I was conceived on the circus trail by a traveller who owned a camel and a mother who swung from the ropes. When my mother, the trapeze artist with the golden hair, tossed me out of her self to the applause of elephants and seals, there was rain outside and the caravans were about to leave. She nursed me through the passages of roads and the follies of clowns and the bitter songs of an old dwarf who prophesied for me a life of wandering among spiders and beasts.
So begins Rawi Hage’s Carnival. Its narrator is indeed destined to wander among spiders and beasts; however, unlike his mother, Fly’s circus is an urban landscape, where spiders are taxi drivers who sit in their cars waiting for a dispatcher to call and an odd assortment of passengers are daily fare. There are two types of taxi drivers in the Carnival city, and unlike spiders, flies roam the streets, looking for people to flag them down.
The story is carnivalesque — a Baz Luhrmann cacophony of sights, sounds and colourful characters. There’s a lot going on, and not a whole lot holding them together, but it’s a fun ride anyway. Through Fly’s eyes, we see the outsiders of society — a prostitute whose customers refused to pay, a disenfranchised carnival booth worker who ends up arrested, various other taxi drivers dealing with poverty, crime and anger in the face of a taxi inspector’s abuse of power.
I can only imagine the stories real-life taxi drivers can tell about their passengers, and in Hage’s novel, the strangeness and the drama are exaggerated to almost surreal proportions. A lover’s quarrel over money, with the younger man demanding to be let off and the older one demanding that Fly keep driving, ends in a surprisingly sweet moment of tenderness. Hage seems more interested in a British passenger who invites Fly to join him in an underground BDSM club. Other passengers also offer glimpses into secret lives, sex and drama and all. The atmosphere is seedy and sordid, yet, perhaps because of the carnivalesque tone, nothing ever truly shocks.
The final third or so of the novel was a bit of a letdown. It felt like Hage was trying to bring cohesion with a more traditional narrative, involving a series of crimes. Yet in doing so, the story loses the adventure afforded by the earlier sections’ heightened form of reality.
Carnival is over-the-top, in-your-face, and yet very real. I’m not quite sure I quite grasp what the story is about, yet I’m definitely glad I went along for the ride.