So he didn’t have a normal childhood. That much we might have surmised. But why do we want to know how Hannibal became Hannibal? Is it to treat him? Explain him? Or perhaps reassure ourselves that he is less like us?
Should the latter be the case then Thomas Harris hasn’t made life any easier for readers haunted by the specter of a madman sautéing his victims’ frontal lobes in white wine sauce and truffle oil. With Hannibal Rising, Harris bestows Hannibal with a backstory with enough blunt force traumas to create a monster out of anyone, and a revenge instinct that’s perfectly understandable given the circumstances. And if you’re not sold by it all in book form, just wait, the film hits cinemas in February.
This film-book synergy has become something of a Harris special, but it’s beginning to seem appropriate for unfavorable reasons. With each Hannibal book, Harris’ prose has begun to feel more and more like a screenplay between two covers. The police procedural detail which made Red Dragon so sticky has melted away, leaving behind snappy dialog, cartoonishly drawn characters, and a penchant for sentence fragments.
In the opening pages, the budding sociopath’s family flees to their castle on the Lithuanian border with Poland to escape the moving front of World War II. The Lecters survive for three years in the woods during Hitler’s eastern campaign, but ultimately, in 1944 and 1945, the front collapses and things get really bad, as they did for many families caught up in the tide of that war’s lethal backwash.
In desperation, Harris explains, many of the hiwis (or collaborators) “went into business for themselves,” looting and robbing and grabbing what they could. Hannibal’s childhood idyll amid wartime is shattered. His parents are killed, and he and his sister Mischa wind up in the care of a group of greedy freelancers with the names of Grutas, Milko and Dortlich.
They know the castle contains riches, treasure and artwork. But they didn’t count on having to stay there so long they'd starve. Lucky for them, they left Hannibal and his plump sister alive. This sets up the gruesome wartime trauma—which needn’t be spelled out—that launches Hannibal’s lifetime penchant for human flesh. Hannibal escapes with his life, but goes catatonic for many years, visions of his sister’s fate coming to him in italicized flashbacks. After the war, his family’s castle becomes an orphanage, where the young Hannibal unleashes ruthless beatings when provoked.
This predictable story continues until Hannibal is rescued by his uncle, an effete painter who is romantically entangled with the daughter of a former Japanese diplomat. She goes by the name of Lady Murasaki, and wherever she moves in the book there is sound of swishing silk, the scent of jasmine and the promise of a bath nearby. Oh, and her robe comes open at opportune moments, presenting a few moments of unnerving sexual tension between her and her adopted stepson, whose warrior instinct she tacitly endorses by covering for his violent acts.
Teenage Hannibal finally kills a man in defense of her honor with a samurai sword which she happens to keep around. He dines, offstage presumably, on his cheeks: the first fatal step toward his future begins.
Hannibal Rising would have been truly interesting, and more disturbing, if Harris presented us with a moment when Hannibal could have turned back—or even thought about stepping away from violence. But he doesn’t. The minute he begins to speak again, it’s clear that he has launched himself on a plot of revenge that will not be stopped for love or plausibility.
Dr. Cordell Doemling in Hannibal was indeed correct. It was a delusion to think that “Hannibal Lecter does not have emotions like admiration or respect.” But as Harris has painted his monster here, those are the only emotions that Hannibal possesses. It is in admiration of the samurai ethic that he begins his killing. It is out of respect that he hides it from Lady Murasaki. As for why he continues? That’s the only question this book doesn’t answer, and probably for good reason. It leaves room for a sequel.