Becoming Hannibal Lecter

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Sir Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs"

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He's gone so far as to fiddle with aspects of his subject's biography. In Red Dragon the young Hannibal is said to have tortured animals — the first indication of a sociopathic personality. Yet in Rising he displays kindness and closeness to a flock of swans and his favorite horse, Cesar, who affectionately recalls Hannibal when he returns to the family estate 10 years after he left.

Harris has transformed Hannibal into a variation on the standard action hero: the solo commando, escaping from more confrontations with mean, tough, armed men than Schwarzenegger and Van Damme in their prime. He is also the standard movie detective, sleuthing clues as to the whereabouts of his sister's killers. Indeed, he has assumed here the role of the real heroes of Red Dragon and Silence — he's the detective and the villains are the original cannibals. Like Will Graham or Clarice Starling, he's tracking them down, slipping into their crafty minds and trying not to be killed by them.

Not that young Hannibal Lecter doesn't have his kinks. That last image of Mischa not only haunts him, it nourishes his derangement, like broth for a sick child. It encourages him to raise sadism to an art, his murders as elegant as Japanese flower arrangements, as dramatic as the flourish of a Z from Zorro's blade. Hannibal the swordsman-calligrapher slashes X's on his first victim. Later he inscribes the letter M, for Mischa, all over one of the men who had killed and consumed her.

In some respects, the 13-year-old Hannibal reminds me of the young Humbert Humbert — hero, villain and narrator of Nabokov's Lolita. Each is a well-born lad cruising through an idyllic youth that is capsized when he is separated from the girl he loves. But whereas Humbert gets locked in a time warp, incapable of loving any female older than his childhood sweetheart Annabel Leigh, Hannibal transfers his love to Lady Murasaki. This knowing, generous woman has awakened the man in a boy, and the book's real suspense is not over whether Hannibal will find the killers but whether he'll consummate his adolescent yearning for his lovely aunt, and she will complete his sentimental education.

For readers looking for early traces of familiar frissons, Harris provides Hannibal's first act of violence (attacking the butcher), his first murder (the butcher), his first interrogation by, and of, a police inspector (Inspector Popil); his first jail cell chat (except that this time he's on the other side of the bars); his first bite of a victim's flesh (both cheeks) and his first human dinner.


"Hannibal Lecter, last of his line," Harris repeatedly calls him in the book. But this book is unlikely to be the last in its line. For one thing, it ends nearly 20 years before Will Graham captured Hannibal (in 1975, according to the 3,500-word biography on Wikipedia). According to the FBI dossier on Hannibal in Red Dragon, he committed nine murders — that we know of — and who knows how many drive-by nibblings.

And that's just filling in Lecter's curriculum vitae. At the end of the 1999 book, Dr. L had managed to hypnotize or brainwash Clarice, and we were left with the image of the killer and his favorite pursuer ensconced in Buenos Aires as a contented couple. Will the fair damsel snap out of it and escape her lover-tormentor? Maybe she'll unearth his submerged humanity and turn Hannibal into a vegetarian; the fava beans and Chianti would still be on the menu, but not his latest victim's liver. Or, if he's permanently lured Clarice to the dark side, they might roam the world as superstar vampire and zombie, the Brad and Angelina of psychopathic predators.

Like the young Hannibal Lecter when he first picked up one of Lady Murasaki's swords, Thomas Harris still his work cut out for him.

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