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.