Rawi Hage’s The Beirut Hellfire Society
Toronto: PRH – Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
Trade cloth, 280 pages
The Hellfire Society is exclusive, with few membership perks. Pavlov inherits his position, which requires solo expeditions into the mountains outside Beirut, where he enjoys the view while he waits for the furnace to heat and the bodies to burn. Sometimes he casts the ashes into the wind.
Like his father before him, Pavlov tends to the dead – to the misfits, the lost, and the abandoned. Difficult work. And, with the novel’s narrator named for a physiologist known for his work in classical conditioning, readers are clearly intended to consider Pavlov’s response to his situation.
What does it mean to belong “to the race of earth-diggers, casket-makers, carpenters of doom, breeders of worms, depositors of bones”? What rituals truly hold meaning? What philosophies offer wisdom?
Scenes of violence are commonplace in Beirut Hellfire Society. When a traditional funeral ceremony is bombed, Hage describes the damage succinctly, observes details like the shape of an ‘x’ made with a victim’s shoelaces. But what spot does this ‘x’ mark?
Hage’s novels consistently focus on conflict, struggle and existential questions. In DeNiro’s Game (2006), Bassam watches as West Beirut “burned and drowned in sirens, loud blood, and death”. In Cockroach (2008), the narrator imagines “exiles falling into cracks that give birth and lead to death under digging shovels”. And, in Carnival (2012), one character muses on another’s experience in the furnace room, with “the fires and the baking of the earth”, where things begin.
Pavlov observes, contemplates and participates in spectacles and horrors. Crossing the Nahr bridge while bombs fall, he is “as patient as a war refugee occupying the slums of the earth in a house made of cardboard”. He drives slowly and calmly, “eyeing the clouds as they drifted and changed into monsters and other fleeting creatures”.
Living apart from the wider community of men, he reflects on different ways of responding to this strange – but now ordinary – life, to its inherent violence, to the repetitive nature of loss.
Another man, the Bohemian, yearns to capture in photographs the bombs falling on Beirut. When they are flying, they are distant – even beautiful – objects, and the act of photographing them would be impossible in a northern clime with overcast skies. His comments seem rooted in both practicality and madness, forcing readers to wonder whether his positioning to capture these images makes the Bohemian a fortunate man.
Some men are “self-haters at permanent war with themselves until death comes to solve their irreconcilable differences” who have “neither the strength nor the will to repair whatever was broken in them”.
Other men are part of the “hidden dark matter…these kinds of men shine only in opaque corners, their deep shyness, their aloofness exorcised only through the freedom of drunkenness”.
Readers who step into Pavlov’s world, with a population of one, must consider the boundary between extinction and existence. For in this place, extreme states mingle: exhilaration and annihilation can inhabit the same moment. Ash from the fire falls and Rawi Hage presses its passage onto the page, shapes it into stories.
© Marcie McCauley 2018