Beirut Hellfire Society

Norton. Jul. 2019. 288p. ISBN 9781324002918. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781324002925. f.
Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Canadian Lebanese author Hage sets his raw and startling new work in 1970s Beirut. The city is being heavily bombed, with the cemetery accommodating three or four funerals a day. Yet while Pavlov’s undertaker father does bury the dead, he prefers secretly offering cremations (fire being “the closest thing to what a man feels when love exists”), performed in the mountains with respectful ceremony. Then the undertaker himself is killed by a bomb while grave digging, and soon thereafter Pavlov is visited by the libertine El-Marquis, who asks him to take up his father’s work with the secretive Hellfire Society and put to rest those denied burial for their religious beliefs or sexual practices. Graphically depicted here, the society’s flagrant behavior can seem less fun-filled than grimly challenging to tyrannical rule and a world at war, and Pavlov gravely assumes his responsibilities, treasuring his quiet routine as around him death becomes ordinary. A surreal touch: he and his dog (then his dog’s ghost) have chats.
VERDICT Hage’s dark, episodic tale of bomb-stunned Beirut bites down unrelentingly on the less pleasant aspects of human behavior, with Pavlov observing that “humans deserved their burials, their darkness and their extinction.” Not easy reading, but the important truths, untrammeled honesty, and fire-bright defiance keep one engrossed. [See Prepub Alert, 1/14/19.]

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