Undertaking the Impossible

Reviewed by Lisa Grekul

Rawi Hage’s newest novel—his fourth, following De Niro’s Game (2006), Cockroach (2008), and Carnival (2012), all critically acclaimed and lauded by jurors of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Giller Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Awards—draws readers into the Lebanese Civil War, nine years of which the author himself experienced before immigrating to Canada in 1992. It demands that we consider whether it is possible to find order, or some kind of meaning, in the midst of chaos and despair.

Death, an obvious constant for those living through the war, is particularly inescapable for Pavlov, the novel’s main character, not only because he bears witness to the relentlessness of falling bombs and daily funeral processions passing below his home, but also because, the son of an undertaker, he becomes an undertaker himself after his father dies. In addition to inheriting the business, hearse included (which he calls the “deathmobile”), Pavlov assumes his father’s role in a secret collective by performing cremations in an undisclosed, mountainous location outside Beirut, both for those with explicit wishes to have their earthly remains immolated and for those nameless, faceless bodies who otherwise would not receive the final liberation of fire. More than a caretaker for the dead, however, Pavlov tends to the living, too. True to his name’s intimation that he has a fondness for dogs—“Pavlov,” in fact, was a nickname affixed to him in childhood after he inadvertently trained a stray to expect food every time church bells rang for a funeral—he feeds Rex and Barbus. After a woman, having lost every member of her family in a bombing on Pavlov’s street, takes up residence in the stairwell of his building, he bathes and feeds her—nurtures her through her extended (though not permanent) state of madness.

Madness, as rampant in the novel as death, manifests itself in the many characters whose stories are embedded in Pavlov’s. Some characters he meets through his work with the Hellfire Society, most notably “El Marquis” (so named because of his similarities to the Marquis de Sade) and the “Bohemian” (obsessed with, among other things, photographing a falling bomb mid-air); others are members of his family, including two shady uncles (undertakers themselves, known for raiding graves for the valuables of the dead) and two unhinged cousins, Pierre (described repeatedly as “idiotic”) and Salwa (recognizable for her hyena laugh, consistently unleashed in the most inappropriate of moments). Collectively, the stories within Pavlov’s story present a world of corruption and violence in which sex and death are inextricably tethered. Salwa frequently, and loudly, takes her lover, “Son of Mechanic,” in the local cemetery; El Marquis and the Bohemian engage in graphic, drug-fuelled orgies in attempts to at once escape and confront the inevitability of their “extinction.”

In some ways, Pavlov is more observer than participant in the absurdity of his time and place, at least insofar as he does not engage in the excesses of the hedonists he encounters. As the Bohemian explains to Pavlov near the novel’s end, “You are torn between the spectacle and participating in it.” That said, Pavlov is far from immune to the disease of war. After Rex is decapitated, he has two-way conversations with the dog. He beats Son of Mechanic nearly to death, and murders Faddoul, the “scumbag” drug dealer who “still owed [his] father for the burial of Faddoul’s parents.” But in a place and time of unending tragedy, rather like the stories of the Greeks that Pavlov admires, distinctions between right and wrong, sanity and insanity, cease to exist. Then again, it may be the case that they remain for Pavlov. Son of Mechanic killed Rex, after all, and once shot at Pavlov, narrowly missing him. Faddoul is on fire—he inadvertently sets himself alight in the process of burning two chickens alive—when Pavlov puts three bullets into his body and then puts the chickens out of their misery. “Mercy,” he says: “mercy to all creatures.” Not long before he falls victim to Faddoul’s avenging brothers and meets his own fiery end, Pavlov shouts from his balcony, “No one is important, none of you! There you all are, lying beneath the dirt, competing with one another, hoping to be remembered. Fools! . . . Dead fools!” Even as Rex’s ghost repeats his words and the two dance, raising questions about Pavlov’s grasp on reality, his words offer too much wisdom and clarity to be those of a madman.

To be sure, the death-dance of man and dog is macabre, in part because it foreshadows the fact that Pavlov, literally unable to escape death, will soon, along with Barbus, be gone and forgotten. But in an unexpectedly optimistic turn, the novel’s “Epilogue” (beginning with three words: “[t]he war ended”) delivers news that he has been remembered. His great-niece, whose grandparents moved to Sweden during the war, returns to Pavlov’s abandoned house, which she renovates. Ingrid smokes and drinks and dances “above the cemetery road” where funeral processions once passed. The home and this history of its inhabitants are literally and figuratively restored as she brings joy and innocence to a place where neither seemed possible. It is a satisfying, if swift, ending—or rather the sign of a new beginning—that points to what can emerge, phoenix-like, from the ashes of war.

This review “Undertaking the Impossible” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 12 Feb. 2020. Web.

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