Magazine article The New Yorker

First Bite; Books

Magazine article The New Yorker

First Bite; Books

Article excerpt

The new Thomas Harris novel goes by the title of "Hannibal Rising" (Delacorte; $27.95). This has the effect of making Dr. Hannibal Lecter sound like a souffle, a fever chart, or a storm--all comparisons that the good doctor, who prides himself as an epicure and a force of nature, would be bound to welcome. This is his fourth outing in print. He made his blushing debut in "Red Dragon" (1981), then returned to the fray in "The Silence of the Lambs" (1988) and "Hannibal" (1999). As the dates testify, there has been a decorous interval between appearances, as if Lecter, like any other star who understands the value of rarity, were keen to insure that his public should be neither glutted nor bored. Naturally, he himself never suffers from boredom, floating far above such vulgar impedimenta as ennui, and free to disport himself within his "memory palace." This spacious and well-appointed dwelling is located, according to the opening sentence of "Hannibal Rising," "in the darkness at the center of his mind." Typical Lecter. The rest of us have to make do with a memory shed, or a mildewed memory cupboard filled with memory junk. He gets a palace.

Our hero began life, we learn from the new book, in prewar Lithuania. He lived in Lecter Castle, which has been the family seat of the Lecters since the time of Hannibal the Grim (1365-1428). That is a pleasantly morbid joke with which to start the book, but anybody who hopes that it will herald a feast of mirth from Thomas the Funny will turn the final page without a smile. We are on serious ground here, and one of the tasks of the novel is to see it hallowed, defiled, and then reconsecrated. There are images of a childhood Eden, in which Hannibal plays with his little sister, Mischa, but these are erased by the arrival of German troops, aided by a gang of collaborative local thugs. For three and a half years, the family--headed by Count Lecter, Hannibal's father--survives in a hunting lodge in the woods, but at last the thugs catch up with them. Everybody dies except Hannibal, although we are led to believe that something in his soul, too, has perished, as a result of seeing Mischa killed and eaten. It remains possible, though unconfirmed, that he unwittingly drank hot soup made from her bones.

The rest of the story, for all its complications, is a plain tale of revenge. Young Hannibal is transferred to postwar France in the care of his uncle Robert, a painter who is married to a Japanese woman named Lady Murasaki. Hannibal impresses her with his flower arranging. "Ahhh. We would call that moribana, the slanting style," she says. When the uncle dies, she is left not just a Lady but a widow: double the allure, for someone as choosy as Lecter. From here he becomes an exemplary medical student, noted as an anatomical draftsman; in the last pages, he is offered an internship at Johns Hopkins. In the intervening years, he keeps himself busy by tracking down and slaughtering as many of his sister's killers as he can find. One has his head pulled off by a horse; another has the letter "M," for Mischa, carved into his flesh; another, jostled by preserved cadavers, is drowned in formalin solution; and so on. There is also another victim, unconnected with events in Lithuania--a porky French butcher, whom Lecter decapitates for having insulted his aunt in the marketplace. As Lecter will announce to Clarice Starling, many years hence, "Discourtesy is unspeakably ugly to me." The author adds, "It was as though committing murders had purged him of lesser rudeness."

In short, Lecter is and always will be a snob. He is not, whatever his ambitions, a gentleman, partly because he is a homicidal maniac but also because no gentleman would dream of actually telling you how much he values courtesy. To proclaim one's virtue, however humbly, is the prerogative of the Pharisee. (Humbert Humbert, another European refugee on a New World spree, has the same weakness.) The snobbery of Lecter is grounded in his being, to borrow a phrase from Jeeves, "somewhat acutely alive to the existence of class distinctions. …

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