Saturday, 10 March 2007

Hannibal Lecter emerges

HANNIBAL RISING Thomas Harris, William Heinemann, 2006, 323 pages, hardback, NZ$55. [NZ: Random House] ISBN 9780434014088

Twenty-five years ago Hannibal Lecter first appeared as a minor but flamboyant character, already in prison, in Red Dragon (1981). It was The Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Anthony Hopkins’ performance in the subsequent film that made Hannibal the Cannibal a household name. Hannibal (1999) was a grotesque disappointment but with Hannibal Rising, Harris has regained some of the old verve, mainly because the novel follows Lecter through his boyhood and teenage years, creating a rich background only hinted at in the other three novels.

Lecter, it emerges, is the only son of a Lithuanian count, descended from Hannibal the Grim, who fought the invading Teutonic knights and built Castle Lecter. Other relatives are the Sforza and Visconti families. With kind parents, adoring servants and a perceptive tutor, Lecter is intellectually brilliant and secure. When he is eight, the German invasion tumbles their comfortable world into a violent nightmare. In the final brutal winter of the war, disaster strikes their family’s hunting lodge hideaway and then renegade Nazi collaborators descend on the remnants. Lecter is the only survivor, a starving mute, whose memory has sealed away the fate of his little sister.
Later, safe in France, Lecter regains his speech and commits his first murder. In the second section of the novel, now an 18 year old medical student, he plans his revenge on his sister’s killers, some of whom have escaped to France.

His tutor taught young Lecter how to create a palace in his mind, room by room, so he can remember everything. Shock has sealed some doors in his mind palace and the reader shares Lecter’s fragmentary memories. The FBI agent Clarice Starling once challenged Lecter to turn his high-powered perception on himself, “Why don’t you look at yourself and write down what you see? Or maybe you’re afraid to.” The high point of Hannibal Rising comes when Lecter at last finds a way to enter those closed rooms, with alarming results.

A psychiatrist, who helps young Lecter, feels that the “hemispheres of his brain are acting independently,” and it is fascinating to watch Lecter outwitting an early lie detector. There is no sign of the childhood torture of animals mentioned in Red Dragon. Nor does he seem to have six fingers on his left hand. Instead he is unfailingly kind to animals throughout Hannibal Rising, often releasing them. His cruelty is reserved for humans and often reaches Grand Guignol levels.

This novel was written after Harris had created the script for the film (due out in February 2007) and many of the encounters in this novel are dramatic set-pieces with cinematic surprises carefully set into them. Readers can also play spot-the-symbol as Harris creates visual images which will thread through the film: feathers spilling from a torn pillow, a chain round a child’s neck, and drops of blood falling on a white silk kimono.

Hannibal Rising is a weaker novel than The Silence of the Lambs, less focused than Red Dragon but superior to Hannibal. There are inconsistencies in the plot, like the Lecter family’s four years of undetected wartime survival, only two hours on foot from their castle and the main railway. The ease with which various characters travel from Lithuania to France is also unconvincing. The editors have missed such slips as ‘peddled’ for ‘pedalled,’ while a crucial oil drum suddenly becomes a barrel, and the black swans on Lecter’s moat are in the wrong part of the world.

A more important problem is the lack of characterisation. The people in this book lack personality. Lecter’s parents are nearly invisible, while Uncle Robert is little more than a faint copy of the painter Balthus. Like Balthus he has a Japanese wife. Lady Murasaki is certainly a fresh figure in the Harris canon but since most of her conversation is in the form of quotations from the Japanese classics, it is hard to see why three men in this story are obsessed with her. In the emotional shorthand of the cinema her hometown is, inevitably, Hiroshima.

As usual Harris’s villains are grotesque creatures, evil enough to deserve their fate but we learn almost nothing about their background. The only half-way interesting character is the French detective, Inspector Pascal Popil, an effective foil for Lecter as their odd relationship develops. By contrast the food in Hannibal Rising is depicted with much more precision and attention to detail. Lecter can make the skin creep even when he is merely carving a fish.

Harris is an excellent reporter and his story comes alive when he takes Lecter into the world of Parisian police stations, prisons and medical school dissecting rooms. Unfortunately Hannibal Rising simply has too many beheadings. Lecter’s sadistic glee becomes tiresome, especially when it becomes clear that the author is paving the way for more post-war adventures by the world’s most notorious psychiatrist.

Trevor Agnew

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