Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gustave Flaubert's "Salammbo": Book Review

Perhaps if Anthony Burgess wrote a screenplay directed by Werner Herzog that remade a sword-and-sandals Victor Mature epic by Cecil B. DeMille from storyboards abandoned by D.W. Griffith during "Intolerance," this might match this 1862 historical novel. Based on Polybius' accounts of the First Punic War of 241-238 B.C., this elaborates the battles around Carthage against anarchic mercenaries and vengeful barbarians. It's the clash of corrupt civilization with its spiteful negation. Futility dominates both camps. The conflict's rousing but dispiriting.

Alternating battle scenes with municipal intrigue, Flaubert drew upon his journeys to the Levantine and North Africa in the 1850s. Readers of his previous novel, "Madame Bovary," may be disoriented by the sheer mass of archeology, military data, obscure erudition, and formidable description of exotic flora and unfamiliar fauna within these pages that contrast vividly Flaubert's earlier exploration of extra-marital lassitude amidst the petit-bourgeoisie.

A better comparison? Flaubert's aborted "Temptation of St. Antony" with its lavish visions, and his letters edited (also in Penguin Classics, also reviewed by me here and on Amazon) as "Flaubert in Egypt." These prepare you for the voluptuous and violent contrasts revelled in by the author here. Salammbo's temple priestess serves the moon-goddess Tanit amidst overwhelming luxury atop festering decay; inside its walls and outside its gates, the wealth of Carthage constantly arouses the greed and revenge of those dominated by its power. These contending forces undermine its status and provoke its proles and slaves to seek its destruction, even though the capital will fall along with the capitol, so to speak, as the city faces assaults by mobs of mercenaries and barbarians.

Whether or not this short but stuffed narrative is suited for you depends on your ability to stomach lots of blood and guts, mixed with a frippery of allure and a heap of data. Flaubert wishes to tell you all he learned, and this may deter the casual reader. Like a lavish miniseries, the dialogue may not live up to the staging, and the costume drama may bemuse or stupify you as often as it entices. Still, as these samples of his style at its most splendid will reveal, the entry into this overlooked and little-read novel today may prove as rewarding as six hours spent watching a made-for-TV "star-studded event" today.

Carthage's predicament: "Usually the city kept its promises. This time, however, its burning greed had led it into disgrace and danger. The Numidians, Libyans, all Africa were poised to hurl themselves on Carthage. Only the sea was free. There she met the Romans; and like a man set upon by murderers, she felt death all around." (65)

After dark in the temple grounds: "Here and there a stone phallus rose up, and big stags wandered about peacefully, kicking fallen pine cones with their cloven hoofs." (77)

Carthage's relevance to our own political economy? "First of all, power depended on all without any being strong enough to seize it. Private debts were considered as public debts, men of Canaanite race had the monopoly of trade; by multiplying the profits of piracy with those of usury, by crude exploitation of the land, the slaves and the poor, some people achieved wealth. Wealth alone opened up the magistracy; and although power and money were perpetuated in the same families, the oligarchy was tolerated because one could always hope to attain it." (91)

After one battle: "Night fell. The Carthaginians and the Barbarians had disappeared. The elephants, who had run away, were roaring on the horizon with their towers on fire. They burned in the dark, here and there, like beacons half-hidden in the mist; and nothing was to be seen moving on the plain but the rippling of the river, swollen with corpses which it was carrying to the sea." (149)

After another battle: "The Greeks dug pits with their sword points. The Spartans took off their red cloaks and wrapped them round the dead; the Athenians laid them out facing the rising sun; the Cantabrians buried them beneath a heap of stones; the Nasamones bent them in two with oxhide straps, and the Garamantes went to inter them on the beach so that they should be for ever watered by the waves. But the Latins were grieved not to be able to collect the ashes in urns; the Nomads missed the hot sands in which bodies become mummified, and the Celts missed the three rough stones, beneath a rainy sky, deep in a bay full of islands." (197)

(Posted 2/20/09 to Amazon US.)

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