“This is a book of mourning for the many who witnessed senseless wars, and for those who perished in those wars.” So writes Rawi Hage in the acknowledgements to his fourth novel. Death is front and centre in Beirut Hellfire Society, but in Hage’s rendering it is as sensual as it is senseless; this new work of fiction extends the streak of absurdity that runs through the author’s previous three books.
As with Carnival (2012), which follows a taxi driver who experiences the world through encounters with denizens of the urban underclass who are his passengers, and Cockroach (2008), told through the eyes of a despairing thief in Montreal, people who exist on the fringes are at the heart of Beirut Hellfire Society. More pertinently, this book marks Hage’s return to wartorn Beirut, the setting of his 2006 debut, De Niro’s Game (one of only two Canadian-authored novels to win the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award).
Beirut Hellfire Society begins in 1978 with Pavlov, the son of an undertaker who inherits his father’s business and his membership in the eponymous group, a secretive, pagan-like sect that reveres fire, cremates the dead, and is accommodating to those who have been shunned for reasons such as homosexuality and atheism. Pavlov defies social norms, like the famed cynic Diogenes, whom he resembles (and makes explicit mention of in the text).
Narrated in the third person – a marked shift from Hage’s previous novels – the book follows Pavlov closely as he picks up the remains of bodies, caring for dogs (a species he holds in high esteem) and people with a modest but piercing tenderness. Pavlov befriends Rex, a stray dog, and begins talking with him. Pavlov’s conversations with Rex are eccentric, but his character is drawn deeply enough to allow us to suspend our reliance on verisimilitude while also coming to understand the character’s loneliness. Pavlov is an outcast on many levels: the Christians and Muslims he circulates among equate him with death; he lives alone, observing funerals from his home overlooking the cemetery; and he barks at his burly, distanced brothers, who anger him.
Though death, bombs, and fragile ceasefires pervade the novel, Beirut Hellfire Society doesn’t indulge in platitudes or draw a straightforward appeal for empathy from its readers. Instead, Hage’s affinity for defiant, street-smart intellectuals yields a cast of misfits and libertines that help illustrate the realities of life during wartime. The varied cast includes El-Marquis, a white-suited professor of French literature named after the Marquis de Sade. He “consciously [seeks] to corrupt the youth,” seduces his students, and visits Pavlov to request a rite of passage wherein he is hung from the ceiling of a grand hall, below which people feast and have an orgy before his body is cremated. El-Marquis’s friends, Hanneh and Manneh, also befriend Pavlov, accompanying him on their motorcycles to a place called the House of Ashes hidden in the mountains. Then there is Nadja, a prostitute responsible for killing the man who murdered her friend, and Salwa the “Hyena,” Pavlov’s cousin, whose laugh echoes through the cemetery where she has sex with Pavlov’s childhood companion.
Fluid and cinematic, Beirut Hellfire Society could have morphed into a lumbering novel. Characters like El-Marquis are introduced in a series of monologues as they meet with Pavlov to organize their own cremations. The monotony of these chapters could easily have appeared rote and predictable were they not buoyed by Hage’s trademark lyricism and tempered with philosophical grit.
The context of civil war in the Middle East often lends itself to a blame game involving Christians versus Muslims, West versus East, or good versus evil. Hage dissolves these rigid binaries in his portrait of a syncretic Lebanon, where violence is perceived as a facet of everyday relations between people. When Pavlov’s childhood friend, who is known as Son of Mechanic because of his former job fixing cars, shoots at Pavlov, he does so for myriad reasons. Pavlov’s mind reels back to their youth and the memory of his friend’s shame at being relegated to a manual labour job. The deep entanglements among characters emphasize the arbitrariness of politics, religion, and morality, especially in the face of death.
Through Pavlov, the novel edges into critiques of morality and the longstanding dichotomy between aesthetics and politics and between passivity and action – dualisms that animate writers as diverse as Albert Camus and Rachel Kushner. Beirut Hellfire Society is a novel of tragic beauty and dark humour that is comfortable with contradiction and charged with probing philosophical insights and the luminosity of Arabic poetry. It’s a timeless story of the outcast whose act of witness chronicles the world he observes. It is also a testament to love for life. Hage reminds us of what it takes for a novel to endure on the level of both form and content.