Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Meeting Hannibal

I met the protagonist of Pride of Carthage while I was still a boy in elementary school. I'm not sure just who it was that brought tales of Hannibal Barca into my house, but whoever that forgotten relative or family friend was I owe them thanks. He or she filled my head with images of armies riding elephants over snow covered mountains, of great battles and triumphant heroes. I was fascinated by the exoticness of Hannibal's war, by the bravery and barbarity of ancient battle, by the notion of a titanic clash of the two pre-eminent Mediterranean powers of the time. It's the first instance I can remember of being enthralled by a distant historical event and by the persons who featured prominently in it. I never forgot this initial enthusiasm.

It was with considerable excitement, then, that I began to write the story of the Second Punic War several years ago. Beginning the novel I was aware that the same things that attracted me to it where the things that might do me in. How would I capture the polyglot diversity of Carthage's army? How would it write of an event like at Cannae, when seventy thousand Romans were cut, stabbed, trampled and suffocated to death in the dusty heat of summer afternoon? How could I convey the largeness and complexity of the political turmoil of the time while still maintaining a narrative drive? And from where would I find the wisdom to breathe credible, multi-faceted characters like Hannibal Barca and Publius Scipio (the man who eventually defeated him) back into life?

The answer is strangely simple and potentially anticlimactic... I just dug in and did it. For about two and a half years I got up every morning, turned on the computer, paced from one side of my tiny cottage to the other, looked out at the changing Scottish landscape (I lived in Dunkeld, Scotland, while writing this), and then I sat down and imagined myself into a different time and place. I had the pleasure of a taking several extended trips to the Mediterranean. I drove and walked as much of the territory of the novel as I reasonably could. I also read everything I could find about Hannibal, the Punic Wars and the Ancient Mediterranean World.

In terms of other fiction, I was influenced by Mary Renault's work, like The Persian Boy and The Bull From the Sea, by some of Gore Vidal's historical epics, like Creation, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Spartacus, by Gustav Flaubert's Salammbo, as well as by novels considered more commercial in objective, like Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. Those are all set specifically in the ancient world, but there were other novels that I looked to for inspiration in a more general sense of historical fiction. Beloved by Toni Morrison, Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, and Madison Smartt Bell's novels on the Haitian Revolution: all of these are epic works of literary fiction that served as models for what was possible from a historical novel.

At the heart of it all, of course, is Hannibal Barca himself. I believe you'll find the Hannibal of this novel to be a complex character composed from a variety of known facts and imagined possibilities, a person more interesting than either the villain or the hero that some camps wish to reduce him to. Most of the serious works on Hannibal make it clear that he was a military genius, a well educated man, a multi-lingual, talented orator, loved by his troops, feared by his enemies, respected by military figures ever since. I've written Hannibal as living by a code that he would've thought of as innately fair and honest - even though he's also a cunning killer who used any and all means at his disposal to achieve his goals. Some believe that Hannibal was driven by simple, unbridled hatred of Rome. But his actions throughout the campaign suggest that his ultimate goal was primarily to see Rome reduced in power – to see them remain a city-state just like any of the other city-states in Italy. He and his father recognized that Rome was gearing itself up to build an empire, and he knew Carthage could not remain as prosperous as it was if Rome had its way. His offensive can be seen, I believe, as a preemptive strike. Hannibal believed Rome was going to attack Carthage eventually, so he decided to do it on his time frame instead of waiting for theirs.

But Pride of Carthage is supposed to be about more than one man. Instead of writing it as a limited first person account I chose a cinematic third person voice, one that tells the stories of a myriad collection of characters. Thus the novel follows the Carthaginian foot soldier, Imco Vaca, and also tells of a Numidian horseman, Tusselo, and of a Greek scribe, Silenus, and of the camp follower, Aradna, and it recounts the tale of Masinissa, a young man who enters the story a prince, looses his throne part way through, and yet perseveres to become one of the classical world's most prosperous kings. The women of Carthage are also important players. Sapanibal, Hannibal's older sister, is a strong-willed women who would have made a fine soldier. With her husband dead and with no children, she finds herself exerting influence behind the scenes, both within her own family and in dealings with Carthage's aristocracy. Hannibal's mother, Didobal, is a wise older woman who knows a great deal about the trials of war and fate of nations. Imilce, Hannibal's wife, is a foreigner sent to live in Carthage. She’s dropped into an alien society of women that she has difficulty navigating. And in Hannibal’s youngest sister, Sophonisba, I found the story of one of antiquities greatest, most tragic love affairs.

I don't know how it will be received, but Pride of Carthage is my first offering of the style of novel I want to build my career on. When the reader turns that last page I want them to feel saddened that the book is over. I want them to have been so involved with these character's fates, so familiar with them and their struggles that they feel a loss at not being able to spend more time with them. In my own life a few books have given me that feeling - although not in a while. It's mostly the books that I read as an adolescent that did that for me, fantasy-adventure books like The Lord of the Rings or The Mists of Avalon or Dune. I'm not writing fantasy here, but the story is on such a scale that rarely can fact-based material be so grandly plotted. I wanted to regain some of that lost enchantment with the majesty of a complex story unfolding in epic form. From page one of this book I'm writing about human beings caught up in the swirl of one of history's greatest conflicts. The things these characters witness are triumphs and calamities beyond what any of us are likely to experience in our lives. There are love stories of Shakespearian complexity within these pages, twists of fortune, tales of retribution, personal tragedies, and lessons on the virtues and follies of war. I feel fortunate to have been able to put this episode of human history into words. The material was all I could have asked for and more. I feel it's improbable that I’ll ever find another story so grand.

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