Beirut Hellfire Society, by Rawi Hage

Trigger warning for graphic violence.

The Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975 and continued for the next fifteen years. Rawi Hage’s Beirut Hellfire Society takes place in 1978, as bombs fall on the city and factions turn Beirut into so many front lines that it’s almost impossible to venture much beyond one’s own neighborhood. This episodic and heartbreaking novel centers on Pavlov, the son of an unusual narrator who provides cremations for people who have either been refused a traditional Christian or Muslim burial or who want something that’s not traditional. Pavlov carries on his father’s work and tries to deliver some mercy in a city that is quickly becoming an apocalypse.

Pavlov reminded me strongly of Akhmed, the tragic hero of one of my favorite novels, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Like Akhmad, Pavlov is a kind, thoughtful man in a place and time that does not reward either of those qualities. Well, there are some people who appreciate Pavlov: the scattered members of the Hellfire Society. This version is not exactly a reconstruction of the Regency era versions founded in England. There are libertines (and there is one graphic orgy depicted near the end of the book), but most of the members are just people who don’t fit into wider society. There’s the woman who wants to be buried with her lover instead of her husband. There’s the man who, after a too-late epiphany, wants to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in the same place as his son and his son’s lover. Pavlov listens to their stories without judgment and agrees to their last wishes, no matter how much effort it will cause him.

In between the chapters about members of the Hellfire Society, Pavlov reacts to the chaos and violence around him. He’s not above violence himself, but I get the feeling that he wishes that everyone around him would stop all of the violence that has destroyed their city. The fighters of the various factions no doubt believe that they’re fighting for the right cause though, from Pavlov’s eyes, it looks like nothing more than acts of random cruelty. Pavlov is profoundly non-partisan. Readers who want to know more about the actual history will need to learn the details elsewhere. Pavlov only gives us an undertaker’s view: war and violence just means that there are more bodies to bury.

Beirut Hellfire Society is a harrowing, heart-breaking read. But for all the shocking violence and sex, I appreciated it’s unique perspective on war. Pavlov, self-taught through reading Greek philosophy, is Stoic in his outlook for the most part. He walks the knife-edge of an existential crisis. There are many times when Pavlov decides that everything is meaningless then, only a chapter or two later, he is dancing next to a fresh body or a grave in a fit of ecstatic celebration that he’s alive. It would be easy for Pavlov to slip into nihilism, but I feel that his efforts to continue his father’s work and provide a bit of meaning to the rituals that have developed around death give him a reason to keep going.

I have a feeling that Beirut Hellfire Society will make a lot of people uncomfortable and I think that’s exactly what this story is supposed to do. We should always wonder about what death means—if only so that lives are not wasted the way the Pavlov saw far too often in the middle of his country’s civil war. The more I read, the more I started to agree with Pavlov, that people should be able to dictate their funerals. Funerals are the punctuation at the end of a life. In this book, we see some people choosing a funeral that is an exclamation point. Others want a semi-colon to link themselves back to their loved ones. That Pavlov can deliver on these people’s requests is a beautiful thing (in a really bleak way).

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A street in Beirut in 2008, showing unrepaired damage sustained during the Civil War. (Image via Wikicommons)

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