BEIRUT: A the very end of “Beirut Hellfire Society,” in the last 21 words from author Rawi Hage, we’re directly informed what his fourth novel is about: “This is a book of mourning for the many who witnessed senseless wars, and for those who perished in those wars.” Hage’s macabre novel celebrates death more than life and almost howls (sometimes the characters literally do howl) at the reader for almost 300 pages.
It is a book of mourning.
“Beirut Hellfire Society” is Hage’s first foray back to Lebanon and its Civil War since his debut novel “De Niro’s Game,” from 2006. That book enters the war in the early ’80s as best friends, teenagers George and Bassam, confront the choices then available to men their age: join the fighting or go into exile. (Hage himself left Lebanon as a teenager in the ’80s.)
The two novels that followed, “Cockroach,” 2008, and “Carnival,” 2012, are told from the perspective of largely solitary adult males living as immigrants. The protagonists of these books closely identify with creatures: respectively, a cockroach (as you might expect) and a fly.
Broadly speaking, Hage’s latest book seems to twine together the themes visited in his earlier work.
The protagonist Pavlov, the son of a Christian undertaker, is also a teenager in Beirut but has no preoccupation with the question of leaving or fighting. Instead he quietly observes and aids his father’s work, helping him gather bodies deemed unworthy of a religious burial.
After his parents’ deaths - his father’s caused by a shell that knocks him into the grave he is digging - Pavlov leaves the family business to his unpleasant and greedy uncles and largely keeps to himself.
He observes from the balcony of his family home on Graveyard Road the passage of funerals beneath - celebratory affairs for young, unwed martyred fighters; festivals of wailing for civilians tragically killed; quiet, sad events for the older and more naturally deceased.
Following a visit from an elderly hedonist, he takes over his father’s work with the Hellfire Society: burning the corpses of those who would be refused a religious funeral or who prefer fire to burial.
As well as his penchant for books and solitude, Pavlov is connected to Hage’s earlier protagonists by his affinity with sentient non-humans - in this case, dogs. Indeed, Pavlov earned his name after a childhood incident with a dog at the funeral parlor. Dogs are portrayed as more loyal and honest than humans, and Pavlov treats them as such.
When Rex, a bereaved canine he had taken in, is murdered, the protagonist keeps the body in the freezer until he can reunite it with its missing head.
Pavlov and Rex occasionally converse, with Rex arguing the superiority of man over beast on the basis of one matter: suicide. He describes it as “the most heroic act, which no animal save for man dares to commit or would ever contemplate.” Such philosophical remarks permeate the novel, as if left there to provoke thought rather than promote a position on living, dying, grieving or anything else.
Divided by seasons and set over the course of one year, 1978, the novel’s timeline is linear, but it is not plot driven. Things happen, people die, other things happen, other people and dogs die, the war rages, people arrive and leave, there is more death.
Pavlov observes it all, making forays into the action - sometimes willingly, sometimes at others’ behest.
Although he has no role in the family business, Pavlov often finds himself assisting the families and loved ones of the dead. He houses a grief-stricken woman - the Lady of the Stairs - for months; he assists the sons of a Spaniard killed by her husband, their father; he puts his own life in danger to retrieve the body of his cousin’s lover from the front line, despite the cousin being responsible for the demise of the dog Rex; and he also carries out the work of the society, handling the dead as per their own wishes.
He reburies lovers side by side and strings up the man who recruited him to the club so his corpse can preside over his own bacchanalian wake before delivering his ashes to a former lover.
Pavlov engages with all of these people despite their “interruption of his private thoughts” and his horror at “the need to pay attention to others, the tragic, grotesque, serious business of love, the idea of possession as well as procreation.”
When he loses both Rex and the Lady of the Stairs, he howls in agony and mourns the loss of “the routines that grounded him and made him briefly withdraw from his solitary existence to join the cycle of life - some cycle, any cycle.” And the cycle continues.
Hage brings us a world that is simultaneously grotesque and amusing, real and magical, and describes it so readers can both see and hear it. Indeed, be warned: This is a loud book. Pavlov howls, his cousin has a frequently deployed hyena-like laugh, flames crackle, women wail; bombs blast; death is danced into submission or acceptance, absorbed by hands beating on chests and feet thumping on floor boards. “Beirut Hellfire Society” mourns with abandon.
Rawi Hage’s “Beirut Hellfire Society” is available now at all good bookstores.