It is interesting to sometimes ponder on how we choose a book to read. I had an interesting experience on this front recently. I was on the verge of finishing Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ sometime back. At that time, I thought on what book I would like to read next. The font using which ‘Neverwhere’ was printed made me think of another book I had with the same font. (In case you are interested in such things, this font was ‘Melior’. It is typically used in paperbacks published by Black Swan / Transworld. They publish books by Sophie Kinsella, Joanne Harris and Neil Gaiman among other writers.) The book that I picked out for further exploration which had ‘Melior’ font, was Joanne Harris’ ‘Gentlemen & Players’. I took out ‘Gentlemen & Players’ from the bookshelf and browsed through it and read the first chapter. Then I remembered another book which I had got at around the same time as ‘Gentlemen & Players’. I took that book out of the bookshelf. When I read the blurb on the back cover and the comments by different reviewers, I realized that I had to read this book now. That book was ‘Hannibal : Pride of Carthage’ by David Anthony Durham.
So the sequence of events was this.
Got inspired by the font of current book -> Remembered another book which had the same font -> Remembered yet another book bought at the same time which made you nostalgic -> Picked up the new book, browsed it and loved what I saw -> Selected the new book for reading.
This is the kind of random way I pick a book for reading. I don’t do this all the time, but I do it often enough and the results are always surprising.
I don’t know why I bought ‘Hannibal’ all those years back. There was a time I used to read lots of books on history, but I don’t read a lot of historical novels (Novels which are set in the 20th century don’t count as historical novels from my perspective.) I have read Alexandre Dumas, Walter Scott and Kalki and the occasional murder mystery set with a historical backdrop, but otherwise I haven’t really read much historical fiction. So, I don’t even know why I got this. The only reason I can think of is that I remember reading somewhere that Hannibal crossed the Alps on an elephant and went to fight with the Romans and maybe I wanted to explore this more through this novel. It was nice that all the stars got aligned and by some random sequence of events the time to read this book finally arrived. It was a medium sized chunkster – 600+ pages – and I read it for the past many days. It wasn’t moving as fast as I wanted – I am scared of chunksters – and so I shut myself inside my room like a medieval monk during the past few days and finished reading it. Here is what I think.
‘Hannibal’ is set during the time of the Second Punic War (218-202 BC), a war which was fought between Rome and Carthage. This novel is a fictional rendering of that war. It starts with the events leading up to the war and why it started, goes into detail into the different battles which were fought and takes us through to the end of the war and a little bit of the aftermath. Most of the story is told from a Carthaginian perspective and so most of the time we sympathize with the Carthaginian point of view. Most of the important characters in the story are Carthaginian or fight on the Carthaginian side, except for some of the Roman consuls and senators. Though a majority of the story is about the war, one thing I liked about the book is that there are stories of minor characters which are told in reasonable detail. There is Imco Vaca, a soldier in the Carthaginian army, with whose story the books starts, and there is Aradna the Greek ragpicker who follows the Carthaginian army during its campaign and with whom Imco falls in love with, and with whose story the books ends. There is Masinissa, the Massylii prince and expert horseman and the story of his love for Sophonisba, the Carthaginian beauty and the sister of Hannibal. There is the story of Tusselo, the Massilyii, who was formerly a slave of a Roman merchant and who now joins the Carthaginian army and wants to fight with Rome so that he can forget his past and free himself of his former life. Then there is Silenus, the Greek scribe, who accompanies Hannibal during his campaign and who knows a lot of history and has a wicked sense of humour. Then there are the women in Hannibal’s family – his wife Imilce, his sister Sapanibal, his brother’s wife Bayala, his youngest sister Sophonisba, his mother Didobal. Then there is Mago, Hannibal’s brother, the soldier who is a poet and philosopher at heart. Somewhere at the beginning of the story, we see Mago thinking this :
He had always been disappointed by that aspect of the great tales. All that heroic grandeur resulted in rape and pillage and the utter destruction of a people.
Towards the end of the war, we find him thinking this :
The last few weeks, however – with the mask removed – the unacknowledged images bombarded him unhindered. He could not help but recall the faces of orphaned children, the suffering in the eyes of captured women, the sight of burning houses, the cold glances of people being robbed of grain and homes and indirectly, of their lives. He heard their wailing in some place beyond sound, high to the right and back of his head. Everywhere were signs of the barbarous nature of conflict, ugly to behold. Nowhere was it possible to avoid these things. It suddenly seemed to him, that such scenes were the full and true face of war. What place had nobility in this? Where was the joy of heroes?
It was difficult to not like Mago.
Though Hannibal and his campaign and his battles with the Roman army (and his crossing the Alps on an elephant J) rightly take up a major part of the book, my favourite parts of the book were about the minor characters – how they react to the onset of war, how they try to get on with their lives, the trials and tribulations they face, the dreams and nightmares they have, the brief glimpses of ephemeral happiness that brings joy to their hearts, the helplessness with which they are swept away by events over which they have no control. One of my favourite parts of the story is about the way women struggle with their lives after the onset of war – on how they have to make tough, impossible decisions and how they are used as pawns in a war which they didn’t start. When I read these parts, it made me angry and sad.
David Antony Durham has clearly done his homework before writing this book. I wanted to read more about some of the things that the book talks about and so I picked a book on ancient history (in case you are curious it is called ‘The Classical World : An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian’ by Robin Lane Fox. It is awesome) and read the chapters related to Carthage and Hannibal. I discovered that Durham’s book was pretty accurate with respect to historical facts, though he himself says in his book that it is only a novel. The only inconsistency I found was that though the actual Second Punic War lasted 16 years, the war as depicted in the book doesn’t last as long.
Durham’s prose is plain, simple and unadorned with no trace of ornamentation. The unkind might even call it pedestrian. Many of the scenes described in the book are violent scenes of battle. But in between all this plainness and mayhem, Durham manages to infuse the book with beautiful scenes. One of my favourites was this scene which describes a journey that Tusselo undertakes.
Nor was nature disposed to aid him. The sun burned daylong in unclouded skies. Shade was thin and hard to come by and the landscape filled with hulking shapes in the distance. Once he traveled a barren stretch of land cut by dry rivers, some of enormous girth that might have funnelled torrents but now lay parched beneath the summer sun. Later, he traversed a wide, shallow sea, the liquid so potent that it crystallized on his feet and coated them with a crust. Round him little thrived save for thin, delicately pink birds, creatures that stood on one leg and then the other and gestured with their curved beaks as if engaged in some courtly dance. On occasion his passage disturbed them, and the birds rose in great waves, thousands upon thousands of them, like giant sheets whipped by the breeze and lifted into the air. He never forgot the sight of them. Nor of the opal sea in the morning. Nor of a stretch of white beach as smooth as polished marble. Nor the white-winged butterfly that awoke him with a kiss upon his forehead.
Another of my favourite scenes – and probably my most favourite one – was this one. It is violent, tragic and beautiful.
She was pretty. He could tell this despite her grimy face. Her chin was a little weak, one eye lower than the other, but she was pretty none the less. Her body was still boyish, but this was not a flaw. She was not too young to be taken, nor to be sold, nor to be rented out. He walked round her and stood behind her for some time. He had to think about this. He was aware as never before how much suffering this girl’s life now offered her. Her shoulders were so thin, but their frailty would please many. Her skin was a translucent covering over her frame. She must have been hungry these past months, but that too would make some men want her. Her hair fell over her shoulder and he could see the pulse of the artery in her neck. He reached out and touched it with his fingertips. The girl moved slightly, but he whispered her to stillness. Her pulse was strong, warm. It seemed irregular in its beating and at first he did not question why. Someone would profit from her suffering. Before the end of the month she would have been used by hundreds of men. She would be diseased and battered. She would rot from the inside out, both body and soul. But right now she was sound. In sorrow, yes. In mourning, surely. But her nightmare had not yet begun in full. He – by whatever divine hand – had been given her life to shape. Some men would have thought this a great gift, so why did it pain him so?
Just after the question formed in his mind he realized why her pulse seemed strange. He snapped his fingers away from her neck and struck the same spot with a slicing sweep of his sword. She dropped from the stool, and he darted outside a moment later, striding away, putting the tiny house behind him. He would forever remember the moment when he realized that the girl’s irregular heartbeat was actually a mixture of his pulse and hers, both of them captured there on his fingertips for the few moments they were connected. He might have become a soldier in the last few years, but he was still a brother, still a child who loved his sisters, still soft in some portion of his heart He prayed that the girl might understand his action as he had meant it : as a twisted merciful gift.
Another of my favourite passages was this one (this is the last one, I promise) :
Not yet ready to roll the papyrus away, he lifted it, absently, to his nose and inhaled. The scents were faint at first, reluctant and shy. The longer he breathed in, the more he found traces of fragrances beyond the papyrus’s dry flavour. Something of his mother’s fragrant oils came to him. Something of Carthaginian palms. A taste of sea air and of dust blown high and far-travelled on desert winds. And there was Imilce. Her scent was the last to come to him. When it finally revealed itself it was the most potent. It filled him with a longing so painful that he pulled himself forcibly from it. He threw the letter on the table and stared at it as if he expected it to rise and attack him. He had searched for her scent, but having found it he knew that such passions had no place in a commander’s chambers. They were more dangerous than Roman steel or cunning.
The story ends badly for most of the main characters. Only Publius Scipio, the Roman consul, comes out victorious at the end of the war. But he suffers personal losses – his father and uncle are killed in earlier battles. Some of my favourites survive though – Sapanibal gets together with the man she loves, Imago Messano, Imilce and her son survive and they get together with Hannibal in the end. The most interesting ending is to the story of Aradna and Imco. When an older companion asks Aradna what she wants out of life, she says
“Very little. I want to go home to Father’s island. I want to herd goats on the hills and watch boats pass at a distance. I want a quiet corner of the world away from all this. Every day I want a little less…Aunt, I just want peace.”
In the end this is what happens.
Aradna had many gifts to thank the goddesses for. She had escaped war. Scenes of death haunted her dreams, but they were no longer the fabric of every waking moment. She had found her way to the island she had known only by name, and on landing she discovered the remnants of her father’s family, an uncle who barely remembered his brother, several cousins, and a sister-in-law who – magically – welcomed her without question. Boys from the village laughed at the strange accent she spoke Greek with, but clearly they liked her company. They helped her build a hut of stone and clay, with a wood-framed roof of clay tiles. In a pen beside it she raised Persian fowl. She helped her reclaimed family harvest their olives and tend their pistachio trees and repair fishing nets for the village fleet. She helped an old man from the town raise edible dormice. This particularly gave her joy, for the squirrel-like creatures were shy and quiet, with trembling noses and bulbous black eyes and fur so soft she marvelled. True, they all eventually went into pots to fatten and were sold live at the weekly market, but still it was a gift to watch them born, to hold them in hairless infancy and see them grow. Nobody hungered to rob or rape her. Her small fortune was hardly even necessary, and yet was a comfort buried deep beneath the earth floor of her dwelling. She set her donkey loose to roam the nearby hills, though the creature never wandered from her. Was this not happiness?
That is not the end of it, though. She waits for Imco Vaca to come back, everyday, keeping an eye on the ships docking at the harbour. I don’t know how long she waited.
After reading the book, I wondered whether David Anthony Durham had a backlist. When I checked Wikipedia, I discovered that his first two novels are on African Americans in the 19th century, and his most recent three novels form a fantasy trilogy. ‘Hannibal : Pride of Carthage’ seems to be an oddball in his writing resume.
I liked ‘Hannibal : Pride of Carthage’. I am glad that through a complex series of random fortunate events, the book jumped at me from my bookshelf and made me read it. It also made me want to read more on ancient history. If you like novels which are based on ancient history, you will love this book.
Have you read ‘Hannibal : Pride of Carthage’? What do you think about it?