Friday, September 30, 2005

Relentless Brutality

Hannibal, by Ross Leckie, Read by Paul Matthews, Clipper Audio, 2000

For quite a while, I’d been seeing these ads in The New Yorker for a fresh perspective biography of Ghengis Khan which suggested that, far from being the savage barbarian his name is now a byword for, the man was really a radically progressive innovator and humanitarian. At least by the standards of the day. The ads were intriguing enough to stick in my memory, enough to interest me in at least reading some decent, thorough review of the work. And so the book, as idea of some curiosity, lingered in a dusty little corner of the mind, waiting for its chance.

Later, at the large central branch of the city library, after having made a rambunctious two-year-old endure standing still for gobs of time holding my hand, I happened to catch sight of an audiobook in their nonfiction section that glanced off this trivia nugget lying dormant in my noggin. Snatching at the book without even reading the back of the box, just as the child’s squawking reached a volume even non-patrons of the library would recognize as clearly outside the Inside Voice boundaries, I moved to the counter. Partly to spare her suffering any more staring at the spines of books and audiobooks and partly to avoid the embarrassment engendered by a full on public tantrum, I got out of there.

Flash forward two weeks or so in when I’m standing in my home office debating which book to listen to that night. Again the clock is ticking, and again I have to select quickly and get a move on. I grab the above-described book which I still believe in some vague way to be a recent, intriguing nonfiction account of the life of Ghengis Khan as though the title just wasn’t piercing my consciousness. As I slip the CD into the car stereo to get started for my drive, something peculiar occurs to me. The book begins with first person narrative. Maybe it’s just an opening vignette or anecdote, I’m thinking, but something is telling me this is not the book I’m supposing it to be. I pick up the case at a red light and read the back — for the very first time in the two weeks it’s been in my possession. Here’s what it says:

In the Ancient World, Carthage alone had the might to withstand Rome. Hannibal, the most infamous, the most brilliant, and the most feared of her generals, was hated by the Romans for centuries after he died. Of all her rivals, Hannibal came closest to annihilating Rome. Victory after incredible victory marked his route through Italy. Allied to Rome’s enemies, subverting her vassals, and nearly bankrupting the city itself, Hannibal managed to maintain a mercenary army in Italy for almost 20 years. Now, he tells his own story, a story of love, strife, adventure... and ultimately of war.

Well, what the fresh hell, I think, this has nothing to do with Ghengis Khan being some kind of surprisingly advanced and open-minded Mongol leader. This doesn’t have anything to do with Ghengis Khan at all. I’m quick like that, see? It occurs to me likewise that this isn’t actually nonfiction I’ve got here either. Some dolt at the library, either on the payroll or being an idiot on his own dime, has slipped an historical novel into the history shelf, even though the spine has been clearly labeled FICTION.

Whatever, I think, as I’m a kind of go-with-the-flow guy when I want to be and I settle in to listen to a novel as told by Hannibal, the man who almost brought Rome to its knees, the man who marched over the Alps into Europe with elephants. It’d be all right, the book would be fun.

It’s not that I didn’t expect there to be battles and some gruesome aspects to the story. I’m familiar enough with the time and the kind of vicious fighting of the era, I just never expected this book to be so graphically told, the author to linger so lovingly over the injury of human beings. I suspect that if it is the story of Hannibal, a man of his time, that this is only natural. But I must confess I anticipated a drier, more factual account of the life of the famous Carthaginian general. But quite some time before the end of the second of ten discs, I was ready to give it up. It really is a gore drenched book filled with cartloads of severed arms, rapes involving flag poles, eye gougings, and enough mutilations to recall the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. When I was a younger man I could have read such things with equanimity, but nowadays I’m a bit more of a shrinking violet towards murder and mayhem. The sacrifices I make for you, Dear Reader. Should you be like me, pass on, pass on.

Hannibal is told first person by the man himself, as the above quote lets you know, and the detailed opening scene of the book, Hannibal’s first memory, is of his father cutting the nose off and tongue out of a Roman statesman captured in war. And it just gets bloodier from there. There are non-sanguinary moments when various characters, such as Hannibal’s father, speechify, slipping in a few tiny historical points in to give us context. It’s not too overdone when his father delivers these scene-setters, but it is obvious when it’s being done, especially the clunky lessons in Carthaginian mythology that Hannibal receives from his Greek teacher Silenus. These, in the first thirty minutes of listening are a bit tiresome; by the beginning of the third disc, after one and a half discs of nothing but slaughter, they are a welcome respite.

The portrait Leckie paints of Roman barbarity is actually matched in the Carthaginians. A losing military leader back from a failed battle is set on by a crowd who throw glass under his feet, yank out his hair, a little girl slashes at his throat with a knife, and a red hot poker is jabbed at him. This before he is beaten nearly to death by the guards of the council, revived between beatings with buckets of urine, then ultimately crucified and gutted while hanging on the cross. This just for losing naval battles against the superior Roman forces, not for any treachery. Who says we aren’t evolving?

There are a few curious ahistorical anachronisms like Hannibal referring to Iberia as Spain (it wasn’t called Hispania until the Romans conquered it under Julius Caesar) and referring to Rome as Italy (simply wrong), or the vision we receive of Hannibal the Horse Whisperer showing his men how to train horses without breaking them. And the writing features such awkward moments as the sex scenes between Hannibal and his wife Imilce: “Clear fluid from my dripping penis on our feet.” Egads.

Yet again, I’ll take such scenes to that of the one following a war, where the mercenary army set up camp outside of Carthage throughout the hot summer, waiting for their payment in gold. For weeks, the city does not pay them and the tension simmers. When Carthage sends out a token of their willingness to pay, the mercenaries revolt and take the city. The scenes of torture are rather comprehensive and painfully difficult to listen to, popping out eyes and biting off the cords, crucifixions, crushing of testicles, impalements. The battle, when it finally comes, when Hannibal arrives to save the city, is bloody and vicious, the elephants a fearful force, their tusks outfitted with cutlasses, spears tied to their trunks, their legs bristling with daggered collars. What mercenaries aren’t killed in this melee are set upon by the citizens, women and children alike, slashing, cutting, beheading, stoning, strangling, smothering. In a second battle, the elephants are panicked by the mercenaries coating in pitch and setting fire to pigs and sheep before driving them into the crowds.

Leckie is clearly a sadist or something because the book goes on and on and on with rivers, at times nearly literally rivers, of blood. Clocking in at eleven and a quarter hours, the book, as read by Paul Matthews, is a painful and cringe inducing experience. The levels of gore are such that I feel it even difficult to nail down whether the novel is written badly or not (save for the sex, which is just awful). Matthews does a fine job reading, nothing to write home about, yet the major impact of the book, if you haven’t noticed, is in its unremitting viciousness. Hannibal is supposed to be portrayed somewhat sympathetically here, a task made all the more difficult by the book’s limited concern for gore, and even if he does tell it in his “own words” we never really do get much of the internal considerations, everything is simply a reaction to something external. This may be a fine quality for a military commander — a gripping protagonist it does not make.

As for Ghengis — well, my taste for warlords, be they ever so progressive, has been slaked for quite some time, so that snippet of trivia will likely stay lodged there until I automatically and unthinkingly reach for a tell-all by or about Attila the Hun. Which won’t be for quite some time, let me assure you.

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