Written by Thomas Harris
Published by Delacorte Press
In the upper most echelons on my list of most hallowed monsters is a sickly brilliant cannibal psychiatrist made most famous by Anthony Hopkin’s unblinking eyes. The baroque operandi that oozes out of each carefully crafted movement, thought, and word escalates Dr. Lecter to the pantheon of the perfect terror organisms. Like Giger’s Alien and O’Brien’s Kong, Hannibal Lecter is a creature that effortlessly resonates of personal historic depth. The murkiness that surrounds them is both tantalizing and abhorred. Any distaste for the subject matter’s details ebbs quickly within the flow of one’s own curiosity, as these abominations are the base from which all nightmares are birthed. They represent the source. Or, at least, they are the purity inside all monsters. There are great tales reflected in the unflinching eyes of that killer, but who dares to look?
I have tracked Hannibal Lecter for a long time across a vast multimedia plain. First watching him in Silence of the Lambs, then moving onto gospel with both forms of Hannibal, in the order in which they were released. I’ve not read Red Dragon but have seen both films, Manhunt and Red Dragon.
But the feast is over, and a new meal is set before us. The entrée is changed, and having supped on its flesh, I am weary that not all of those who have been called to Harris’s previous Lecter communions will be all that fond of the unleavened loaf he is trying to pass as transmogrified meat.
Hannibal Rising takes away the form of the creature. Dr. Lecter is replaced and in his stead we get a series of childhood recollections that are to represent the formative years of his life. We glimpse into three separate portals in Hannibal’s mind. The story begins as he is a young privileged boy living in Castle Lecter in Lithuania as Hitler’s armies began to sweep across Europe. We jump from there into a post World War World where Hannibal is now the lone Lecter, scarred and mute. Finally, the story closes with a freshly adult Hannibal hunting out those who haunt his dreams.
In each instance, Thomas Harris is not light on any of the superfluous details that surround Hannibal, and ultimately will come to define him as a person. In this manner, Harris is attempting to write like abstract painters paint. He is giving you the clue to decipher what it is that you are looking at. He could very simply just write out a schematic of Lecter’s life going from A to B to C, but I don’t think that was the intent of the book.
Hannibal Rising feels like an addendum to the previous Lecter literature. It is filling in the cracks in the wall, trying to complete the picture of the nameless beast, without having to give the beast a name. Harris tries so hard to do this tangled task that he risks losing those readers who came looking for the monster that so fascinated them in the first place. Rising is not boring, but it’s content places it easily within such rudimentary forms of criticism.
The effete world from which Hannibal rose is marked with rich and wonderful characters. Harris breathes a forceful life into each and every one of them. At first, very little is said about Hannibal; instead we get him reflected off of this wonderful supporting cast. From Count Lecter, the uncle who takes the adolescent Hannibal in, to the count’s wife Lady Murasaki, a beautiful Japanese woman who not only becomes a focal point for Hannibal’s character but can easily be seen as the source for all of the grace that emanates from Hannibal later in life. The book is at its most effective when we get impressions of Hannibal from their eyes. It allows Hannibal to fill out and take on a human form.
Which is where the problem lies. Hannibal Rising is an attempt to explain the why Hannibal does the things that we see him do later in life. Harris does a great job of telling us, but while handling the shark in this manner, he accidentally loses some of its teeth. Once we see where the book is going, we end the mystery behind Lecter and are left with just a vengeful child moving through a series of acts designed to destroy those who wronged him. Hannibal devolves quickly in the book to a shallow vigilante. Devoid of his darkness, all we can do is just watch as an empty shell of Hannibal goes through these trite and clichéd motions.
I never saw Hannibal Lecter as a pitiful or saddened figure. I never thought there was anything more behind his eyes than a disdain for humanity in any of its lesser forms. Thus he ate the violinist to improve the symphony; he had a pedophile feed his own face to dogs. Hannibal Lecter is not a hero, he just has standards. That’s why he is such a fascinating specimen that warped set of rules he has for his life. In the previously books, we get glimpses of as to what they are, but they’re never completely spelled out for us. The acts just come rushing in at us and then we get a quick barb as to why. Often this is accompanied with a snaky or ironic flavor, which gives Lecter’s actions a subtle humorous aftertaste.
Hannibal Rising strips all of this away, and in the end does not even give us any hint of their creation. The book just says: “They” are why he eats people and this is what he did to “them”.
Hannibal Lecter is a gifted artist, orator, and medical student, from an old wealthy family in Lithuania. Something horrible happened to his family, it scarred him for life, and he took whatever justice was deserved for those actions into his own hands. Cannibalism, one of Lecter’s defining features, plays a role in all of it, but the involvement is as minor as a triangle’s part in the London Symphony.
Hannibal Rising is both maddening and far too simple. It is a sylvan quest where the trees are not as thick as they appear and when the trek is through, you see that the forest is not haunted, but misunderstood and misrepresented. I can’t say to disregard the book completely, as it does have some beautiful insights into Hannibal’s life, and Harris’ prose is like a puzzle. The problem is that the background into Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter’s life is not a puzzle grand enough to warrant a book. The History of Hannibal worked better when it was the idea of conjecture and lore. Seeing it all spelled out does the monster a disservice. Everyone is afraid of the darkness until they have a flashlight.
2 1/2 out of 5
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