...'grim' is, somehow, the last word one might use to describe this book. Set in 1978, in the early years of the Lebanese Civil War, it draws on Hage’s antic, many-voiced gifts to make a chronicle of war and unrelenting death into a provocative entertainment ... It might be more accurate to call this author irreverent rather than funny, but the qualities obviously overlap ... Hage doesn’t shy from descriptions like that of bombs turning humans into 'butcher’s meat — chuck steak, rib, lower sirloin, flank, shoulder.' There is more than a dash of magic in his approach as well ... His style is loose and extravagant enough — a bit looser here than in some of his previous work — that when he does deliver a hard epigrammatic truth, it hits with special force.
Despite its preoccupation with death, Beirut Hellfire Society crackles with the kinetic energy of a dancer, thanks to the stories of the fellow misfits Pavlov encounters ... The absurd volume of deaths is also tempered by Hage’s signature dark humour and stylistic playfulness ... is also propelled by the motion of death, which Pavlov observes over and over again in all its gruesome and touching moments.
What makes Rawi Hage’s new novel distinct among similar efforts, and worth reading — transcending, as it does, a few moments of overwriting and sloppy summarizing — is the daring way the author illustrates the great and insane freedom that is actually possible in the most dire of circumstances ... Pavlov is an irresistible lead ... In reality, the 'hellfire society' promised by the novel’s title never pulls together as the sort of phantasmagoria you might imagine in a book by a postmodern stylist like Don DeLillo or Thomas Pynchon. Hage is too wedded to a certain understandable verisimilitude, and the register he aims for, when he goes big, is poetic rather than systemic or a more muscular abstraction ... The book is a love note to Beirut, a lament for war, but above all a story of human frailty and our dogged, mammalian battle against failure.
The vignettes are told in a lyrical style that Hage describes as 'organic' and attributes to his own sense of inadequacy when he first started writing in English ... With death front and centre, Beirut Hellfire Society is a treatise on living with war ... has a timeless quality common to Hage’s previous novels.
A book set during a war that ended over 25 years ago could be called an historical novel. But Beirut Hellfire Society expresses an immediacy that pushes it out of the genre; it feels like it’s happening now, and in a way it is, as violence shatters cultures and pushes people around the globe ... a book about life and death, and humanity, including dogs, whom Pavlov considers more ideally human than humans ... Despite the meanness that Hage’s living characters suffer at the hands of each other, and although the tone of the prose bends toward the sardonic, his story never descends to mean-spiritedness, for Pavlov’s generosity to the dead touches the living ... Hage conveys tenderly the loneliness of the human body when stripped of its doings: its physical occupations, its fleshly contacts.
Hage’s more pointed suggestion is that acts of violence are the result of a person’s embracing a particular identity. This usually means a sectarian identity, though Hage is also interested in how his characters define themselves as men (his female characters are notably short on self-reflection). They are caught in a peculiarly Lebanese dilemma: either accept one’s role in a community defined by its antagonism toward others, or else become invisible, impotent, disposable ... If sectarian identities are intractable and rigid, Hage’s new novel is a parade of deviants ... Hage has some heretical fun with this mix-and-match approach to religious mythology, and he’s obviously declaring his own affinities with the misfits and outcasts of the world. But while his novel has episodic pleasures, it never coheres. The book is structured as a series of digressions, somewhat in the style of The Arabian Nights, as Pavlov bounces off the oddballs who swerve in and out of his path. But these encounters only ever accumulate detail rather than momentum or interest (which can also be a problem with Hage’s awkwardly unfurling sentences).
... a wild, viscerally exciting and often bleakly funny novel of ideas. Comparisons aren’t always useful, but this reviewer thought of a work portraying a very different time and place but equally unflinching in its de-romanticizing of a subject most of us prefer to avoid: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. There are also touches of the Latin American magic realism Hage loves.
... comes across as a series of loosely connected vignettes. Time progresses erratically. Weeks and months pass when nothing happens apart from the numbing routines of war, death, and funerals ... Hage is nothing if not a very intriguing, articulate writer who is not afraid of taking risks. His Beirut comes across as something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of Hell—wild and disturbing, containing a wide variety of tortured souls and any number ways to make them suffer. Pavlov’s meandering thoughts are complex and fascinating. In Beirut Hellfire Society, Hage has produced a unique, thought-provoking, and compelling novel ... As often happens, there are some errors in the book. Most are very minor, but there is one major howler that many readers will immediately pick up on ... Luckily this error is quickly forgotten as the pace picks up and Pavlov’s world becomes more compelling. But it is still very disappointing, especially coming from someone who claims to revere ancient Greece so much.
... an intimate glimpse at the effects of civil war that challenges social and religious norms ... The narrative pulls no punches in depicting the violence and depravity that war births, and cynicism runs throughout ... 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.
... more episodic than plotted ... 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 ... A well-turned seriocomic tale about death in a place where it’s become inescapable.
... potent ... 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 ... Hage’s novel is a brisk, surreal, and often comic plunge into surviving the absurd nihilism of war.