Beirut Hellfire Society
Death brought Rawi Hage back to Beirut.
Following the success of the Lebanese-Canadian author’s debut novel, 2006’s De Niro’s Game (which, along with Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, is one of only two Canadian novels ever to win the International Dublin Literary Award, one of the world’s richest prizes for fiction), Hage considered himself done with Beirut as a setting for his work. “I promised myself at some point not to go back,” he says. “I thought I’d done enough with the first novel.”
But the successive losses of a friend and a family member got him contemplating mortality, which eventually turned his attention to his home country. “It was spontaneous,” he says. “It started with the image of a burial and that led me to Beirut, for some reason.”
The result is Beirut Hellfire Society, Hage’s blistering and philosophically weighty fourth novel. Set in 1978, the book tells the story of Pavlov, an undertaker’s son who is inducted into a secret cabal that facilitates the burial and cremation of societal outcasts—atheists, libertines, homosexuals, adulterers, and the like. Pavlov’s experience with the Hellfire Society becomes a microcosm and a metaphor for a country ripped apart by the devastation of war and civil conflict, as well as a critique of religious hypocrisy and sexual puritanism.
Not surprisingly, Beirut Hellfire Society is a death-haunted book, infused with images of violence and destruction. But it also extends Hage’s interrogation of existential themes and influences, which were equally apparent in his previous two novels, Cockroach and Carnival. And as with those earlier novels, Hage here refuses to back away from taboo material or explicit depictions of sex and violence.
“I just think I’m carrying on a long tradition of literature that dealt with these things,” Hage says. “You can go back to Abu Nuwas or Henry Miller or Colette. It’s a tradition that’s under assault and I’m just trying to keep it alive.”
But Hage’s devotion to this strain of libidinous literature makes his work a difficult pill to swallow for readers looking for relatable or sympathetic characters, or expecting to reaffirm their preconceived notions about good and evil. It appears particularly nettlesome in a political moment marked by a global retreat to precisely the kind of social conservatism that Beirut Hellfire Society is challenging. In this context, Hage’s novel—and his approach to fiction in general—is more vital than ever.
“This exercise in free thinking and transgression in literature should always, always be permissible,” Hage says. “I think the moment we stifle that, that’s the end of our society.” — Steven Beattie
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