Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Rawi Hage’s fourth novel, Beirut Hellfire Society, takes us back to Beirut, Lebanon, the setting for his first novel, the award-winning De Niro’s Game, and where Hage himself grew up. It is 1978, and Lebanon is immersed in a sectarian civil war. Groups of armed militias—Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Druze, Palestinians—clash back and forth killing each other and civilians alike. It is a time of death, plain and simple.
Pavlov (the name is actually a nickname, but it’s the only name he uses) works for his father, an undertaker. Business is good. His father painstakingly prepares the bodies for burial, applying make-up, dressing them well, tying their shoes, making them presentable for the hereafter. But the idea of burial in the ground is something he doesn’t like, in fact. His true spiritual side comes out when he and Pavlov drive to an isolated house in the hills to cremate those whose bodies were left in the street, unclaimed, or otherwise deemed unfit for a Christian burial. Pavlov’s father cremates the bodies in an oven he has built, and then celebrates—drinking, dancing, and singing for hours—until finally pouring the ashes into the wind, where they are carried down the slope of the hill into the valley below and oblivion.
Pavlov is an avid reader, particularly of the philosophy and literature of ancient Greece. When Pavlov’s father dies, Pavlov’s disagreeable uncles take over the funeral parlour, and Pavlov leaves the day-to-day business, helping them only on occasion. Apart from sleeping late and reading, Pavlov spends a great deal of time standing at the window smoking, watching the funeral processions pass by to the cemetery across the street. The processions move slowly when there are no bombs dropping in the city, fast when they are. The funerals for young fighters are loud and boisterous, those for the elderly and the innocent, sombre and quiet.
He soon is approached by a man calling himself El-Marquis, who knew his father. He is the leader of a group calling itself “The Beirut Hellfire Society.” These people are extreme libertines, people who revel in the excesses of the flesh, living life to its pleasurable fullest. They are, of course, not in good graces with the local Christian priests. Pavlov is asked to be available to bury members when they die.
Pavlov is an observer. He practices no religion and does not take sides in the conflict. The dead are the dead. From his window looking out over the street and the cemetery, he reflects on the nature of death, the futility of life. His ruminations are odd and more than a little otherworldly as he reflects on death, the people’s ways of observing it and the relationship of humans to the earth they are buried in.
The novel comes across as a series of loosely connected vignettes. Time progresses erratically. Weeks and months pass when nothing happens apart from the numbing routines of war, death, and funerals. Slowly, though Pavlov begins to interact more with others—the insane woman on his doorstep, a Spanish photographer who wants to take pictures of falling bombs, a murderous militiaman, a prostitute, his sister who lives in the hills with her husband and daughter. Each comes into his life then goes out. Some return, others don’t. And Pavlov continues to observe. He talks to himself and has conversations with dogs, both alive and dead.
Pavlov’s aloofness, his aesthetic focus on death, begins to show cracks as the human side of suffering becomes more personal and he starts to confront the suffering around him instead of merely observing it from afar.
Hage is nothing if not a very intriguing, articulate writer who is not afraid of taking risks. His Beirut comes across as something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of Hell—wild and disturbing, containing a wide variety of tortured souls and any number ways to make them suffer. Pavlov’s meandering thoughts are complex and fascinating. In Beirut Hellfire Society, Hage has produced a unique, thought-provoking, and compelling novel.
As often happens, there are some errors in the book. Most are very minor, but there is one major howler that many readers will immediately pick up on. A little over halfway through the book Pavlov observes a man “panting heavily like Marathon, that famous Athenian, racing towards his own death to deliver news of victory.” Anyone who learned about ancient Greece in grammar school knows that this is wrong. The man’s name was Pheidippides (or Phillippides), and he ran from the plain of Marathon to Athens to announce the Athenian victory over the Persians. The Olympic marathon event is based on the distance between Marathon and Athens.
Luckily this error is quickly forgotten as the pace picks up and Pavlov’s world becomes more compelling. But it is still very disappointing, especially coming from someone who claims to revere ancient Greece so much.
Beirut Hellfire Society is published by Knopf Canada.