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Onyx reviews: Hannibal Rising by Thomas Harris

I had a lot to complain about when I reviewed Hannibal in 1999. Elements of his writing style irritated me. Unusual changes of tense and person. Sentence fragments setting the stage at the beginning each section. An ending diorama that seemed to pervert everything we knew about the character of Clarice Starling. And, finally, a feeble attempt to explicate the origin of Dr. Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter, who seemed more intriguing and menacing without explanation. He simply was—fully formed and pure evil. Delving into his background, reducing him to a set of influences, could only diminish him, I argued.

Hannibal was a brutal, disturbing novel with few redeeming qualities. It seemed gratuitously violent. A horror novel in every sense of the word. Thus, when Thomas Harris decided to explore more fully the origins of one of fiction's most infamous serial killers, I wasn't sold. I acquired the book with trepidation, especially when I found out that Hannibal Rising started as a screenplay and was only later turned into a novel.

Hannibal Rising isn't a horror novel, which may account for why it isn't being received well in the horror field. It's an origin tale, a mythmaker, a well-established concept in the world of superheroes—and super-villains. The story starts out in a near-idyllic setting—Lithuania during World War II. Eight-year-old Hannibal is eighth male in the Lecter family anointed with that name, dating back to the 14th century benevolent despot who built the castle that is the family home. Hannibal's parents dote on him and his younger sister, Mischa. His voracious appetite for knowledge and his mathematical acumen are cultivated by a tutor. Survival during wartime is tough, but they know how to provide for themselves off the land and its fruits.

A tidal wave rips through the estate: inbound, it is Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's blitzkrieg attack of the Russian empire. Outbound it is the Russian army, chasing the Nazis back to Germany and gobbling up everything in its path along the way. Hannibal witnesses his parents being killed in a clash between a Soviet tank and a German bomber. He and Mischa are spirited away to the family hunting lodge, taken prisoner by exploitive local Nazi sympathizers. Here something evil happens that alters Hannibal's humanity. Hannibal blocks the memory of these events, pushing them into a room in his memory palace, a dark place at the center of his mind. Astute readers will probably surmise the nature of the atrocity long before Hannibal remembers the injury.

After the war, Hannibal is liberated from the orphanage established in his family castle and sent, mute from traumatic shock, to live with his father's brother Robert, the new Count Lector, and his Japanese aunt, Lady Murasaki, in France, where he attends medical school and excels at anatomical illustration. His relationship with his aunt becomes closer after his uncle dies. He acts as her champion when she is insulted in the town square, murdering the man who verbally assaulted her. The nature of their relationship is ambiguous, though there are strong indications it crosses the bounds of propriety. They communicate with each other using Japanese poetry, and Hannibal goes to great lengths to learn about her culture to impress her and insinuate himself inside her strict boundaries. A precocious teenager, he bristles with jealousy when the man intent on catching him in a mistake, Inspector Popil, also becomes a rival in love for Lady Murasaki.

Hannibal uses his Parisian home as a launching pad for his program of revenge. The second half of the book seems inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo, as Hannibal systematically tracks down the culprits who wronged him—and more particularly his sister—and makes them pay for their sins, which include plundering the Lecter family fortune, murder, and the horrific crime that Hannibal has been repressing. With each murder, the future Dr. Lecter loses another piece of his humanity. The man once capable of love for his sister and his aunt allows hate to replace it in his heart. He embraces it.

The stylistic choices prevalent in Hannibal are also present in this book—perhaps even more so given the book's origin as a screenplay. Harris frequently switches between past tense and present tense in the middle of a scene, sometimes several times per page. He still uses reporterish shorthand to set the stage. However, in Hannibal Rising these foibles seem less objectionable—perhaps because the fundamental story itself is both credible and captivating. Hannibal Rising is a very fast read—assisted by generous margins—but it is also a compelling story. Though the future Dr. Lecter—who, in a different age might have been kin to Victor Frankenstein—commits heinous actions during his campaign to deliver his unique form of retribution, readers will likely remain on his side.

Thomas Harris will reportedly write a follow-up to Hannibal Rising that describes events between the end of the book and his first appearance in Harris's second novel Red Dragon. Maybe by then Harris will remember the extra middle finger that Hannibal Lecter has in Silence of the Lambs but seems to be lacking as a child.


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