Taras: Was a “carnival city” necessary in order for you to narrate the stories you did in this novel? How indispensable is this location for the events you describe to take place?Ray Taras was Willy Brandt Professor at Sweden’s Malmö University for 2010–11. He was director of Tulane University’s world literature program before Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. He is the author of numerous scholarly books on nationalism and identities in Europe.
Hage: Places are very conflicting to me, and my narrators often clash with the places they inhabit. I have an antagonistic relationship with cities. I maneuver better in cities and have always lived in them. And my characters are shaped by cities. Nature is not only foreign to them but even menacing. I criticize cities but I can’t get away from them.
Taras: One early review of Carnival speculates that the city described is New Orleans. Is that the case or is it somewhere else?
Hage: It is somewhere else. I never thought of New Orleans as a specific location for the novel when I was writing it. I’ve never been to New Orleans but I would like to.
Taras: Carnival city is not as concrete and tangible a place as Montreal in Cockroach or Beirut in De Niro’s Game.
Hage: I chose not to determine a specific location. It was the presence of a carnival, as a symbolic and metaphoric event, that was crucial to writing of the novel. Having said that, the story does take place in and around an actual Carnival. Through the ages, the Carnival as been a centre of historical, religious and highly ritualistic events, and also for liberation that goes beyond the corporeal constraints imposed by a state or the religious apparatus. In this novel, I touch upon these attempts to control the body by various mechanisms of power. Images of sexual, social and political bondage and constraints recur. Also, there is a nomadic spirit to the main characters, especially Fly.
Taras: Your writing has been associated with French author and enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq. Is he your fellow traveler or fellow spirit?
Hage: I’m not as extreme as Houellebecq. For example, with regard to Islam, I believe I have a broader understanding of that culture. I grew up in Lebanon, as part of an Arabic-speaking, minority community in a Muslim world. But, in terms of producing an uncompromising literature, Houellebecq and myself have some resemblance. I have always thought that literature is a space where all should be permissible. Literature — unlike religion which, in its best cases, allows a margin for interpretation and some cultural adjustment — has a wider approach to life, it is more elastic. Literature is not bound by the burdens of archaic scriptures and religious creeds.
Taras: Are you a secular writer? Your works consistently contain references – what you term dialogue – involving religion. Paradoxically, you flag the importance of religion while depicting very existentialist ways of coping with life.
Hage: Yes, I am secular writer. And yes, I confess that my work has many religious references and I might even add that I have a religious style. Incantations, a direct almost authoritative approach to language. Even my characters often behave like marginal, rebellious, sexually uninhibited prophets.
I grew up in a conservative Eastern Christian community and belonged to it. But one day I realized that religion doesn’t have a monopoly on morality. As a matter of fact, I believe that most of the social advancements in society and the meaningful liberation movements were instigated by secularists with deep humanistic values and understandings.
So my work is often paradoxical, in the sense that a religious form is used to champion a secular tradition.
Read more about Carnival at the W.W. Norton website.