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Wednesday, 24 January 2007 00:00

Revenge rising

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Well, dear readers, modern pop fiction’s most famous killer, Hannibal the Cannibal, has quietly returned. For those of you who thought you had seen the last of Thomas Harris’ deadly (but cultured) gourmet murderer, brace yourselves.

 

You may know about his bloody early career (Red Dragon), and his “Grand Guignol” rampage after his escape from prison (The Silence of the Lambs) ... a spree, which concluded with his grisly romp from Florence, Italy, to New York and into Virginia (Hannibal). However, there is one singular blank in Hannibal Lecter’s biography – where did he come from? And more to the point, what forces (like William Blake’s tiger) made him a ruthless but detached psychopath?

Harris paints a graphic picture of the 8-year-old Hannibal as a privileged child of wealth — the direct descendant of Hannibal the Grim (1365-1428) and the son of a Russian aristocrat. Young Hannibal is intelligent, gifted and totally devoted to his sister Mischa. The two children live in a dreamlike world of art with private tutors and pampered indulgence on the luxurious Lecter estate until the second day of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The Lecters are caught between warring factions (Russian, German and Allied forces) and are forced to flee deep into the Russian forest where they take refuge in a hunting lodge. It is here that Hannibal’s world explodes.

Ironically, the family’s final destruction comes not from Russian tanks and German paratroopers but from a lawless group of local villagers (Hiwis) led by a brutal outlaw named Grutas. Pretending to be paramedics, Grutas and his followers loot and murder at will, frequently shifting loyalties between the Germans and Russians. After pillaging Lecter Castle and the hunting lodge, Grutas kills all of the survivors, including Hannibal’s sister, Mischa. In a nightmarish sequence that the young Hannibal suppresses, his sister is cooked and eaten by Grutas and his men.

Although Hannibal survives the massacre of his family, he is unable to speak and suffers from recurring dreams of his sister’s death. Found by Russian troops, Hannibal is sent to an orphanage where his uncle, Robert Lecter, a noted artist, eventually identifies and rescues him. The mute Hannibal suddenly finds himself in his uncle’s home where a stunningly beautiful Japanese woman called Madam Murasaki, Robert Lecter’s mistress, tends him. It is here that he gradually regains the power of speech. By the age of 13, he is a star student with a remarkable memory. Slowly, he reconstructs his fragmented past, including the names and faces of the men who killed his sister. There are five of them.

Hannibal also grows to love Madam Murasaki, and after his uncle’s death, she becomes his lover, confidante and “moral compass.” The young Hannibal also kills his first man at 13 — a local butcher who has the poor judgment to insult Madam Murasaki.

Hannibal Rising is a chronicle of revenge. As the young Lecter methodically tracks down each member of the “Hiwis band,” the narrative acquires a chilling and relentless quality. However, there is more going on in this novel than a record of retribution. Gradually, as Hannibal unearths his past, he discovers aspects of his own character that are more akin to evil than the prey he pursues. Certainly, there is a final self-revelation that may cause even Hannibal Lecter to hide his face in shame!

Also, this novel is rich in wonderful imagery. The black swans that claim a territorial right to the marshes around Lecter Castle possess the same defiance as young Hannibal — implacable, fearless and unreasonable. An aviary filled with ortolan birds on the Seine, near a café where a gourmet cook drowns, roasts and serves the birds for “special” customers. There’s the smell of jasmine and green tea, the soft chimes of Japanese music and the cadence of a haiku. And the last moments of a condemned murderer as he is prepared for the guillotine. The cold, precise logic of anatomy in a medical classroom devoted to cadaver dissection (where young Hannibal proves to be a gifted surgeon).

There is also a Lecter nemesis – police inspector Popil, a man as relentless as Hannibal; however, Popil serves legal retribution. At times, he seems as obsessed with Hannibal as Les Miserables’ determined Javert. Eventually, however, it becomes evident that Popil and Hannibal have much in common since both are tormented by secrets and suppressed memories that could destroy them.

Just as I finished this review, I was amazed to discover that the film version of Hannibal Rising (tentatively entitled “The Young Hannibal: Behind the Mask”) has been completed and will be released on Feb. 9, 2007.

Completed in England, France and Germany, this film does not have any recognizable (American) names in the cast, and except for the noted Chinese actress Gong Li (“Farewell, My Concubine”), as Madam Murasaki and Gaspard Ulliel (“A Very Long Engagement”) as young Hannibal, the large cast is relatively “unknown.” It would seem that Thomas Harris (who wrote the film script) chose not to play the Hollywood casting game this time.

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