Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage [in Booklist]
“Although the characters in this novel are fictitious,” the final sentence of Hage’s (Carnival, 2013) spectacular novel acknowledges, “this is a book of mourning for the many who witnessed senseless wars, and for those who perished in those wars.” For the Lebanon-born, Canadian-domiciled, International IMPAC Dublin Award winner Hage, real-life experiences surely drive his fiction, for he witnessed nine of the 15-plus years of the Lebanese Civil War. What he’s undoubtedly accepted is that life’s only certainty is death.
For second-generation Beirut undertaker Pavlov, death is his inherited livelihood. Like his late father, Pavlov enables the final journey for outcast cadavers no one else will touch. After his father’s death, Pavlov, too, is visited by the Hellfire Society, whose “libertine” members – with Pavlov’s cooperation – will likely return to ashes and dust in a remote mountainous crematorium.
Between his undertaking care of drug dealers and drug takers, murderers and mourners, Pavlov navigates a surreal reality of dropping bombs, brutal family feuds, dangerous liaisons, occasional companionship with a gentle (albeit murderous) prostitute, the ephemeral Lady of the Stairs, and his loyal (if ghostly) dog. Death binds them all, Hage’s visceral reminder that beyond money, power, religion, and war, we are nothing more than corpses to either let rot or set aflame.