Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Making of a Monster

So, after being sucked in by all the media hype surrounding Thomas Harris’ new novel, Hannibal Rising--his fourth book to feature psychiatrist and serial killer Hannibal Lecter--I finally had a chance to read the work. And as a big follower of Harris’ storytelling, I am relieved to say that my anticipation was rewarded. Rising, a sequel to the other three Hannibal outings, is a bloody tale of childhood horrors and modern retribution that could only star a sociopath.

There are a few significant points worth making about this book:

• It’s a very different sort of work from its predecessors. The story here is much less complex and much less cerebral. Rising reads more like a screenplay, which isn’t surprising, since a film version of the novel is already being shot, with a release planned in February of next year.

• It is also a much bloodier book than I had anticipated. Hannibal Rising is split into two narrative strands. The first section introduces Hannibal at age 8, living with his family in war-scarred Lithuania in 1944. The Lecter clan reside in some splendor deep within a forest. They’re descendents of Hannibal the Grim--an obvious reference to the Brothers Grimm, and an appropriate one, since this section reads like a monstrous fairy tale. As readers of Harris’ last book, Hannibal (1999), will already know, the protagonist’s sister Mischa was eaten by a group of brigands in the winter, and that, coupled with the death of his family and tutor Mr. Jakov, started to shape young Lecter’s psyche. The other factor molding Hannibal’s personality is his “memory palace,” where he escapes (at least mentally) from the reality around him. In Rising, we see the development of that refuge as Lecter--having already blanked out his sibling’s horrific fate--avoids venturing into the woodlands surrounding their home. Left alone in the world, mute, and beating up bullies in an orphanage, Hannibal is finally rescued by his uncle Robert Lecter and his aunt, the very Japanese Lady Murasaki, and transplanted to Paris.

In the novel’s second section, we watch Hannibal being educated and falling in love with Lady Murasaki. That relationship becomes so strong, that after a local butcher, Paul Momund, insults his aunt, Lecter takes his revenge in a most brutal and bloody manner. Which, of course, places the boy under police scrutiny, as he advances through medical school and becomes an anatomy prodigy, thanks to the artistic talents he’s developed at the side of Lady Murasaki.

• Also in the second part, Harris enters Ian Fleming territory. Leaving behind the fairy-tale atmospherics, the author has young Lecter rediscovering memories of Mischa’s murder and embarking on a revenge trail, which sends him across Europe and North America, and eventually puts him face to face with the brigands, led by the vile psychopath Vladis Grutas. Hannibal shows no mercy as he tracks down these men who deal in prostitution, kidnapping of women, and sexual slavery, as well as post-war art smuggling (which includes their theft of the Lecter art collection).

To be honest, I don’t really care what other critics have to say about Hannibal Rising, because for me the novel provided such a wonderful opportunity to be back in the embrace of Harris’ prose and his dark, witty imagination. However, a few reviews in the UK have stood out from the rest.

First, full marks go to Mark Timlin at the Independent on Sunday. In a review titled “Sympathy for the Devil,” he opines:
In the end, the story of Hannibal’s early life is tinged with a great sadness as the reader comes to realise that Hannibal Lecter the monster was created by circumstance rather than choice, and, even though his later actions are far beyond the pale, knowing what caused them, half a world away and a lifetime before, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for that little boy who so loved feeding the swans.
Meanwhile, The Times of London offers a split opinion on the book. Erica Wagner on Saturday called it indigestible and focused on Harris needing French lessons. Her colleague, John Sutherland, followed up in the Sunday Times, making clear that the novel was more to his taste. Sutherland writes:
This book has been strictly embargoed (although, amusingly, the Swedes misread the publisher’s instruction and released it prematurely--prompting a small invasion of fanatic day-trippers). Bootleg copies have been available on e-bay, at vast cost. There was, however, little point in even the most devoted fan jumping the gun. The main outline of the plot of Hannibal Rising (“at last, the evolution of his evil is revealed”) was substantially disclosed in earlier works.
And in the Sunday Observer, good old Peter Guttridge delves into the subtext with depth and a remarkable insight, before concluding:
This novel may be flawed, but Lecter remains a powerful, iconic creation, especially thanks to Anthony Hopkins’s screen incarnation. Lecter has been compared to Milton’s Lucifer and Goethe’s Mephistopheles. But here, as the novel ends, he is more like Dracula, coming out of the forests of eastern Europe to bring his evil to an unsuspecting west.
That’s the word from London. It will be interesting to watch how Hannibal Rising is received on the other side of the Atlantic.

READ MORE:First Bite,” by Anthony Lane (The New Yorker); “From Soup to Guts, the Making of a Foodie,” by Janet Maslin (The New York Times); “Musings on Thomas Harris’ ‘Hannibal Rising,’” by David Montgomery (Crime Fiction Dossier).

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