By Thomas Harris
Delacorte, 340 pp., $27.95
Thomas Harris's bestselling 1988 novel "The Silence of the Lambs," and its Oscar-winning film adaptation, made Hannibal Lecter a household name. As a highly intelligent, cold-blooded serial killer with a penchant for cannibalism, Lecter was so frightening because he seemed utterly lacking in conscience, without a history. Lecter was a walking contradiction, a "civilized" monster.
"Hannibal Rising" is the fourth Harris novel featuring Lecter, and it's a prequel to the others, exploring how Lecter developed into a detached serial murderer. Harris shows us Hannibal from age 6 to 20. The recipe the reclusive Harris creates for the making of Lecter begins with childhood tragedy, as young Hannibal watches his family killed and, traumatized by these memories, he later seeks revenge.
Harris paints on a large canvas. The story opens at Lecter Castle in Lithuania, where Hannibal's idyllic boyhood is destroyed by invading armies of Adolph Hitler. The Lecters flee their castle and hide out in a forest lodge. But the war finds them, and Hannibal's parents are killed in the ensuing crossfire. Hannibal survives along with his younger sister Mischa, but the lodge is looted by six brutal men who chain the two young Lecters. Nearing starvation, the men take Mischa away, and Hannibal never sees her again. For the rest of his life, he'll be haunted by memories of those days he was chained up in the lodge, and his sister's fate. It takes years of psychological struggle for Hannibal to realize that Mischa in the end had been eaten, and he adopts this practice himself on her killers.
After the war, an orphaned Hannibal is raised in France by his uncle Robert and his aunt, the beautiful Lady Murasaki. It is through Lady Murasaki that Hannibal develops his highly stylized aesthetic taste, as she teaches him calligraphy, flower arrangement, and origami. The Hannibal-Lady Murasaki relationship is eroticized from the beginning, and describing it results in some of Harris's most opaque prose. When young Hannibal sees his aunt for the first time, taking a bath, Harris writes, "In the water was Lady Murasaki, like the water flowers on the moat where the swans swam and did not sing. Hannibal watched, silent as the swans." When a French butcher, widely known to have collaborated with the Nazis, insults Hannibal's beloved Lady Murasaki, he kills him with a samurai sword. Later, at age 18, Hannibal begins hunting down and killing the men who cannibalized Mischa. One by one, he finds them and dispatches them in creative ways, often using his background as a medical student. He stays one step ahead of the French police. Harris's chapters are short and taut, averaging five pages, and he moves the story along at an impressively fast clip, although sometimes his Lady Murasaki dialogue sounds like second-rate haiku.
By story's end, Hannibal has gained revenge, but also lost his soul. After Hannibal's last killing of the book, Harris writes that the killer "was not torn at all by anger anymore, or tortured by dreams. This was a holiday and killing . . . was preferable to skiing." Homicide had become Hannibal's profession, as easy as breathing. He'd turned his boyhood trauma outward, with dire consequences. On the book's final page, a 20-year-old Hannibal is headed for America. While Harris has explained, in gripping detail, Hannibal Lecter's mysterious origins, perhaps Lecter is a more frightening character in "Silence of the Lambs," where his childhood traumas, his dark closet of memories remained tightly shut.