Friday, January 05, 2007

Notes on Hannibal Rising

"War crimes do not end with the war, Hannibal." Popil paused to read the advertising on each facet of the ashtray. "Perhaps I understand your situation better than you think."

"What is my situation, Inspector?"

"You were orphaned in the war. You lived in an institution, living inside yourself, your family dead. And at last, at last your beautiful stepmother made up for all of it." Working for the bond, Popil put his hand on Hannibal's shoulder. "The very scent of her takes away the smell of the camp. And then the butcher spews filth at her. If you killed him, I could understand. Tell me. Together we could explain to a magistrate..."

Hannibal moved back in his chair, away from Popil's touch.

"The very scent of her takes away the smell of the camp. May I ask if you compose verse, Inspector?"
(from Thomas Harris's Hannibal Rising)

It's interesting that though Hannibal Lecter himself remains faintly amused by efforts to analyse and “explain” him, readers and critics continue to complain about the demystifying of this most famous of fictional cannibalistic doctors. The Lecter cult has become quite the albatross around the neck of his creator, Thomas Harris. Fans of Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs were so taken by the idea of Lecter as a monster whose actions "couldn't be explained" that they closed their minds to anything that might resemble a deconstruction. After all, wasn’t the character meant to exist in his own void, to tower imperiously above Harris’s more routine psychopaths such as Francis Dolarhyde and Jame Gumb?

Such thinking shaped some of the response to Harris's last book, the very ambitious (and very florid) Hannibal, which gave us short flashbacks to Lecter’s traumatic early life. It will probably also shape the response to his latest, the terribly titled Hannibal Rising (surely even Behind the Mask, which was the book's working title, would have been better?), a prequel that details Lecter’s childhood, adolescence and early youth.

Having just finished Hannibal Rising, I can't agree with the view that Harris is providing a summary explanation of his most famous character; a straightforward "this is why he became what he became". Little in the book suggests simplistic cause-and-effect. (Mild spoiler warning) Lecter's cannibalism, for instance, may be the direct result of soldiers killing and eating his baby sister Mischa; but the cannibalism is just a manifestation of an insanity that runs much deeper.

Despite all the exposition in the new book, the monster remains in some fundamental way just as unknowable as ever. When we first meet him he's eight years old, standing with Mischa near a castle moat, throwing bread to black swans, and there's something immediately unsettling about the scene. Long before he and his family are visited by horrors from the world outside, we already sense that he's a strange little boy, certainly a frighteningly precocious one. "Hannibal could always read, or it seemed that way," we're told: his nanny read to him when he was two, he lolled against her and looked at the words on the page, and soon after she found him reading aloud by himself. At the age of six, he discovered Euclid's Elements and started measuring the height of towers by the length of their shadows, "following instructions which he said came directly from Euclid himself". (If such a child isn't already primed for a career in psychopathy, who is?)

Some of Harris's methods for conveying Hannibal's precocity (the conversations between the boy and his tutor Mr Jakov, for instance) are trite, but this comes with the territory. Lecter's erudition is often at odds with the conventions of this genre, and throughout his writing career Harris has had to balance the many references to High Art (William Blake, Dante and such) with the demands of his pulp readership. Consequently, there are awkward passages in all his books – passages that would seem pretentious/obscure to the "casual reader" on the one hand, and ludicrous or simplistic to the more experienced reader on the other hand.

As a Harris loyalist, I managed to isolate the things I enjoyed about this book from its more tedious bits (much the same way Lecter moves between the rooms of his memory palace), but a warning to less tolerant readers: there is some seriously overwrought writing in here, including an exchange between Hannibal and his Japanese stepmother that has sentences like “I see you and the cricket sings in concert with my heart” and “My heart hops at the sight of you, who taught my heart to sing”. Oh yes. (Imagine Anthony Hopkins saying those things.) There's also a climactic scream that's just as cringe-inducing as Vader/Anakin's "NOOOO!" was in the final scene of Revenge of the Sith.

But despite the occasional heavyhandedness, I'm pleased that Harris still has it in him to produce the droll humour on view, for instance, in a scene where an eccentric village barber out walking his dog discovers a bodiless head:

"You should have performed your duty on the lawn of Felipe, where no one was looking," M. Rubin said. "Here you might incur a fine. You have no money. It would fall to me to pay."

In front of the post office was a postbox on a pole. The dog strained toward it against the leash and raised his leg.

Seeing a face above the mailbox, Rubin said, "Good evening, Monsieur," and to the dog, "Attend you do not befoul Monsieur!" The dog whined and Rubin noticed there were no legs beneath the mailbox on the other side.
Harris’s supplying of a back-story for Lecter is being seen as a cynical, money-motivated exercise encouraged by Hollywood (the film version of Hannibal Rising, which he worked on simultaneously, is ready for release – it's widely felt that the book is more a cold-blooded novelisation of a movie screenplay than a work of artistic integrity.). There may be some truth to this, and it's also true that Hannibal Rising doesn't approach the quality of his best work. But it still is very much a Thomas Harris book, written with the care and attention to detail one associates with the man; not a lazily thrown together hack project. Read on its own terms, without the Lecter baggage attached to each page, it's even a pretty good thriller – even if it contains some of the writing excesses that were on display in Hannibal.

Irrelevant P.S. This is the second book I’ve read in the last few days that has a “Rising” in the title, and now I’m having Aamir Khan-as-Mangal Pandey nightmares.

(Earlier post on Thomas Harris here.)

4 comments:

  1. Haven't read Hannibal Rising but find the obsession with deconstructing Lecter slightly unhealthy.Was always much more fascinated by Harris's 'sane yet can navigate "memory palaces"'characters:Will Graham and Clarice Starling.Reminds me of Capote and Perry Smith..two sides of a coin and all that

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  2. Yes, Will Graham is possibly my favourite Harris character too, and Red Dragon my favourite among his books. And I can understand the argument of those who feel Lecter worked much better as a supporting character than as the lead. But once Harris made the decision to move away from the moral grounding provided by Graham/Starling to something darker and more amoral in Hannibal, I think the book should have been judged on its own terms. That didn't always happen.

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  3. Jabberwock, since you like scary books, a link to Stephen King's favorite books he read in 2006 which mention 1 or 2 creepy ones worth checking out. (http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,1567780,00.html) I find King's lists to be a good mass market barometer because for all his money spinning fame and exclusivity, he disarmingly becomes everyguy when consuming pop culture.

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  4. Thanks! Actually, I want to read Lisey's Story first - it's been strongly recommended...

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