Beirut Hellfire Society: Book summary and reviews of Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage

Beirut Hellfire Society

by Rawi Hage

Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage X
Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage
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  • Published in USA  Jul 2019
    288 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

A searing and visionary novel set in war-torn 1970s Beirut, from an author praised for his "fierce poetic originality" (Boston Globe) and "uncompromising vision" (Colm Tóibín).

On a ravaged street overlooking a cemetery in Beirut's Christian enclave, we meet an eccentric young man named Pavlov, the son of a local undertaker. When his father meets a sudden and untimely death, Pavlov is approached by a colorful member of the mysterious Hellfire Society―an anti-religious sect that, among many rebellious and often salacious activities, arranges secret burial for outcasts who have been denied last rites because of their religion or sexuality.

Pavlov agrees to take on his father's work for the society, and over the course of the novel he becomes a survivor-chronicler of his embattled and fading community at the heart of Lebanon's civil war. His new role introduces him to an unconventional cast of characters, including a father searching for his son's body, a mysterious woman who takes up residence on Pavlov's stairs after a bombing, and the flamboyant head of the Hellfire Society, El-Marquis.

Deftly combining comedy with tragedy, gritty reality with surreal absurdity, Beirut Hellfire Society asks: What, after all, can be preserved in the face of certain change and imminent death? The answer is at once propulsive, elegiac, outrageous, profane, and transcendent―and a profoundly moving fable on what it means to live through war.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Beirut Hellfire Society crackles with the kinetic energy of a dancer…The absurd volume of deaths is also tempered by Hage's signature dark humor and stylistic playfulness." - Toronto Star

"A wild, viscerally exciting and often bleakly funny novel of ideas. Comparisons aren't always useful, but this reviewer thought of a work…equally unflinching in its de-romanticizing of a subject most of us prefer to avoid: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian." - Montreal Gazette

"Beirut Hellfire Society is a novel of tragic beauty and dark humour that is comfortable with contradiction and charged with probing philosophical insights and the luminosity of Arabic poetry. It's a timeless story of the outcast whose act of witness chronicles the world he observes. It is also a testament to love for life. Hage reminds us of what it takes for a novel to endure on the level of both form and content." - Quill & Quire (starred review)

"A well-turned seriocomic tale about death in a place where it's become inescapable." - Kirkus Reviews

"At times brutally intense, Beirut Hellfire Society unsettles detached views of war. There are, it insists, real and horrible consequences of wars that cannot be ignored, forgotten, or romanticized. Here, escape into perceived comforts and safety is not an option." - Foreword Reviews

"Place: Beirut. Time: 1970s. But Rawi Hage's Beirut Hellfire Society is, actually, deeply set in any place consumed by killing and death during any time in human history. Fire is Beirut Hellfire Society's elemental core―inherited fires of grief and sorrow, justice and love. Fantastically framed, its envisioned images and scenes burn with a mythic intensity not easily forgotten. Truly a masterpiece." - Lawrence Joseph, author of So Where Are We?

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Reader Reviews

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Sue D. (Hudsonville, MI)

Chaos Reigns
This is my first Rawi Hage, but not my last. The absurdity and chaos of trying to live in a city in the midst of war is brilliantly conveyed through a writing style that is frenetic, poetic, often energetic, and insane. Pavlov is a relatable, somewhat unreliable, sometimes lovable, main character. I highly recommend this disturbing, important novel.

Ann W. (New York, NY)

Wisdom...you know nothing
Beirut Hellfire Society is a profound, beautiful and discomforting. Pavlov, the undertaker's son learned well. Pavlov's harrowing tale haunts, compels the reader. Conditioned by culture, religion, folktales, we travel with him and those he meets in war-torn Beirut and environs.

He breaks bread with the living and dead. His crematorium burns the bodies of all, infidels, non-believers, family, foe, dreamers, the deceived. Each is treated with respect. His father's legacy, his observations of those around him during the years Lebanese Civil War educated him. Pavlov, his faithful dogs haunt the war-torn, ravished landscape. Privilege, personal memory, war, death respect no one. There is dancing, joy and life goes on.

Hage's novel encompasses many traditions, the burial rites, ancient histories, the French, Maronite Christians, ancient Greek and Syrian philosophies. Choices made meaningless in the face of war, anarchy. Each person's account is altered. Generations come, go and return. The truth is blurry. The book begins with a dusty, smokey funeral pyre in a hidden cave. It ends with the smoke and ash of a woman's cigarette.

Eileen C. (New York, NY)

The absurdity of life during a senseless war
A riotous, profane, sensual, philosophical examination of the absurdity of life during a senseless war. This examination of violence and how people respond to death—by either turning towards life or trying to protect themselves against it—contains a great deal of pathos and dark humor. The main character, Pavlov, is driven by a sense of obligation to care for those who in the face of great disapproval and danger continue to live their lives as they choose. It is a marvelous ride, and Hage's writing hits hard, but it isn't for anyone who is easily offended or upset by casual violence and sex.

Rebecca R. (Western USA)

Cormac McCarthy Meets Orhan Pamuk in Modern Civil War
This gritty novel forces the reader to ponder the futility of mankind's never-ending history of wars.The absence of quotation marks propels the reader into the midst of war-torn lives in which morals, modesty, and motives are in a constant state of flux and are often absent. How sensible are wars when undertakers for different sides can exchange bodies but leaders can not exchange sensible plans to bring peace? The book can be shocking at times and confusing in a few places (is a scene a dream, a delusion, or real), but ultimately this book is a sad reflection on war narrated in the first-person by a mortician's adult son. I probably would not have selected this book in a book store, and I am glad I had the opportunity to read this as a member of BookBrowse.

Naomi Benaron (author of Running the Rift)

A Dance of Life, Death, and War
In Beirut Hellfire Society, Rawi Hage creates a dance that is savage, devastating, tender, mournful, and darkly, wickedly humorous. The novel is loosely a modern-day version of Antigone, set during one year of the Lebanese civil war. Rather than a sister intent on burying her brother, the protagonist, Pavlov, lover of Greek mythology and culture, is the son of an undertaker following in his father's footsteps in his pledge to lay to rest those who have been denied a traditional burial. The story interweaves vignettes of an outrageous cast of characters, complete with talking dogs and ghosts, vicious gangsters, cross-dressing hedonists, and a niece who howls like a hyena, with Pavlov's journey to survive and wrest meaning from an existence in which war continuously tears apart the fabric of life, order, and meaning.

Hage writes with the incendiary passion of someone whose early years were shaped by the war that tore Lebanon apart between 1975 and 1990. In this work, life cannot be taken for granted from one minute to the next; streets are a chaos of rubble and destroyed buildings; the falling bombs are as omnipresent as the rain. Since childhood, Pavlov has watched the "parade of caskets" that winds toward the cemetery beneath his window. Death and life form a continuous dance that, his father teaches him, is forged in fire. With sparse, urgent, and wounding prose Hage lays bare the nature of war and its human consequences. The book is, as he states in the acknowledgements, "a book of mourning," but it is also a book of hope. Beneath the despair, Hage shows us that hope and life always burn beneath the surface, waiting to be kindled.

Shirley T. (Comfort, TX)

Beirut Hellfire Society
Set in a war torn Beirut, a multi-cultural, multi-religious city, the story of Pavlov is both tragic and brave. The Hellfire Society, into which Pavlov is initiated by his father exists to deal with the final wishes of both the unconventional and irreligious after death.

Although this book is not for the faint hearted, the many characters that Pavlov encounters are exquisitely developed, they are obscene, violent and pathetic in this civil war of the 1970s. The tender dog theme throughout serves to lighten the human tragedy.

It is an unusual and ironic tale by a master of language. and is well written
Recommended for readers interested in the continual strife of the Middle East.

...20 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Rawi Hage Author Biography

Rawi Hage was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war during the 1970s and 1980s. He immigrated to Canada in 1992 and now lives in Montreal. His first novel, De Niro's Game, won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for the best English-language book published anywhere in the world in a given year, and has either won or been shortlisted for seven other major awards and prizes, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award. Cockroach was the winner of the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and a finalist for the Governor General's Award. It was also shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Award and the Giller Prize. His third novel, Carnival, told from the perspective of a taxi driver, was a finalist for ...

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