In a hidden crematorium in the mountains of Lebanon, a man and his son start a fire. “We heard your call and we came.” So goes the ritual of burning the dead who no one wants or knows. Beirut Hellfire Society (W. W. Norton & Company) by Rawi Hage is intense, visceral, and deeply emotional. Often, it is even hilarious.
In a country where bombs are constantly falling, the people of Beirut are compelled to extremes in order to survive or cope with devastation. Some try to keep to their routines as if they are not risking their lives by simply going out the door. Others try to match the carnage around them in order to feel like they have some control. Still others defy the religious wars through indulging in immoral pleasures. And Pavlov, our protagonist, organizes all the burials.
Beirut is being published at just the right time. We all know the tension of expecting sudden violence or terrorism; we have seen the headlines repeat themselves despite the prayers and candles. In a time where religion is both a method of healing and a weapon for war, Pavlov helps us sort through the confusion. While I do not think it is important to agree with the main character, Pavlov’s stoic and humor-filled perspective helps us process war like no other war book can. He constantly mocks the bravado of old war stories, going as far back as Homer. While he criticizes, he also is deeply empathetic and is able to see past divides to who a person really is.
Hage writes like no one else I have ever encountered; his prose reads like a vision we have been helplessly sucked into, one where we do not want to turn away. Each page surprises, such as when Pavlov witnesses a bombing and inspects a survivor for injuries. “Surely she must have been hit by shrapnel from the bomb, […] or the body parts of the injured—a flapping lip, or sharp, high cheekbones, a wandering eye.” Only an undertaker in such harsh conditions would even consider the possibility. The images also echo everyday phrases but contextualizes them so that they become shocking. A lip flaps not from gossip but from being blown off, cheekbones are sharp due to their ability to injure and an eye wanders not from jealousy but from helplessness.
Hage is likewise unafraid of representing people shunned due to sexuality or identity, writing, “Morality looks banal in the presence of such a grand and total loss.” The queer characters are not perfect, either, but wholly human and miraculously tangible. They exist in all their hope and contradictions as real people would. At a time when the LGBTQ+ community is more visible in the media than ever, Beirut rebels against the flat cardboard cutout in favor of the unforgettable.
We cannot help but feel the similarities. Religious fighting pushes everyone who doesn’t fit into a particular mold into the crossfire. LGBTQ people and sex workers are particularly crucified. The Human Rights Campaign has noted that 12 people in the U.S. since the beginning of 2019 have been murdered due to their status as trans or gay. Beirut attests to our shared humanity and how crucial it is to honor those others have tried to erase.
Mythic, erotic, charming and tense Beirut Hellfire Society is a masterpiece that you won’t want to miss. It is available for purchase today.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
RAWI HAGE was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war during the 1970s and 1980s. He immigrated to Canada in 1992 and now lives in Montreal. His first novel, De Niro’s Game, won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for the best English-language book published anywhere in the world in a given year, and has either won or been shortlisted for seven other major awards and prizes, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award. Cockroach was the winner of the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. It was also shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award and the Giller Prize. His third novel, Carnival, told from the perspective of a taxi driver, was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Award and won the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. His work has been translated into 30 languages.