by Rawi Hage
Penguin Random House Canada, 2018
I was barely through my second week of the flu when I picked up Rawi Hage’s fourth novel, Beirut Hellfire Society, and began to read. After making it through the first few elaborate descriptions of dead bodies, I had to put it down; it seemed too ghoulish for me. particularly in my weakened state. But, fortunately, I tried again a month later and was justly rewarded: what a novel!
It is certainly not one for the faint of heart, dealing as it does with the human body post-mortem, the collateral damage of the civil war in Lebanon and, in fact, the collateral damage of any war waged by individuals who cannot see their similarities for all their differences, for all their “otherness.”
The novel begins in late 1970s Beirut, where young Pavlov is taking over his father’s role as local undertaker. He serves a rather unusual clientele, made up not only of those who die or are killed during the war but also those who are social outcasts: non-believers, homosexuals, prostitutes, the ‘orphan’ dead. Many of them cannot be buried according to any defined religious tradition and so resort to the cremation services of the secret, fire-loving Beirut Hellfire Society, now overseen by Pavlov. His clients reclaim their bodies and their dignity in death after being rejected in life by society, religion or family. Instead of performing burials according to rituals set by ‘official’ religions, the Society creates rituals of its own to send the dead into the hereafter.
The story unfolds in a series of scenes, each of which introduces another character in need of Pavlov’s attention. We meet El Marquis, a professor of French literature who requests that an orgy be held as his dead body hangs above the revelers; Hanneh and Manneh, the cross-dressing twins; Nadja, the prostitute; Salwa the Hyena, Pavlov’s mad cousin. Throughout most of the novel, Pavlov remains alarmingly aloof as the protagonist who calmly smokes, observes as funeral processions pass below his balcony, and helps the corpses reach their final resting place. Perhaps his is the natural reaction of someone inured to the ravages of war. His intimate relationship with death makes him an outsider and thus the perfect witness to a world gone awry.
Pavlov remains detached until he kills the drug dealer Faddoul. Pavlov considers:
“What does it take to turn someone into corpse? In his veins he felt capable of killing, of causing death, of bringing death forth, recalling the tall figure who appeared to him in his dreams… transforming the moving, the talkative, the affectionate, the sexually derived and the sexually active, the greedy, the invading, gluttonous omnivores into still, silent carcasses… he was capable of killing—he was sure of it.”
He is no longer death’s silent witness: he becomes an active participant in it, burning Faddoul to death. He takes action at last, finally choosing a side.
There is a sense of macabre humour that is both complement and counterpoint to Hage’s lyrical, sensual descriptions of difficult images and harsh realities. In an event worthy of the Theatre of the Absurd, Pavlov’s father is killed by a bomb while digging a grave in the cemetery. In he tumbles, saving everyone the effort of having to bury him. Pavlov finds a best friend in Rex, the dog with whom he has philosophical discussions—even after the dog is dead—bringing to mind André Alexis’s wonderfully imagined Fifteen Dogs. Salwa’s barking laughter can be heard in the cemetery, where she can be found “on her knees, her open palms flat on the ground,” copulating like an animal with Son of Mechanic. It is a dark humour where laughter often becomes a howl, but it offers much needed if only occasional relief.
Beirut Hellfire Society has received much attention and was shortlisted for major literary awards including the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award. While there has been criticism of the novel’s structure, which diverges from the traditional dramatic arc of beginning, middle, and end with action that ultimately leads to a climax and denouement, Hage has said that literature allows him such freedom from convention. If some readers see little but depravity and a fixation with death, I would call their attention to the novel’s poignant acknowledgement: “This is a book of mourning for the many who witnessed senseless wars, and for those who perished in those wars.”
In a sense Hage deftly manages to present a call to arms that suggests that perhaps it’s time to lay down our weapons—all in an eminently readable novel.
Review by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo