This was originally posted on Vaguely Borgesian, my other blog, which now has fallen into disuse since I decided to cover non-speculative fictions works here as well on occasion.
History is a word fraught with ancient emotions and depths. From the ancient Greek ἱστορία, meaning roughly “narration of what is learned,” to the Latin historia, which has the extra connotation of “story” to go with the Greek meaning to the French histoire, the Spanish and Italian historia, and of course the English history, the word refers not just to the past, but also to what we’ve learned from the past, as well as the narrative tales we transmit from generation to generation in order to impress upon our youth the important “lessons” that past events can teach us.
It was for the storytelling aspects, the ability to learn from prior events and to piece together meanings and stories from people from other places and times, that led me to get my BA and MA in European cultural/religious history a little over 10 years ago. Although I currently am not working in that field, I still value and cherish it and for the most part, I have looked at “historical novels” with a skeptical eye. Common questions I have asked myself when reading historical novels have been “Will the author be more “true” to the mechanisms of change or will s/he try to be “true” to the “spirit” of the events? Will the “story” aspect of history be on display here, or will it devolve more into a hodge-podge of mostly-unexplored events and poorly-developed characters, with just a surface layer of “historicity” to top it off?”
These were some of the questions that I had when I began reading David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage. Now I had earlier read his excellent fantasy, Acacia: The War with the Mein, as well as two smaller-scope historical works, Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness (I plan on re-reading the latter two before reviewing them here in the coming months), so I was familiar with Durham’s basic writing style and his approach towards characterization, but still the question still lingered about how he would approach the larger-than-life persona of the Carthinginian general Hannibal during his 218-203 BCE campaigns against the Romans during the Second Punic War. Would Hannibal be portrayed more as an übermensch, dominating without much effort or struggle, or would he be set up more as a tragic hero, whose own virtues end up being the cause of his downfall at Zama at the hands of Scipio Africanus?
What I found while reading this novel is that Hannibal is neither all of A nor all of B, but a bit of both with some surprising (but fitting) elements tossed in. Eschewing a more traditional approach of concentrating mostly on the general himself, Durham devotes quite a bit of time to his family, from his brothers Hasdrubal, Hanno, and Mago, to his father, Hamilcar, and in some of the more poignant scenes that frame the novel, his son, also named Hamilcar. In many ways, this is a tale about a father who has done many great and terrible things, at a horrendous cost to his home and family in the end.
Below is an excerpt from near the beginning of the novel that reveals quite a bit about how Hannibal came to be the leader that he was. His father has taken the then-eight year-old Hannibal to see a prisoner, one who had tried to betray Carthage:
“This man betrayed Carthage, “Hamilcar said, his voice a dry rasp that he could not shake, though he cleared his throat several times. “Do you understand that? This man conspired to open the gates of our city to the mercenaries. He did it for money, for power, out of a sheer hatred that he hid behind the mask of a countryman. He almost succeeded. had this man the power, he would yank you up by the ankles and bash your skull against the stones beneath us. He would nail me to a cross and leave me to die slowly. He’d see me a rotting, maggot-filled corpse, and he would laugh at the sight. He would slit your brother’s necks and rape your mother and have her sold into slavery. He would live in our house and eat our food and rule over our servants. This is the man before you. Do you know his name?”
Hannibal shook his head, his eyes pinned to the stones and not moving even as he answered.
“His name is Tamar. Some call him the Blessed, others the Foul. Some call him friend. Some father. Some lover. Do you understand? He has other names also: Alexander. Cyrus. Achilles. Khufu. Yahweh or Ares or Osiris. He is Sumerian, Persian, Spartan. He is the thief in the street, the councillor who sits beside you, the man who covets your wife. You choose his name, for he has many, as many names as there are men born to women. His name is Rome. His name is mankind. This is the world we live in, and you’ll find it full of men like this.”
Hamilcar released the man’s head and placed his hands on his son’s shoulders. He pulled him close and let the boy rest his forehead against his cheek. Hannibal did this willingly, for he did not want to look at the man about whom they spoke. “Son,” he said, “there was a noose around our neck and to cut it I had to kill many men most horribly. You are a child, but the world you were born into is no kind place. This is why I teach you now that creation is full of wolves aligned against us. To live in it without falling into madness, you must make of yourself more than a single man. You love with all your heart as a father and son and husband. You wrap your arms around your mother and know the goodness of women. You find beauty in the world and cherish it. But never waver from strength. Never run from battle. When the time comes to act, do so, with iron in your hand and your loins and your heart. Unreservedly love those who love you, and protect them without remorse. Will you always do that?”
Against his father’s chest, the boy nodded.
“Then I am proud to call you my firstborn son,” Hamilcar said. He pulled away and stood up straight and yanked a dagger from the sheath on his ankle and pressed the handle into his son’s hand. “Now kill this man.”
Hannibal stared at the blade in his small hand, a dagger nearly as large as the toy swords he practiced with. He closed his fingers around the handle slowly, felt the worn leather, the rough weave of it and the solidity of the iron beneath it. He raised his eyes and moved toward the man and did as his fathered ordered. He did not lift the man’s head, but he slipped the blade under his chin and cut a ragged, sloppy line that yanked free of his flesh just under the ear. He fell against the dead man’s body for a moment. Though he sprang back, the touch still stained his nightclothes with the man’s newly flowing blood. He was just eight years old that night. Of course he had not forgotten that moment. Nor would he. It would be with him on his deathbed, if the moment of his passing allowed for reflection. (pp. 88-90)
It is in this scene, one-sixth into the novel, that foreshadows so much of what transpires later. Hannibal the character becomes a well-rounded individual who flashes both the iron of necessary action and the warmth of a caring and generous heart. He inspires his men through his valor and bravery, even though he sees only out of one eye after one battle. While many of his characteristics seem to indicate that this will be the tragic hero who falls down to Death at the end, Durham chooses not to take that path. Although Hannibal remains at the center of the tale, Durham devotes much time to developing his secondary characters, especially the conflicted and complex relationship between Imco Vaca and Aradna, whose periodic encounters serve to underscore the various tensions that are on display throughout the course of this novel.
When I evaluate a historical novel, I first want to see if the invented characters blend in well with the historical main characters. In Pride of Carthage, they do for the most part. Then I want to examine the writing and see if it feels “alive,” that it is more than just a dry retelling of the past without anything really contributed in the way of an actual story. As indicated from the lengthy excerpt above, I believe that Durham’s writing suits the story very well, with the humanness of the characters on full display. Some readers might complain that the narrative approach is a bit “too distant” for them. Perhaps they’d rather have more dialogue or intense action than the panoptic third-person PoVs that Durham employs to tell his story. For me, the narrative voice works here because with the scope of the action and the amount of time that Hannibal’s story has to cover (the first 43 years of his life), I cannot think of a more appropriate narrative voice that would have managed to accomplish as much within a single 568 page novel.
However, there are a few cases in which a bit more time devoted to dialogue could have made the ending even stronger. In particular, the political maneuvering taking place both in Rome and Carthage perhaps could have been shown in more detail. It would have been nice if Scipio Africanus could have had more “talk time” in the buildup to the Battle of Zama. Maybe even more could have been said about the Battles of Lake Trasimene and Cannae. And let us not forget the rather compressed timeline, in which Hannibal’s son still appears as a child at the end rather than the young adult he would have been after being separated from his father for 15 years. But these are quibbles, for the most part. No historical novel can be completely “true” to the recorded events without encountering places where the storyline needs are going to clash with some historical gaps or contradictions. So while the compressed timeline might be annoying for those history buffs who want super-accurate renderings of battles and events, for those who want a good tale set in a particular historical mileu, Pride of Carthage is an enjoyable and rewarding novel. It certainly was one of the better historical novels that I have read in the past ten years and I would highly recommend it to others who enjoy reading historical novels or for those who like intriguing and dynamic characters.
Publication Date: January 18, 2005 (US), Hardcover; January 3, 2006 (US), Tradeback.