Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Salammbô by Gustave Flaubert

Like a gory Carthaginian Sears catalog
In 1856, Gustave Flaubert became famous with his debut novel Madame Bovary, a ground-breaking work of realism that greatly influenced the subsequent development of literature. Despite being hailed as the poster child of realism, Flaubert did a literary 180 six years later with Salammbô, a romantic epic set in ancient Carthage. Even more surprising than his willingness to throw off his laurels and undertake this grand experiment is the fact that he succeeds at it.

Salammbô takes place in the third century BC in and around Carthage, in present-day Tunisia. It is a historical novel based on actual events that took place just after the First Punic War (Punic is a synonym for Carthaginian). In that war, Carthage hired a host of mercenaries from all over North Africa to help them fight the Romans. Now, with the fighting over and the treaty signed, those mercenaries are eager to be paid, and Carthage isn’t coming through on its promises. So the mercenaries—also referred to as the Barbarians—revolt against their former employers and start pillaging Carthage and its territories. They begin with the house of Hamilcar Barca, one of the chief magistrates and military leaders of Carthage. Barca is not at home, but his beautiful daughter, Salammbô, addresses the unruly crowd of unpaid warriors. Upon seeing her, Matho—a Libyan who becomes a leader of the mercenaries—immediately falls in love with her, and from that moment their destinies are entwined.

Despite the epic warfare, the pace of Salammbô is lethargic and the mood is lugubrious. There is little room for plot amidst the mountain of descriptive detail that Flaubert has massed. For most of its length, the book reads like the catalog of a Carthaginian department store. Clothing, furniture, home decoration, jewelry, cosmetics, cookware, and hardware (weapons), are lovingly depicted in intricate detail. The amount of research Flaubert must have done to accumulate all these atmospheric details is staggering. More than a novel, the book resembles a gallery of paintings by romantic masters like William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Jean-Léon Gérome, or Jacques-Louis David. In a chapter in which Salammbô prays to her god, for instance, that’s all that happens. Nothing else. At times this can get tedious. You wish something would happen, but people are too busy rubbing their cheeks with vermillion or outlining their eyes with antimony. Luckily, Flaubert applies the same descriptive faculty to diseases, wounds, and violent atrocities. The book is loaded with gore galore, which ends up being its saving grace. I will confess that I couldn’t always keep track of who was fighting whom during the military scenes, but the images Flaubert creates of brutal ancient warfare are indelible.

Amid the bloodshed he still manages to weave a story, however tenuous. The narrative of Salammbô is not as well-constructed as other 19th-century sagas of the ancient world like Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis or Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, yet somehow more than them Flaubert’s tale manages to ascend to the legendary heights of ancient epics like The Iliad or The Aeneid. I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece, because it frequently frustrates and occasionally bores, but although I didn’t always enjoy it I always admired it. I’ve read Madame Bovary and The Sentimental Education, and both left me feeling lukewarm. Salammbô, however, for all its faults, is one Flaubert book I’m unlikely to forget.
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