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Beirut Hellfire Society
Cover of Beirut Hellfire Society
Beirut Hellfire Society
A Novel
by Rawi Hage
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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.

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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About the Author-
  • Rawi Hage was born in Beirut, Lebanon, lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war during the 1970s and 1980s, and now lives in Montreal. He is the author of three previous novels: De Niro's Game, which won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Cockroach, and Carnival. Beirut Hellfire Society was longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize, shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award. Hage's work has been translated into thirty languages.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    February 1, 2019

    Winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award, Canadian Lebanese author Hage sets his latest work in 1970s Beirut, where the son of an undertaker serves as witness to a collapsing country. After his fathers' death, peaceable bookworm Pavlov is asked to take up his fathers' work and help the secretive, religion-resisting Hellfire Society put to rest those denied burial for their religious beliefs or sexual practices.

    Copyright 2019 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    May 15, 2019
    An undertaker manages his grimly booming business in Beirut in 1978. Hage's fourth novel (Carnival, 2013, etc.) concerns Pavlov, the son of the longtime operator of the Beirut Hellfire Society, which surreptitiously moves the bodies of those killed by sectarian violence, regardless of religious or political affiliation, to a remote crematorium. When his father is himself killed by a bomb, Pavlov continues the business with a stolid determination. Following a year in his life, the novel is more episodic than plotted, constructed on piercing character studies of the corpses he's obliged to take care of and the surviving locals who leave Pavlov either bemused or heartsick. A self-declared libertine who catalogs his sexual transgressions in lurid detail wants his funeral to involve his body hanging above a massive party; another man wants his ashes spread in the same place as those of the gay son he disowned; a married woman wants to be secretly buried next to her lover; a woman whose entire family was killed becomes mute and shellshocked, camping on the steps of Pavlov's building. Pavlov himself is targeted by a Christian militiaman, and a life defined by death soon wears on him: He hears the voice of his dog talking to him, and he's increasingly entangled in the lives of his extended family members. (A cousin has a laugh like a hyena; man's animalistic nature, from Pavlov's nickname on down, is a recurring theme.) Despite the mordant mood, there's something vivifying for both the reader and Pavlov alike in these vignettes, a sense that our thoughts about death are the true crucible for our lives, even if our hero is left unimpressed with humanity by the experience. Asked by a militiaman what he believes in, he says flatly, "I believe in dogs." A well-turned seriocomic tale about death in a place where it's become inescapable.

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    August 5, 2019
    After his eccentric undertaker father is killed by a stray artillery shell, Pavlov, a brooding and isolated young man, assumes control of the family business in Beirut in this potent novel from Hage (De Niro’s Game). Pavlov’s new responsibilities are accompanied by an invitation to join the secretive Hellfire Society, an order of outcasts and libertines that relied on Pavlov’s father and his hidden crematorium to give them proper funerals. Told over the course of 1978, the story is crafted with a filmmaker’s touch, favoring bold characters and colorful drama to depict the human cost of Lebanon’s civil war. Pavlov accepts the Society’s invitation without hesitation, and soon becomes a makeshift fixer for Beirut’s broken-beyond-repair: a would-be assassin requests his ashes be mingled with his dead son’s; a wealthy widow plans to be exhumed and relocated to the side of her dead lover; the sons of a murdered communist hope to cremate their mother who was denied a grave by religious authorities. Pavlov’s strange responsibilities quickly bring him into conflict with a disturbed militiaman and a violent drug dealer, challenging the carefully cultivated detachment he wears as armor. Hage’s novel is a brisk, surreal, and often comic plunge into surviving the absurd nihilism of war.

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Rawi Hage
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