Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog
There is a moment near the beginning of Beirut Hellfire Society, Rawi Hage's excoriating fourth novel, when three devastating missiles are fired toward the east side of Beirut. The bombs "gathered in the air, suspended, indecisive, assessing their targets and for a fraction of a second they formed a trinity witnessed only by Pavlov, the man whose name declared his preference for dogs over humans".
The munitions have a certain primitive sentience about them – avoiding particular objects and people, a church bell, for instance, or the barber "boiling the morning Arabic coffee"– and a murderous penchant for others, like the man on the dock with "filthy feet in Roman sandals", and the five men who congregated every morning at the barbershop, and Pavlov's father, an undertaker, who at the precise moment of his death had been digging a grave for one of the many wasted souls in a seemingly endless internecine conflict. All of them dead.
This is, after all, a book of the dead—told in a series of haunting, incendiary episodes; a chronicle of bodies, and their desires and fragilities traced through a spring, summer, fall and winter in the midst of the Lebanese civil war.
Before he is killed, Pavlov's father initiates his son into the ceremonies and rituals of the Hellfire Society, a necessarily secretive entity, whose central purpose is to offer funereal rites to the many whose lives have been deemed ungrievable by the clergy or the state. These are the abandoned, the unclaimed, the illicitly loved and their lovers, the deniers of Semitic deities, and those who are resolutely resistant to the pull of religion–with its sectarian obsessions and its denial of the body and its pleasures: "hedonists, heathens, idolaters, infidels…happy debauchers"
At the society's mansion in the mountains of Lebanon, Pavlov witnesses his father cremate an eviscerated cadaver the two of them had picked up from the street. Through dance, song, drink, and incantation the father releases the body into the beyond—"[m]ay your fire join the grand luminosity of the ultimate fire". Fire as purifier. Now, in the aftermath of his father's death, Pavlov inherits this undertaking – becomes, himself, an undertaker for the Hellfire Society.
The novel follows the travails of the iconoclastic, occasionally peripatetic, Pavlov as he threads his father's hearse through city streets, towns and scattered villages, recovering the mortal remains of lost souls, or to honour a promise to the dying. Like that offered to the dying Souad—she of the "slow gait of a tragic Nordic actress"—who petitions Pavlov to exhume her from the grave she is destined to share with her dead brutish husband, and instead be anointed with French perfume and re-buried beside her lover. On other occasions the petitioners come to him. Like the forlorn Jean Yacoub who had once rejected his homosexual son – a son he later finds out was murdered as he made love with his lover—both of them gunned-down by the bodyguards of a local warlord. Pavlov's father had recovered the two bodies and offered prayers over the cremated remains—"against the dictates of the clergy of the land". Jean Yacoub plaintively asks Pavlov to subject him to the flame when his hour arrives–his ashes to be scattered over the same valley as those of his son and his son's beloved.
If such moments give the novel its narrative drive, the periods of relative repose reveal its aesthetic vision. Here we see Pavlov, contemplatively perched by the window or alone on the balcony of the two-storey house in which he lives—watching the "traffic of floating caskets", priests, incense, mourners, the black and white of unvarnished grief, or gazing at the immensity of the nighttime sky. Or weeping at the solemn beauty of the passers-by: "the mourning daughters, sisters and mothers". On other occasions we see him in the company of Rex – the stray dog/ghost-dog/philosopher-dog he has taken in–or "turning his back to the window and the world, gazing at the last luminosity on the wall inside the house". Or reciting the illiad, like a displaced and woe-begotten Helen; our "laconic silent little scholar" with his near-sacramental ritual of coffee and cigarettes, cigarettes and coffee—body and blood.
If this is indeed a book of the dead, then the balcony is its bardo—a place of witnessing and in-betweenness where Pavlov makes meaning out of the meaningless, and to which Hage repeatedly and evocatively returns: the poetics of a stark and wretched beauty.
There is also a good deal of sex—in cemeteries, and amidst ruins, in beds, and on "a fuchsia sofa", in states of grace, and tumescence, and surrender: the kind of sex that is staged in transgressive opposition to "a culture of shaming and shame". These words are spoken by El Marquis, a scholar and a libertine, who fucks (and philosophizes) his way to increasingly excessive states of sublime debauchery, as a protest against the strictures of tradition, religiosity and the ubiquity of war.
We first encounter this post-lapsarian messiah when he arrives at Pavlov's home: "[a] tall man in white, with a wide white hat" and a penchant for French literature, the Socratic method and seduction.
Hands are slipped between thighs, the poems of Baudelaire are recited, bodies are entered; El Marquis is both a well-versed charmer and a louche.
Hage fashions this sequence of scenes with a deliciously fleshy extravagance. He'll write an ordinary, didactic line like, "[s]exual transgression became our way of dealing with the boredom that is so widespread in our traditional society….", then suddenly torque the language, shifting registers, to produce this glittering, koan-like, utterance from the man who has taken his name from de Sade (of course): "[t]he thrill of fucking in close proximity to bullets and bombs….it was sublime the emptiness….": Eros and Thanatos.
Is there anyone else doing this with the novel and its form?
It is from El Marquis's exchange with Pavlov that we come to learn how the latter acquired his name. How as a small child he had fed a starving dog with entrails "just as churchbells rang out a burial tune". And that thereafter, whenever the funeral bells rang. the dog would arrive in expectation of being fed: a conditional reflex of sorts.
If for Pavlov, "the sound of bells" and "the repetitive migrations of death beneath his window" have forged "a love of tragic beauty", the readers of this novel will, in turn, have their own conditioned response to its brutalities and tenderness, its carnivalesque rites of sex and death.
I read Beirut Hellfire Society as summer turned. I read it as I walked, and while sitting in coffee shops, and on buses, and in my living room as the light faded. I did not return to the novel with any particular relish. It is not a read to be relished. Its words are shrapnel seeking out the soft and vulnerable recesses of thought and feeling. You walk around with it—under your skin. The ringing bell in your head is the ceaseless white noise of carnage and disembodiment, an existential tinnitus against a backdrop of quotidian dread and despair.
Days after finishing the novel—I re-place the dust-jacket over the spine of the book: abstract flames and two skulls with nasal sockets like stylized hearts. The word backdraft comes to mind. That's how it is with certain narratives—the potential for combustibility lingers long after the last page has been turned. What I need now is a balcony, and a cup of bitter-sweet Arabic coffee, and someone to recite the illiad, as winter approaches.