A Monster in the Making
Thursday, February 8, 2007
By Thomas Harris
Delacorte. 327 pp. $27.95
When last seen in the novels of Thomas Harris, Dr. Hannibal Lecter -- clinical psychiatrist, criminal mastermind and grisly gourmand -- was dancing with former FBI agent Clarice Starling on a terrace in Buenos Aires. The discomforting finale of "Hannibal" (1999), which suggested that Clarice had succumbed to Lecter's chemicals, if not his charm, was rejected in the movie version in favor of a more (dare we say?) palatable confection. Now Harris eludes the dissonance of those alternative endings by writing a suspense-driven prequel, "Hannibal Rising": a portrait of the cannibal as a young man.
The novel also consummates Lecter's transformation from nemesis to antihero. Introduced as a secondary character in "Red Dragon" (1981), then brought to center stage as Starling's malefic mentor in "The Silence of the Lambs" (1988) and "Hannibal," Lecter supplanted Professor James Moriarty as popular fiction's villain laureate. Maroon-eyed, six-fingered and beyond diagnosis, he is notorious for more than murder -- having, perhaps most famously, eaten a census taker's liver with "fava beans and a big Amarone." Locked down in a hospital for the criminally insane, he became the éminence grise of serial crime and psychological manipulation, capable of chatting visitors into tears and fellow inmates into suicide. His shadowy presence fueled Harris's dark and increasingly weird anti-mysteries, whose detectives solved crimes of grotesque violence only by pushing past deduction and forensic science to embrace the insane and the inhuman.
With "Hannibal Rising," Harris delves deep into Lecter's history and unearths a primal urge for justice only hinted at in earlier books. Presented in a suitably serial structure, the story opens in 1930s Lithuania at bucolic Lecter Castle, home to the aristocratic descendants of the medieval warlord Hannibal the Grim. After glimpses of his namesake at ages 8 and 13, the novel settles, for its central action, in Hannibal Lecter's 18th year -- but not until his genteel childhood is bloodied and scarred by Hitler's blitzkrieg, the Soviet occupation and scavenging Lithuanian collaborators who pillage the family home and kill Hannibal's beloved little sister, Mischa, for food. "His heart died with Mischa," we're told -- but his appetite came alive.
Orphaned and alone, Hannibal becomes the ward of his uncle, whose alluring wife, Lady Murasaki, oversees his domestication in postwar Paris, introducing him to haiku, opera and, of course, the culinary arts, where his education proves transcendent: "The best morsels of the fish are the cheeks. This is true of many creatures." Adept at anatomy -- and art, a defining element of all four Lecter novels -- the precocious 18-year-old enters medical school, where his talent for murder is perfected. The discovery of a family heirloom -- a looted painting -- in a Parisian gallery sends Hannibal home to the site of his sister's murder, where he finds the dog tags of her killers: those Lithuanian scavengers, now operatives in a black-marketeering, white-slaving cabal that ranges from the Soviet bloc to Canada. The hunt is on, and their ferocious and dramatic deaths at Hannibal's hands drive the story to a fitting, if foregone, conclusion.
Harris's writing is assured, with elegant shifts of tense and point of view; perhaps it is the focused plot or the insistently visual style that acknowledges the inevitable movie adaptation, but simply in terms of craft, "Hannibal Rising" is arguably the best of his novels. And until its final pages, we're spared the ghoulish bons mots that too often defined Lecter's cinematic personae.
Vengeance leads Hannibal, in time, to North America and his residency at Johns Hopkins; but enthusiasts will welcome the knowledge that some 20 years remain uncharted, their stories not yet told, until his fateful rendezvous with Will Graham, the FBI evidence tech who brought him (if only briefly) to justice.
Those 20 years present a challenge for Harris. In "Hannibal," an orderly noted that Lecter preferred deserving victims -- the "free range rude" -- forgetting the policemen who'd died in the line of duty and Graham's near-fatal encounter with Lecter's linoleum knife. In "Hannibal Rising," Lecter's retribution is nearly heroic: justified, even perversely honorable. That it's unlawful and horrific seems, in the greater context, almost trifling.
But vengeance is what police officers and psychiatrists and even book reviewers call a motive, something human and explicable -- unlike the Hannibal Lecter who first captured our imagination. As "Hannibal Rising" draws to a close, the French police inspector Popil -- who, as Hannibal archly observes, "will never know anything about my taste" -- confirms what earlier novels taught us: "What is he now? There's not a word for it yet. For lack of a better word, we'll call him a monster." With his origins told, however, Hannibal Lecter and his creator must consider the fate of too many monsters, real and imagined: The more we know about them, the less fearsome they become.