger. I actually hated the protagonist while reading, but a few weeks after reading realized that I did like the book because it stayed with me. Not many people agree with me though.

        Re: recent Canadian war books, in comparison, I liked De Niro’s Game a lot more than The Cellist of Sarajevo for reasons that De Niro’s Game made me feel, The Cellist was a little detached from me.

        Btw, I really loved Disgrace, too. It’s excellent.

  7. claire says:

    P.S. In reply to your question, I realize I’m a sucker for really depressing books!

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, It is interesting to compare this book with The Cellist of Sarajevo. I think I gave them both 3.5 stars, but I they both suffered from different problems for me. The Cellist of Sarajevo had the personal aspect which was missing form De Niro’s Game, but I felt that CoS was too fragmented – it felt like several short stories, rather than a novel. I think of combination of the two books would work much better!

      Thank you for recommending it to me. I am pleased that I read it and 3.5 stars is quite a good score from me!

      I think I will avoid Cockroach now – thank you for the great summary!

  8. Stacy says:

    A book without hope is hard to read. I don’t enjoy them even when they might have something important to say. Maybe we are just too optimistic?

    1. Jackie says:

      Stacy, I guess that it is because I read for pleasure and so I want to read stories about triumph over adversity or the wonder of human kindness. Entire books of misery don’t really do anything for me.

  9. mee says:

    I read The Road by McCarthy last year. Interestingly I found it repetitive as well. Is there correlation between devastation and repetition?

    1. Jackie says:

      mee, Really interesting question. I have noticed a lot of repetition in disaster books too. I guess it just emphasises the endless misery, but I find it annoying to read.

  10. Kim says:

    This book is definitely not for me, I like a bit of human kindness and hope in a book and don’t do graphic violence very well. I have always felt that there is enough real misery in the world without having to deal with fictional misery too.
    It’s intersting to read the comments though, and see that some people don’t mind this at all which I suppose is why all kinds of books become popular.
    Thanks for the review, Jackie.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kim, I love the way everyone likes different books and sees very different things in the same words too, but if you don’t like graphic violence then this book isn’t for you.

  11. Nicole says:

    The writing is beautiful, but I think it would get to me after awhile as well. There is such a thing as being too poetic, and after a while I feel like if I had wanted to read a poetry book then I would have read one. In general I don’t like book that are just about war, but don’t mind if the stories concentrate on other issues and are set in war time.

    1. Jackie says:

      Nicole, I don’t think this book suffered from being too poetic – I could mention several others which do, but I think this one had other problems for me. I agree with you about books being set during war being much better than ones about the war itself.

  12. Don says:

    I thought this book was incredible – written from the perspective of somebody who has directly experienced what has been written about added to the authenticity of the text. It did take me about 20-30 pages to get into the story but I would recommend this book to anybody who doubts the conditions in which they live in Western society – we are very lucky to have the luxuries that we consider to be necessities.

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