The Next Chapter

Rawi Hage reflects on why death is for the living in Beirut Hellfire Society

The Montreal-based novelist speaks with Shelagh Rogers about his latest novel.
Rawi Hage is the author of Beirut Hellfire Society. (CBC)

In Beirut Hellfire SocietyRawi Hage, the Lebanese-born, Montreal-based author of acclaimed novels De Niro's Game and Cockroach is thinking about the meaning — and meaninglessness — of death. 

Beirut Hellfire Society revolves around Beirut-based Pavlov, a 20-year-old undertaker and his encounter with a secret society that gives proper burials to those denied them for reasons such as being an atheist or being gay. The novel examines what it's like to live through war, what it's like to face death and what it means to feel alive. 

Beirut Hellfire Society is on the shortlist for the 2018 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize shortlist and the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

Belief and convention

"Pavlov is a character that is torn between his own disbelief in religion and tradition, all out of duty and out of love for his father. He is accepted to become part of the Beirut Hellfire Society because the group hired his father to conduct alternative burials in the Middle East and particularly in Lebanon. Within these regions, burial has to be done within religious institutions. There's no secular burial spaces, so this particular society decided to live outside of religiosity."

Ritualistic meaning

"Rituals are for the living, and not necessarily for the dead. Each culture deals with their death rituals differently. There is an unusual ritual that exists in Lebanese culture when unmarried men or unmarried women die. A marriage ceremony is replicated. During the funeral, musicians are invited to play wedding songs, very upbeat songs, and then there's dancing with the coffin. It's mimicking, in a way, marriage dances."

Rawi Hage's comments have been edited for length and clarity.