This is one those novels that will change the way you look at death and burial methods – and Beirut. Rawi Hage has managed to write something profound, beautiful, moving and joyful about a place as depressing as Beirut in wartime, and a situation as sad as the people of that city who are casualties of the war. Believe me, I had entirely no interest in Lebanon or Beirut or Middle Eastern wars. But then I bought this because it was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2018. Longlisted – I think it should have won. Why and how could Hage have made something so tender – yes, tender – on this subject, the life of a man whose unenviable job it is to cremate people in 1978 Beirut? This is the time of the Lebanese Civil War which lasted from 1975 to 1990 and resulted in an estimated 120,000 fatalities. So, “Pavlov” the Russian-named undertaker and protagonist of the story, is cremating a mere handful of the many dead, some of whom are buried in a graveyard right across from the building in which he lives. All in all – a horrible situation. So much death. But, as the line in John Keats’s 1819 poem Ode on a Grecian Urn goes, truth is beauty – beauty, truth.
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (lines 46–50)
Like Keats’ “thou”, the urn, Beirut is a ruined city in those years, razed by bombs and bullets, where people scrape by and deal with death all day, every day.
It was cold that morning – the cold of soldiers marching towards battle, stomping across farmers’ fields, cold in the way vengeful villagers steal dead soldiers’ shoes after defeat in battle, cold like that rosy dawn in which the wounded trip over vegetables, roots and dead branches, bruised, shot, stabbed and hallucinating of a wedding with a farmer’s girl who will lead them towards their warrior heaven.” (p.7)
Today it is your neighbour who fights or gets killed, tomorrow it may be your lover, and the day after, it could you yourself who will be lying in the wooden box and then in the grave. And while that might be “in the midst of woe” and of a “generation wasted”, Hage finds love, passion, caring, courage, and beauty, even in corpses. He depicts beauty, and, I suspect, the truth of the situation – since he grew up in Lebanon during that war – and the truth, therefore, becomes beauty.
Pavlov the undertaker
Pavlov is an extraordinary character: his father is a member of the “Beirut Hellfire Society”, a secretive organization of which the members cremate people at their own request. The organization has to be secretive, since Islam strictly forbids cremation, and in those days it was not a wide-spread practice in Roman Catholicism and Judaism, either. That’s what the title of the book refers to. The members of the Society have hidden facilities and equipment to cremate bodies, often the bodies that no-one wants to bury, or deal with, but it is not something that they advertise. These people have been abandoned by the clergy, the state or their families. Sometimes, they know this and make arrangements in advance. Pavlov learns all about the cremation business from his father, and when his father dies, Pavlov steps into his shoes.
Here’s the thing: Like in all religions and death ceremonies, Pavlov’s father follows the rituals of mourning for the dead people who he cremates as much as those who are buried. He shows them the respect that they didn’t get in life, dances for them, and weeps for them. It is sad, this business of digging up corpses from graves where they are rotting, and finally letting the fire of the furnace return them to the sun and the sky. Pavlov loves his father, and he has to cremate him too. Hage has a marvellous ability to depict all the complex facets of love, like in this paragraph, where Pavlov looks at the corpse of his father:
“He studied the downcast moustache drawing a line around his father’s open mouth below a triangular Byzantine nose, long and curved, and thin at its tip. Pavlov wondered about the singing, and about the burning of stray corpses, unclaimed and bloated, about orphaned cadavers and their capacity for music and dance long lost. My father has done this before, alone. What strength, Pavlov thought, what willpower must have been required to lift the heavy bodies and load them into the car. Pavlov examined his father’s shoulders, strong from digging the earth and carrying hardened, blue bodies; and his father’s fingers, infiltrated by dust beneath the nails.” (p.6)
Poetry out of war
Hage turns the misery of Beirut into poetry, describing the sea lapping its shores on the one side, and the Lebanon Mountains with its fir-covered hills cradling the city. He writes more, page for page, about the lives of the characters, than about their deaths and funerals. Those lives are filled with trauma, grief and revenge – but he also describes them delicately, with feeling and unusual metaphors.
“Rifles voiced their menacing bangs in the distance. Battles underway, Pavlov said out loud. Cadavers would again glide along a burial road, wings folded unlike birds’, feet joined together unlike soldiers’ boots, faces immobile unlike actors’ – powdered, preserved, packaged and delivered, to be consumed by earth, gnawed by vermin and vanish again.
Not only could Pavlov estimate the frequency of upcoming burials by the intensity of the bombs, he could predict the age of the dead from the location of the fighting and the targets the bombs struck. When a bombardment was directed toward the front lines, the majority of corpses would be unmarried kids, which meant the dancing type of burial. But when the bombs were aimed at civilian neighbourhoods, the processions would be the slow and solemn kind.” (p.186)
Have you ever read anything so effectively described in terms of what it is not, like Hage does here? The negativity of the whole situation is expressed in every word, every contrasting phrase – Not like boots, not like actors. Powdered, preserved and packaged, but consumed, gnawed and vanished.
Moments of mysticism
Carrying this burden of care that has been thrust on him, Pavlov is a lonely man, whose family are a bunch of crooks and whose niece is quite mad (he calls her The Hyena). The Hyena causes his only friend, a dog that he finds in the graveyard, to be killed, and a woman in shock who cowers on his staircase, to be beaten up. The people that surround him, the members of the Beirut Hellfire Society and everyone else, are all in a way driven mad by the war.
Hage sometimes slips in a little bit of mysticism or magic (we must remember this novel is set in the Middle East, where fantasy and folklore is an ancient literary tradition), but subtly. For instance, Pavlov begins to lose his grip on reality – he talks to the dead dog and the dog talks back. This also occurs in scenes like this one:
“Right on cue, the captain showed up and calmed the sailors down. Both started to laugh—and then the younger sailor laughed for such a long time, he became hysterical and his laughter hit the waves and skimmed the water and hovered and stayed there for a while until it abruptly stopped.” (p.153)
But apart from these few – shall we say, “waking dreams” – Hage is relentlessly realistic and truthful. The characters, the dead and their histories, the city and the war, everything is so clear, smacks so much of life as you know it, that I could see it all in my mind’s eye, taste it, smell it, hear it. It is a book ready to be made into a screenplay, and filmed.
“First there was fire. Then there was wind. And then there was dust that rose from where the house had stood and spread into the valleys. That night, echoes of a howl rose from the valley and up into the clouds, and toward the elsewhere of the stars.” (p.270)
A book of mourning
Was it hard to read? No. It was an absolutely absorbing experience. There is hardly a line in the book that cannot be quoted for its impact. The image that he creates of Beirut and its people, can be also applied to the novel as a whole: – “Beauty is truth, truth – beauty,” that’s all you need to know about this one.
In the Acknowledgements, in small print, which most readers would ignore, Hage writes that “this is a book of mourning for the many who witnessed senseless wars, and for those who perished in those wars.” That reminded me of the words of François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, who said:
“Il est défendu de tuer; tout meurtrier est puni, à moins qu’il n’ait tué en grande compagnie, et au son des trompettes.”
“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” (From Rights, 1771)
True, that, and terrible to think of. Beauty and death and war – with and without the sound of trumpets – this combination is what makes this a remarkable book. Read it! Then read everything else Hage has written. Going by this book, the acclaim that has been accorded him is well deserved and you will not be disappointed.
About Rawi Hage
Rawi Hage is a Lebanese-Canadian writer and photographer based in Canada, who was born in Beirut in 1964 (which would’ve made him 11 years old when the Lebanese Civil War broke out. He lived through nine years of the Lebanese civil war and moved to New York City in 1984, and in 1991, to Montreal, Canada. He has published the novels De Niro’s Game (2006), Cockroach (2008), Carnival (2012) and Beirut Hellfire Society (2018). Interestingly, he is the common-law partner of novelist Madeleine Thien, author of the acclaimed novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, that I reviewed here. Theirs must be a fascinating household.
About the header:
An aerial panoramic view of Beirut in the last third of the 19th century (Source: Wikipedia, This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.04096.)–
Utterly beautiful review. I am going to read it now.