by Rawi Hage
Taking place in the midst of the Lebanese civil war in the late ’70s, Beirut Hellfire Society follows Pavlov, the son of an undertaker. After the sudden passing of his father, Pavlov agrees to carry on his life’s work helping an underground organization perform last rites for those denied proper burials because of their lifestyle, sexuality, or religion. The story explores how people try to carry on in spite of the carnage around them, and looks at the smaller, violent feuds that arise in such an environment.
I struggled a bit with Beirut Hellfire Society mainly because I was reading about soldiers and fighting and killing, but I didn’t seem to be feeling much of anything. Rather than just assuming it was just a problem with me and my ability to empathize, I realized early on that I could at least partially attribute my response to the writing. Pavlov observes the terrors of war stolidly, and this manner at least partially influences the way the reader experiences the story. As well, the imagery employed throughout came off far too light for the grisly things described––a good example being long dead skeletons getting blown out of the ground by an errant bomb compared to frolicking dolphins. So it seemed that the failure to evoke an emotional response stemmed from a failure of expression.
But then something changed: I felt something. Not something from the greater war, but from the personal conflicts into which Pavlov entered. This made me consider that Beirut Hellfire Society wasn’t marred by a failure of expression, that everything viewed as such had intent behind it. What became clear upon re-evaluation was what Hage wanted us to understand of living within a warzone, that people become numb to the destruction in the effort to maintain some sort of normalcy within it. It feels unreal, like it can’t touch you, until you’re hit with something that connects everything to you or those you love. The triumph of the book is that the author doesn’t just describe this, but that he so effectively puts the reader in a similar mindset as he explores the ways his characters react when they get there, when they truly feel the touch of the conflict.
Just keep in mind that, if you give this book a try, the subtle writing may make this some degree of inaccessible. But stick with it if you do––there’s richness that can be found within the pages so long as you’re able to be receptive to your emotions while you read.