Early in Hannibal, Thomas Harris’s hungrily anticipated sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, an Italian chief investigator on the trail of Dr. Hannibal Lecter–seven years free, with a huge bounty on his head–suspects the most-wanted man-eater may be in Florence, posing as an elusive, erudite medievalist, Dr. Fell. (“Fell,” says my dictionary, “adj. 1. Of an inhumanly cruel nature; fierce. 2. Capable of destroying; lethal. 3. Dire; sinister. 4. Scots. Sharp and biting.”) Investigator Pazzi spots “Dr. Fell” at a traveling show of engines of torture, the sensation of a jaded Europe:
The exposition of Atrocious Torture Instruments could not fail to appeal to a connoisseur of the worst in mankind. But the essence of the worst, the true asafoetida of the human spirit, is not found in the Iron Maiden or the whetted edge; Elemental Ugliness is found in the faces of the crowd.
It is the crowd, not the rack or the wheel, that Hannibal Lecter, “connoisseur of facial cheeses,” is raptly studying. He seems to look right out of the page at the reader, forcing the unpleasant recognition of one’s own face in the crowd attending a sensation: this novel, which features atrocious tortures all its own. Here you are, wolfing down a book in which people get their faces and their brains eaten–alive! You say you came for the fine writing, the mordant insights into the human condition? Yeah, sure. Tell it to the judge.
Maybe this is Harris’s little revenge on a public and an entertainment industry that have clamored “More Hannibal Lecter!” for eleven years now–or that concluded he couldn’t deliver. One can imagine how the sensation consumer’s happy, heedless “Feed me! Feed me!” impacts a writer of high ambition and deep integrity, a fearsome perfectionist (The Silence of the Lambs is nearly perfect, and Harris allegedly refused to change a comma of it), a born writer who, an editor friend tells me, “hates writing” because he has reason to dread both his superego and his id. Before Hannibal Lecter became an icon–blame it on Anthony Hopkins and the mojo of the movies–at least the doctor and his creator were free to grow at their own pace, unfolding like moth’s wings from some internal pressure toward an inevitable shape. Red Dragon, the book in which Lecter debuted, was a bestseller (as was Black Sunday, a journeyman work plotted with two Associated Press buddies), but of the sort that creates only generic anticipation of the next. This gave Harris the freedom to write a masterpiece. The Silence of the Lambs has the ring of a book so necessary to its author that it called forth the struggle and blessing required to get it right. While a crucial part, Hannibal Lecter is only a part of what makes Silence golden.
Red Dragon was a sympathy-for-the-devil book. By taking us inside the mind of Francis Dolarhyde, a killer as piteous as he is malignly magnificent and terrifying, Harris suggested that serial killers are made, not born; they are twisted sensitives avenging, misdirectedly, the murder of their own innocence, and so forging the next random link in an endless chain of suffering. No reader of Red Dragon can forget Dolarhyde or the extremity of his childhood torment, but his pursuer, Will Graham, fades away in the blaze of his prey. Not so with The Silence of the Lambs. Here FBI trainee Clarice Starling is the center, not Jame Gumb, not even Lecter–though the fell doctor is already taking form as a rival center, a dark twin star trying to pull the moral mass of the story his way. It is the tug of war and fatal attraction between them, and the way it’s left unresolved, that makes Silence–the book, not the movie–reverberate in the reader’s heart for life.
Starling and her stoic FBI mentor, Jack Crawford, represent what we–even after the twentieth century–still flatter ourselves by calling the “human” point of view: the belief that redemption is possible, the determination to fight against all odds to protect the innocent. In her hunt for “Buffalo Bill,” as in her struggle to save the spring lambs, Clarice is a quixotic warrior, trying to cut one tiny link in the great chain of suffering. Dr. Lecter is vastly amused by this, by its utter futility in the greater scheme of things, but he also envies it. Although his senses are exquisite, the one thing Lecter cannot do is feel–whether he was born or made this way is, in Silence, left enigmatic–and his real cannibalism isn’t eating human flesh but supping on others’ emotions. Starling is a rare dish for him. Forlorn of ordinary attachments, her care for the killer’s victims, unlike, say, Senator Martin’s maternal terror, is extraordinarily pure and un-self-interested. It’s this fierce purity of compassion that attracts Lecter–and leads him to portray her as a joke Christ–but it’s not clear what, if anything, he wants from it, other than to savor it vicariously. (In one of the movie’s best scenes, Hopkins’s Hannibal, like a wine taster, with eyes half-closed, lets Starling’s pain fan across his palate.)
The Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs is more than just another serial killer; indeed, he is more–and less–than human. It’s this that lifts the novel out of mere realism to the edge of metaphysical fantasy–but not over that edge. Silence is set firmly in our world, and we’re compelled to see the doctor through human eyes, finding his inhumanity chilling, if also furtively thrilling. His intelligence is “not measurable by any means known to man,” and he kills people not out of passion or need but out of indifference–something between our utilitarian view of cattle and a cat’s idle pleasure in torturing mice. He’s the ultimate snob: He’ll kill you if you bore him or offend his supersonic good taste, as well as if you cross the path of his self-preservation. He acts, really, like a mutant, superior species, a predator whose prey is us. And his lack of a heart is shown to be a steep price for his superiority. (Who said the Übermensch would be a nice guy?) Here Starling has it all over him: Tiny details of the dead girls’ lives, like glitter nail polish, which Lecter would find dumb and tacky, become acutely poignant through Clarice’s empathy for the awkward longings they express. It’s this weighing of the human against the superhuman, this close victory of pity over style, that makes Silence a great book.
Great movie, too. The Oscars were deserved. And it’s remarkably faithful to the book–except the balance shifts just slightly. It’s the nature of the medium that the camera would go for Hopkins/Lecter’s mesmerizing charisma, and that his horrific violence would seem just fake enough to spice, not poison, the attraction. “I’m having an old friend for dinner” isn’t in the book; it’s a great movie line, like “Round up the usual suspects,” but it makes the cannibalism a harmless joke, a fun fantasy fate for the villain you love to hate. This is the Hannibal Lecter, and the Lecter-Starling “romance,” that the public (and the publisher) has demanded more of: movie fodder. Where Harris would have gone with Lecter and Clarice, left to his own devices, will remain unknown. Those of us who hoped for another book as serious and stunning as The Silence of the Lambs will remain disappointed. But that’s an expectation even crueler than the happy chant of More Hannibal Lecter!–and surely irreconcilable with it.
And so Harris seems finally to have decided to give ’em what they want–with a vengeance. It’s Hannibal you were asking for? Here’s lots more than you bargained for–more erudition, more grue. (Those with either weak brains or weak stomachs will have to wait for the movie. And the filmmakers have their work cut out for them, literally.) It’s popcorn spiked with truffles and razor blades–at once delectable and really hard to swallow. The book starts off with a feel of angry pandering. There’s some sullen, dutiful recap of plot points from Silence–shocking for a writer so sovereign. And then the book takes off–but into the stratosphere of fantasy, into Hannibal Lecter’s private world. To hell with realism, and perfectionism too: The plot, involving a wealthy, horribly disfigured Lecter victim and his ghastly scheme for revenge, is a wheezing, walloping contraption worthy of Stephen King (who in fact praised Hannibal in the New York Times). This is a different genre entirely: no grave moral inquiry but a Grand Guignol romp. Once you accept that, you can have almost as much fun reading it as Harris evidently allowed himself to have writing it–if you can keep from throwing up. Where Silence haunted and tantalized, Hannibal grosses out and gratifies. Yet there’s still a basso ostinato of serious questions, and the answers are darker than in Silence: Past the age of 10 or so, most humans no longer seem worth saving. With the counterpoint of Starling’s compassion silenced, Lecter’s misanthropy takes all.
Clarice is here, but she’s as disillusioned and cynical as Harris himself seems–as so many of us are in a time when every idea has proven hypocritical and every hero hollow. Like any professional of a certain age, Starling has discovered that the institution she put her faith and fate in is wormy with corruption. Instead of a brilliant FBI career hunting down serial killers as Jack Crawford’s protégée and successor, she’s been stuck with a string of dreary drug busts, a victim of the glass ceiling and sexual harassment–her old nemesis Paul Krendler has blocked her rise ever since he hit on her and she shot him down. As if to incarnate the death of ideals, Crawford himself, once the type of taut, Kennedy-era decency, is now an indifferent old man drifting toward death. Like Jean Cocteau, who, when asked what he’d save if his house burned down, replied that he’d save the fire, Clarice is now ready to turn her saving zeal toward…Hannibal Lecter.
Is that what drew him to her in the first place–the faint hope of redemption? He had seemed above and beyond hope. It’s impossible to tell how much, if any, of this Harris had in mind all along, but in Hannibal he takes the huge risk of unveiling an enigma–and pretty much pulls it off. Like the shark in Jaws, or the drawing of a sheep in a box in The Little Prince, Lecter could easily have been one of those creatures that satisfies more the less you see of it. Yet here he is given a background, even–gasp–a childhood, and if Hannibal Lecter has to have a childhood, well, this is the one. I don’t like Lecter revealed quite as much as Lecter concealed, but I like him a lot better than I thought I would.
And that’s the point: You like him. Fans of the screen Hannibal get their wishes fulfilled: The Übermensch turns simpatico. True, Harris toys sadistically with the reader at first, testing one’s faith in Hannibal: Could he have eaten someone he really, really loved? Once that’s settled, you can settle down and root for him–because in this fantasy world, everyone Hannibal offs has it coming, one way or another. Hunted in Florence, he kills in self-defense; we learn that he’s killed to secure a suitable den–a historic palazzo–from an undeserving occupant and to tune up an orchestra soured by nepotism. Whenever possible, he prefers “to eat the rude. ‘Free-range rude,'” in another phrase destined for the vernacular. He also eats the crude: If your concerns are suffering and beauty and competence, you’re probably safe from his carving knife, but pant after money, self-advancement or sensation, and you’re fair game. In an age when we know we’re little more than cash cows in the stalls of the ATMs and that if we ever run dry we’ll be cheerfully slaughtered, this is payback–a kind of countercannibalism.
But Hannibal’s favorite dish is the cruel. Torment the truly innocent and trusting–children or animals–and you’re dead meat. A bowhunter and a child molester get special treatment. Barney, his former keeper, says Hannibal believes in “chaos,” but in fact his moral order is quite clear. God is the villain, the top of the great food chain of suffering. Not only does He ignore our prayers to please spare innocents pain, He allows them to suffer in such number and variety He must be getting off on it. Lecter is a persuasive Lucifer, in his modest way working to set creation right. Cruelty is far too pervasive to be prevented, but at least some of it can be repaid in kind. Forgiveness equals appeasement. Hannibal’s nemesis, Mason Verger–heir to a meatpacking fortune, scion of a sadist, his own sister’s rapist–uses the mercy of Jesus to condone his ongoing perversions. Vengeance is poetic justice if your heartlessness is in the right place.
Or so Hannibal seeks to teach Clarice, by serving her her enemy on a platter–a scene of revolting hilarity, gourmet horror satire with the autopsy saw beside the chafing dish. We recoil, but Clarice does not. It’s not just that she’s artfully drugged. It’s that she’s fed up with humanity, her former glory. She partakes, and is inducted into a higher order. From now on her milk of human kindness will be for Hannibal alone. This is Dracula, of course, but Dracula after Freud; actually, it’s Dracula crossed with Harville Hendrix, or some such therapist who teaches how present relationships can heal early losses. Clarice can make Hannibal more human, but only after he has made her less so.
A predator’s role is to cull the herd of inferior specimens and traits, and so improve the species. Harris’s savagely playful premise is that Hannibal Lecter, avenger of mediocrity, boorishness and barbarism, might just be doing us all a favor. Those he finds more pleasing alive than on his plate are the ultimate meritocracy. Reader, look into yourself and wonder: Would I make the cut?
I think human self-hatred may be the great untold story of the millennium. It’s the common thread linking deep ecology and animal rights, the love and money we lavish on pets, the uneasy longing for extraterrestrials to be meddling with us. The antiabortion movement, frantically sanctifying human life (otherwise expendable), doth protest too much; even our infatuation with high technology, which is evolving so fast, may be a distraction from the dark truth that we are not. The most bewitching gadget can carry only the same old grudges and cravings: Look at the Internet, already past Woodstock and into Altamont. We’ve hit the evolutionary glass ceiling with a sickening thud.
There are mass graves on television again. In 1999. And for every one who demonizes the Serbs, I hear three people wonder, “Could I do that, given the circumstances?” CNN’s daily delivery of fresh atrocities from around the globe lands accusingly on every one of our doorsteps. We love Hannibal Lecter because he’s the part of us that’s smart and sensitive and stylish enough to despise us. As we watch him and Clarice ride into the sunset, progenitors of a finer new species, or just aristocratic refugees from the ruin of the old, we might recall that Kafka wrote our epitaph: “There is infinite hope, but not for us.”