On a dusty side street on the east side of Beirut, a young man named Pavlov is studying his father, the undertaker, as a funeral procession slinks by. For years such funerals featured dancing and music, but with bullets and then bombs, a funeral soon means fighters and the firing of guns. Then the father is killed by an explosion, falling into a freshly dug grave, and so Pavlov must decide: What kind of man will I be? How will I bury the dead, and can I resist those uncles who want the second hearse, and what should I do with the priest’s foot, which lands on the balcony, after yet another blast, like a hunk of old meat?
It’s one thing to write about war, another to write about conflict in the Middle East, and a third to do so about Beirut, in the late 1970s, when civil war first broke out. What makes Rawi Hage’s new novel, “Beirut Hellfire Society,” distinct among similar efforts, and worth reading — transcending, as it does, a few moments of overwriting and sloppy summarizing — is the daring way the author illustrates the great and insane freedom that is actually possible in the most dire of circumstances. “Everyone loves Beirut and everyone is scared of Beirut,” a character says.
Between love and fear is a hell of a story.
[“Beirut Hellfire Society”] is a love note to Beirut, a lament for war... a story of human frailty and our dogged, mammalian battle against failure.
Pavlov is an irresistible lead: stony, well-read, tightly controlled, with a deep well of sadness. Call him Harry Bosch but in Lebanon, a ghastly place at the time. In one scene, a barber, who has stepped from the chair to make coffee for his morning customers, returns to find they’ve all been blown to bits. “He would never again touch a cup of coffee after the incident and gave free haircuts on the sidewalk outside the shell of his old shop.” But the people persevere, because what other choice is there? “I am fixing my hair,” says a woman named Maire, “and I am having a pedicure and a manicure. I refuse to look like a maid. War or no war.”
In addition to falling for Pavlov, we consider the deus ex machina, the father’s secret crematorium, inherited by Pavlov, consisting simply of some propane tanks, piping and a thick metal door. In a city riven by inter-religious conflict, the book asks: What can its citizens do, when they want no part of these quarrels; perhaps in death, when they’re gone, they can finally exercise a kind of control?
Ash, fire, freedom; these are Pavlov’s levers. There’s also a delightful Svengali to help us understand his gift: the Marquis, whose corruption is so complete that he’s in some ways the most free of them all. And he really, really doesn’t want to buried in a normal cemetery. “Sexual transgression became our way of dealing with the boredom that is so widespread in our traditional society,” the wealthy man tells Pavlov, seeking his services. “Our nation lives within a culture of shaming and shame, and we decided to challenge it by committing the most daring acts of transgression,” he continues. Hage enjoys recounting the Marquis’ stories of hash-fueled orgies, copulating on rooftops during a bombardment, the insane moment when he and a lover get their own gun and join in. “The thrill of [sex] in close proximity to bullets and bombs,” the Marquis says, became the “most appropriate political act one could engage in.”
War is always one step ahead, the Marquis admits to an impassive Pavlov, still considering whether to help out. “[N]o matter how we tried to degrade our bodies, war always degraded it more, and won. Its omnipotence was unsurpassable, its capacity to burn, to mutilate, war was far superior to and more courageous than anything we could achieve.” When the Marquis dies, the wealthy eccentric wants help to do it in style. (Picture a wedding dress, a length of rope, the party raging below, and all of this followed by fire.)
In reality, the “hellfire society” promised by the novel’s title never pulls together as the sort of phantasmagoria you might imagine in a book by a postmodern stylist like Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon. Hage is too wedded to a certain understandable verisimilitude, and the register he aims for, when he goes big, is poetic rather than systemic or a more muscular abstraction.
War is just too satisfying to require much embellishment: “It was cold that morning,” Hage writes, “the cold of soldiers marching towards battle, stomping across farmers’ fields, cold in the way vengeful villagers steal dead soldiers’ shoes after defeat in battle, cold like that rosy dawn in which the wounded trip over vegetables, roots and dead tree branches, bruised, shot, stabbed and hallucinating of a wedding with a farmer’s girl who will lead them toward their warrior heaven.”
The book is a love note to Beirut, a lament for war, but above all a story of human frailty and our dogged, mammalian battle against failure. What does Hage wish for us to learn? Maybe pour an extra glass and tell someone you love them, before it’s too late. “Liberate yourself,” says a man with less control than Pavlov. “One day we’re here, the next day we’re not.”
In the end, Pavlov’s quiet stoicism is put to the test. “No one is important,” he yells with memorable finality. “There you all are, lying beneath the dirt, competing with one another, hoping to be remembered. Fools!” And then a dog barks.
“Beirut Hellfire Society”
288 pp., $26.95
Nathan Deuel is the author of “Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East.”