Post-party, El-Marquis also wishes to be cremated, and the desire to avoid traditional burial is a recurring theme in the novel. “Earth and the ground are overrated,” Pavlov remembers his father saying. “It is smoke that matters, that fleeing gesture of escape that reaches beyond lands and borders and claimed territories.”
Hage’s childhood played out against the first half or so of the Lebanese war. He left Beirut in 1982, when he was 18, and settled in Montreal, where he still lives, in 1992. His fictions have been set in Lebanon and Canada. His first novel, “De Niro’s Game” (2006), about two Christian friends growing up during the Lebanese conflict, won the International Dublin Impac Literary Award, one of the world’s most lucrative book prizes. “Beirut Hellfire Society” is the third of his novels to be nominated for the Giller Prize, Canada’s top English-language literary honor.
Muslim and Christian groups fight against each other and among themselves in this new novel, and factionalism sits in the center of Hage’s satirical cross hairs. “Everyone deals with this place as if it’s theirs,” he writes. “Everyone is everything but Lebanese.”
In one of the book’s funniest moments, a scene that could have come straight out of Monty Python, a priest and a sheikh stand above a grave for three hours, “trading rituals and prayers” in order to “outmaneuver the other so that he could recite his religion’s prayer last.”
This sense of absurdity is joined by a Rabelaisian streak. At one fantastical point, the corpse of El-Marquis asks a mirror to flatter him, and a “voice rose out of the abyss of the bathroom’s drain and screamed back”; what it screams is a staccato page-and-a-half’s worth of words that would make George Carlin blush.
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. Dogs talk to Pavlov. (Fair warning that animals in the novel ultimately fare little better than humans.)