- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 30, 2006

HANNIBAL RISING

By Thomas Harris

Delacorte Press, $27.95, 323 pages

REVIEWED BY A.G. GANCARSKI

After a seven-year absence from the world of publishing, Thomas Harris returned just in time

for the holiday season with his fourth book on Hannibal Lecter. Unfortunately, this book is the weakest of his career, and will undoubtedly leave many disappointed fans of Mr. Harris wondering what went wrong this time around.

“Hannibal Rising” takes the reader on a 323-page trudge through the childhood of the protagonist, and from the outset, it is clear that something is seriously wrong with the book. The narrative begins with a misbegotten two-page prologue which takes the reader through the “door to Hannibal Lecter’s memory palace” (in the first line, no less) to help him “establish vital statistics” about Lecter so that the reader will be better equipped to “watch as the beast within turns from the teat and, working upwind, enters the world.”

In many cases, prologues in novels serve a purpose. They clarify, they inform and they set the tone for the rest of the book’s action. Yet, in the case of the latest from Mr. Harris, the prologue actually handicaps the author, seemingly compelling him to flood the first half of this book with questionable choices in language and plot both.

Mr. Harris often explicitly tells the reader what to think about his characters, suggesting that, at least in the present volume, the author found the hard work of demonstrating characterization through action rather than editorializing beneath him. With that in mind, he broke the first commandment of fiction writing: show, don’t tell. As is often the case when the writer tells the reader what to think, the narrative itself suffers.

For example, if Mr. Harris wants the reader to like a character, he resorts to describing said character’s “pleasant” demeanor. If the character is intended to be seen less sympathetically, however, the author resorts to describing the character as a “beast,” or telling us, as in the case of his protagonist, that he is “growing and changing, or perhaps now emerging as what he has ever been.” It’s hard to imagine this approach gaining much traction in an elementary creative-writing workshop, and it seems doubly out-of-place in what is sure to be a bestselling novel.

Mr. Harris’ infelicitous phrasings are not limited strictly to characterization. The dialogue brims with odd choices in language (for example, on page 11, where someone curiously proclaims that “violating another creature’s den is the oldest taboo,” or later on, when a character describes “my father’s soul ship”). Such baroque and awkward phrasings, one supposes, are intended to convey a sense of old Europe. But like so much else in the present volume, they fall short of the mark.

If the reader can get beyond the often awful choices Mr. Harris makes in composition, and his newly acquired penchant for expository dialogue, he may appreciate the plot, which is linear enough once it gets going. The book’s action follows an orphaned Hannibal Lecter as he deals, very early in life, with the horrors of World War II and its aftermath. Lecter’s parents are killed, and Lecter Castle is seized by the Soviets and turned into some sort of collective orphanage, where young Hannibal is bullied by the older boys and the sadistic Soviet headmaster of the prison.

These indignities end when young Hannibal is removed from the orphanage by an uncle, a Paris artist who shares his surname. From there, Hannibal is assimilated — as much as he can be — into the home of his uncle and his uncle’s “beautiful and exotic” wife, Lady Murasaki.

“Hannibal Rising,” as is typical in the popular horror genre, brims with laughably awkward quasi-sexual, “erotically charged” scenes — and most of these are between young Hannibal and Murasaki. Seemingly every hackneyed scenario imaginable is trotted out to depict this relationship.

My favorite comes about midway through the book, when Murasaki and Hannibal’s uncle burst into the lad’s room to wake him from a nightmare: “Fearing for Hannibal’s tongue, Lady Murasaki whips off the belt of her robe and gets the belt between his teeth … Her robe has come open and she holds him against her, holds between her breasts his face wet with tears of rage.”

“Tears of rage” might be suffered, likewise, by those buying the book and expecting to read something of comparable quality to Mr. Harris’ past work. That said, perhaps it is unfair to expect the book to have much literary merit. As the press materials accompanying this volume proclaim, a featured film based on the book is slated to come out in February 2007.

The short lag time between book release and film release, to this reviewer, frames the enormous production pressures Mr. Harris was under when finishing up “Hannibal Rising.” Maybe the stylistic infelicities are merely evidence of contractually mandated “hard deadlines” that the writer manfully struggled to meet.

Who can say? In any event, this book is a mess, and I strongly urge anyone interested in knowing more about Hannibal Lecter to wait for the movie to come out later this winter.

A.G. Gancarski, the author of “Unfortunate Incidents,” writes from Jacksonville, Fla.

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