By Thomas Harris
Published by Delacorte
486 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Food for Thought
Reviewed by David Middleton
Thomas Harris' latest novel is being hailed as the long awaited sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, but I have never thought that novel actually needed one. It stood on its own, finished and complete. After I put that book down I did not think to ask what Hannibal was going to do next. In my opinion he had done enough. At the end of The Silence of the Lambs, brilliant psychopath Dr. Hannibal Lecter escapes his maximum security encumbrances and has gone off in search of havoc to wreak. I could only imagine the ghastly horrors Lecter was inflicting. That's the way I liked it: a little of the unknown, a lot of the unsaid. I've always preferred a novel that concludes with a few loose ends because, in life, not all problems get tied up nice and neat. There was something so frightening, so giddily uncomfortable about knowing that Hannibal "The Cannibal" was loose on an unsuspecting world. Author Harris did readers a favor by letting us all keep a little of that fear in our hearts and minds for the past 11 years.
But we became so intrigued by Hannibal, didn't we? And we wanted to see more of him. When we first met him in Harris's second novel Red Dragon, he was a small but important player, giving reluctant but brilliant insights into the mind of a serial killer to FBI agent Will Graham. In The Silence of the Lambs it was FBI cadet Clarice Starling looking for a multiple murderer and Lecter became a major and integral part of the story. And when we saw Hannibal brought to life by Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 film, we became hooked. Rarely before had we been drawn to such an evil character -- one who charmed and hypnotized us with his combination of verbal gymnastics, Old World manners and awesome intellectual abilities.
But now there is Hannibal, Harris's latest novel, and this time Dr. Hannibal Lecter is the player. And like The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal is finished and complete and stands on its own. Quite well in fact.
In Hannibal, Harris plumbs the shadowy depths of Lecter's mind and throws us into the stinking oubliette of his psyche, taking us through past -- and possibly significant -- remembrances. When we re-ascend, it is with a startling array of knowledge about the man. We find him fascinating, sympathetic and -- despite his dietary habits and penchant for killing (and consuming) only the "rude" -- a likable character. I like the well rounded character that Harris has created, even if he's somewhat outlandish, flamboyant and deeply disturbed. Hannibal loves the finer things in life: classical music, ancient literature, fine art, a tidy evisceration...
The novel's title works, not only because it is about Hannibal; it is Hannibal. And though the narration is in the third person, it speaks with his voice. It's a voice of culture and intelligence; of terror and menace. In hushed conspiratorial tones, it politely invites us to witness acts of inhuman horror and suffering. Almost -- almost -- making them palatable. And if not palatable, then so fascinating we find it hard to turn away. Harris does not write of these atrocities from the moral standpoint of someone who thinks the things Hannibal does are wrong; we all know what he does is wrong. Even Hannibal knows very well what he does is wrong. He also believes he has the intellectual and moral superiority to justify his actions, and this is Harris's triumph in the narration. We are shown things in the way Hannibal would see them through his intellectually superior and amoral eyes, and it is up to us to decide the right or wrongness of things. We also see things with an almost clinically unprejudiced and sometimes uncomfortably uncensored eye; unwavering, unblinking. Harris's prose is elegant and economic.
Dr. Lecter very much liked to shop. He drove directly to Hammacher Schlemmer, the purveyor of fine home and sporting accessories and culinary equipment, and there he took his time. Still in his woodsy mood, with a pocket tape measure he checked the dimensions of three major picnic hampers, all of them lacquered wicker with sewn leather straps and solid brass fittings. Finally, he settled on the medium-sized hamper, as it only had to accommodate a place setting for one.
Apart from the cranial saws and skull keys it is all quite evocative of a civilized Sunday outing and perhaps some people will be uncomfortable with that. But it is this type of writing that draws readers into the novel. The direct juxtaposition between the pleasant and banal against carefully placed, almost offhand, shocks to the senses. Hannibal brings with it all the horror of a gothic novel and all the excitement of the action/adventure genre, but instead of jumping out at us with a lot of noise and fireworks, in our ear he gently whispers of the horrors taking place.
In Hannibal, the doctor is living his ideal life. He has escaped from jail, travels the world, and is free to pursue his "interests." With a brand-new face and a substantial secret bank account, he can go anywhere and do anything. Apart from being the most wanted criminal in the world, he is footloose and fancy-free. He is probably the happiest character in the entire book. That is, in contrast with the rest of the cast.
Once again we run into FBI agent Clarice Starling, whose life and career are not going exactly as planned. Botched drug raid shoot-outs and unfulfilled relationships with co-workers and friends threaten her sanity and job security. Starling's character is a sad shadow of the enthusiastic young cadet we met in The Silence of the Lambs and appears drawn and tired. Her relationship with Lecter is renewed as he takes an extreme interest in her career from afar, sending her little gifts of condolence and affection when he reads of her misfortunes in the newspapers. As a result of this -- or perhaps in spite of it -- she is finally assigned to the job she has been long waiting for in Behavioral Science, and is free to pursue Lecter with the passion she seems to have reserved explicitly for this task.
As the head of a huge meatpacking dynasty, the character of Mason Verger has but one thing on his mind: revenge against Hannibal. Verger is a former patient of Lecter's who, while in a drug-addled state, was tortured and left paralyzed and faceless by the good doctor. It is Verger's mission in life -- with the help of his steroid-pumped sister, some Italian pig farmers, several specially bred flesh-eating swine, a porn movie director and a few crooked agents of the FBI -- to see Lecter captured and eaten alive by the pigs.
While Hannibal is in Florence looking for a job as curator of the Palazzo Capponi library, we also meet Chief Investigator Rinaldo Pazzi of the Questra. Pazzi is a Florentine detective who is caught between wanting the adulation and fame of capturing Hannibal and wanting to sell him out to the highest bidder. The story is simple: the pursuit of Hannibal, and who will get to him first.
In a story with good guys and bad guys you usually root for the good guy, hoping that he or she overcomes the almost insurmountable odds they are up against. But in Hannibal it is sometimes hard to tell the good from the bad or the bad from the evil. It's not so much that you don't know the difference, it's just that you have so many evils to choose from. It is this confrontation that makes this novel such a gratifying and enticing read. | July 1999
David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine and is thinking about becoming a vegetarian.