Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

<i> Eugen Weber's most recent book is "Apocalypses." He writes the "L.A. Confidential" mystery column, which appears monthly in Book Review</i>

We seek him here, we seek him there,

Those villains seek him everywhere.

Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?


That damned, elusive Pimpernel?

-- Emmuska Orczy, “The Scarlet Pimpernel”


As elusive as Baroness Orczy’s hero and certainly as damned, Hannibal Lecter is back, at the top of his form. So is Clarice Starling of the FBI, once Hannibal’s privileged interlocutor, lately shunted aside by envious stinkers and other malevolent colleagues in government service. If you enjoy cleverly repulsive stories that keep you on tenterhooks, theirs is the one for you. Theirs and Thomas Harris’, who drives us through 486 fast-paced pages, in which every apparent respite is but a prelude to further furious action.

“Hannibal” begins with a murderous paroxysm that leaves the reader breathless and Starling, already out of favor with time-serving bosses and other peccant knaves, in hard straits. It then goes on to interweave her course through bureaucratic minefields with Lecter’s more shadowy gyrations. Most readers will recall Hannibal the Cannibal, the brilliant psychotic who likes to chew on people, preferably the nasty and the rude: “free-range rude,” as at one point he calls them.

In “The Silence of the Lambs,” Dr. Lecter’s discrimination among tidbits was less in evidence. Here, he picks and chooses. Leaving aside irrelevant characters who happen to get in his way, the escaped killer now in hiding preys mostly on worse predators who threaten to threaten him or to bother Starling, whom he will reach out to protect. He has evolved since his previous incarnation, has developed a genealogy, explicative childhood traumas and unexpected sensibilities. His invulnerably malign personality has sprung chinks; his perfect repellence has shifted to chilling elegance and to diffuse yearnings made to attract sympathy.

Forgiveness is the virtue of the weak; compassion the conscience of the sated. Far from our own compassionate conformities, the fun of books like this is that the wicked are punished painfully. But Lecter no longer stands among the unequivocally wicked. Will he end in heaven or hell? As in other fairy stories, sweet justice will be carried out, but on a select few sinners.

The story’s chief villain, an evil cripple, vastly rich, malign, meddling, mighty and immensely vengeful, is planning to kidnap Lecter ahead of the police and to have him devoured by anthropophagous pigs from the legs up, so Hannibal can see and feel himself gobbled. The cad will perish, no thanks (for once) to his intended quarry. The second villain, Starling’s corrupt nemesis in the Department of Justice, will have an opportunity to assist at his own comestibilification: shallots, hot browned butter, minced caperberries, then saute. And so it goes, quite satisfyingly.

Harris’ hints, like Hannibal’s, are seldom meaningless. Lecter, as his name suggests, is a reader who reads in books but also in the souls of men, consuming knowledge garnered as he consumes hearts, brains, tongues and other choice cuts to feed his appetites; or as he tries to turn back time and exorcise the memories that shaped and still misshape him.

Literary references litter pages, thick as the leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa. Dante looms prominently; Freud lurks; Montaigne is an uncited presence. Chapter 20, about a Florentine exhibition of Atrocious Torture Instruments in which Hannibal and a local policeman play cat and mouse, evokes Montaigne’s essay on cannibals (“everyone calls barbarous that which is not his usage”). And Lecter, offspring of high-born nobility, cousin of Balthus, the austere hallucinatory Paris painter, likes to believe himself descended also from a dread medieval Tuscan, Giuliano Bevisangue.

The starling, on the other hand, is a small iridescent bird with a long sharp bill that may damage fruit and crops but consumes harmful insects. Thus Clarice: bright, bold and sometimes blundering into trouble, but mettlesome and glowing with vulgar virtues. Separately and together, these two will be pursued by the corrupt forces of alleged order, but also by powerful villains and their collaborators out for revenge, lucre or both. Their hounding, hue and cry are bound to turn: hunted becoming hunters. The trick will be to surprise wary readers; and there Harris’ box of dirty tricks, foul play and clever plays never runs out.

Whether in Washington, D.C. and environs, in Florence or Sardinia or Buenos Aires, action, when not exploding, smolders. Like Herman Melville, Harris believes that it is better to sleep with a sober cannibal than with a drunken Christian. Clarice will come to think so too. As for Lecter, frozen in ardent ice, he gives no damn for others and their tastes, only for his own and his fantasies. Yet Harris understands, hence Lecter learns, that a man’s pleasure is nothing unless shared by a woman. It will be shared by Clarice when they exchange exorcisms.

While Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” designed to while away a count’s sleepless hours, tinkle in the background, admirable heroine and villain-hero face down villain-victims richly deserving of their victimhood. As they dodge traps, nip past ambushes, surmount and master dangers, succumb only to rise again, the book maintains speed. Pages flame with blood; gory perfidiousness rages; turpitude lashes out; maniacs, madcaps, louts and brutes maim, slaughter and betray; but the ignoble get their comeuppance as they should. The book that began with a shootout culminates in a bang-up feast: a sumptuous banquet amid flowers, crystal and fine silverware, where a contemptible rogue provides the plat de resistance. And if the taste is gamy, flavor continues fine.

In less recherche circumstances, one of the Karamazov brothers once remarked that if the devil did not exist, then man has created him in his own image. Men and women have always proved most creative when inventing devilries. As for the Roman poet Terence so for Harris, nothing human is beyond imagining; hence nothing inhuman either. And since Lecter, like cousin Balthus, is a surrealist aesthete, a lover of beauty in crime, music, art and a gourmet too, nothing but the best will do for him; nor for Starling either, once her iridescence has come into its own.

One meal is to be savored, whatever the pain it has cost others. “The first rule of nature,” insisted the Marquis de Sade, that great naturalist, “is to seek my pleasure, no matter at whose expense.” All who love steak, even as hamburger, must endorse the thought. Lecter points out that taste and smell, being the oldest senses and closest to the center of our mind, are housed in parts of the mind that preceded pity. “Pity has no place at my table,” he declares. So much for taste. But good taste, something else again, demands more than sapidity. Lecter knows this well; Harris does too.

A tale that is endlessly terrifying, relentless in its awfulness, grows turgid fast. Cruelty is the least original of sentiments. It is a part of Hannibal’s charm, or at least his attraction, that occasional horror spices up elegance, grace and other expensive comforts that call for discrimination: It is ruthlessness not brutish but refined, hence more enjoyable. And if some of Hannibal’s powers are unbelievable, Harris’ writing, as always, incites suspension of disbelief.

What can be true of dinners is equally true of tales. In the arts, nothing lives except works that give pleasure. “Hannibal” speaks to the imagination, to the feelings, to the passions, to exalted senses and to debased ones. Harris’ voice will be heard for a while. No doubt the movie will too.