Beirut Hellfire Society – Rawi Hage

After his undertaker father’s death, laconic, Greek mythology– reading Pavlov is approached by a member of the mysterious Hellfire Society— an antireligious sect that, among many rebellious and often salacious activities, arranges secret burial for outcasts who have been denied last rites because of their religion or sexuality. Pavlov agrees to take up his father’s work for the society, and over the course of the novel acts as survivor- chronicler of his torn and fading community, bearing witness to both its enduring rituals and its inevitable decline.

In Beirut Hellfire Society, award- winning author Rawi Hage— praised for his “fierce poetic originality” (Boston Globe) and “uncompromising vision” (Colm Tóibín)— asks: What, after all, can be preserved in the face of certain change and imminent death? The answer is at once propulsive, elegiac, outrageous, profane, and transcendent— and a profoundly moving meditation on what it means to live through war.

They say ashes to ashes, but we say fire begets fire. May your fire join the grand luminosity of the ultimate fire, may your anonymity add to the greatness of the hidden, the truthful and the unknown. You, the father continued, were trapped, lost, ignored, dejected, but now you are found, and we release you back into your original abode. Happy are those rejected by the burial lots of the ignorant. The earth is winter and summer, spring and fall . . . We heard your call and we came.

Beirut Hellfire Society is more a book of moments and observation than an active plot, and as such lost me at times, despite the promising premise. It focuses on an undertaker named Pavlov in 1978 Beirut, as war rages throughout the city and surrounding areas. Amidst all the carnage and daily death, Pavlov finds himself in the employment of a mysterious group known as the Hellfire Society. His job is to secretly give them their last burial and rites, as they would otherwise be denied due to their religion, sexuality, and other activities. What presents itself throughout the novel are questions about ritual and our choices in the face of death that surrounds our every day in a senseless and unyielding way.

After a very promising start the book seems to go into a different format, presenting stories from people who Pavlov meets, all of them connected to the character of the Marquis – who is seen as a liberator and a person who calls for freedom in a time of war.

I liked some of the mini stories like the one of the young wife with a lover in the army.

Yes, I agreed to marry him even though he was older than me by thirty years. You see, I was young and beautiful and thought I needed someone to take care of me. Back then, I had long, straight dark hair and big eyes.

After our marriage, after our first sexual encounter, I found my husband repulsive . . . and with time, when the excitement of the honeymoon and travel was over, the inconveniences of his old age started to surface. Soon I noticed his old skin, his aged-cheese breath, his legs full of pink and purple veins that extended from his flesh and crept onto the bedsheet and up onto my pillow, up the sides of the bed. He would touch me just as I was about to fall asleep, always sneaking up on me, never with any foreplay or playful teasing or a sweet word. He was inept and boring—a businessman with no charm, no humour, no character, really . . . no personality . . . A man with no qualities . . . He insisted on taking me to church every Sunday to mingle with other merchants’ wives. I was subjected to unrelenting boredom and disgust. We spent our lives going from one restaurant to another . . . Food and work were his existence. His joy was to meet a villager who could sell him fresh vegetables, or a fisherman who brought him a live catch wobbling and suffocating for lack of salt and sea. All he cared about was money, cars and food . . . Oh, the platitudes I endured . . . Boredom has always been undermining . . . But before I could leave him, I found out I was pregnant. By then we were fighting every day. Bore­dom had ruined me, and everything around me seemed dull and tasteless. When he sensed my dissatisfaction, he became jealous and abusive. I was trapped, with nowhere to go and no one to complain to but El-Marquis.

The women though.. The author seems to have some pretty sexual fantasies. He talks about a young, nubile student who just needed to let loose before smoking and having sex while firing guns, about a prostitute who just wants Pavlov to give in to her, about the shocked woman who lost her entire family that let’s Pavlov bathe her and dances naked in his house only to then walk out of his life, to the young granddaughter who is a modern “Cool Girl” that smokes, drinks, goes out on the town in skimpy dresses and sunbathes topless on her balcony. Even the cousin he seems to detest gets a whole short chapter likening her to a hyena in heat as she has sex in a graveyard. It all left a bad taste in my mouth that sadly never felt like it truly left as I continued the novel and saw more and more depictions of women throughout.

The girl stood beside him. She said, The dead are coming.

The dead are coming, Pavlov repeated.

But where do they go?

To Hades, Pavlov said.

Who is there in Hades?

Pluto, Pavlov said.

Is he nice?

He likes to live in the underworld, Pavlov said.

And where is God? Rima asked.

There is no God, there are only humans who imagine the possibility of gods.

When the music started, Pavlov went to the middle of the room and moved his feet. The dog joined him. He extended his arms to his little niece, and all three of them danced to the tune of the dead.

I started tuning out towards the end.

It was supposed to be what exactly? A humorous look on life from the perspective of an undertaker? Mythology mixed with reality to show how short life is and that we should engage in an endless orgy to see it to the end? A laugh in the face of death?

Reminded me a bit of HAUNTED by CHUCK PALAHNIUK but without the amazing cruel deaths in between. I mean, no cannibalism 🙂

This book is a solid 2/5

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