The cultural and urban sophistication of Carthage, its material wealth, and the exuberance of the environment only serve to highlight the cruelty and inhumanity of the mental landscape of its inhabitants, be them natives, colonizers or foreign mercenaries.
This novel was a huge risk for Flaubert: the difficulty of recreating a civilization about which so little is known exposed him to the criticism of of the experts (archaeologists, linguists, etc.). The French edition I read includes excerpts from letters, heated exchanges from which Flaubert comes out as the winner. He spent several months by the ruins of Carthage and reported to have read 98 books on the subject.
The "War of the Mercenaries" took place between 241 and 238 BC. Defeated by the Romans, to whom they had to concede Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, Carthage licks its wounds in their city. Their main general, Hamilcar Barca, has not returned from the sea and the city is full of mercenaries demanding their long-overdue pay. The carthagenians, however, are not willing to pay for a lost war.
The novel starts with a feast given to placate the mercenaries, in Hamilcar's palace. The feast degenerates into an orgy of violence during which the mercenaries insult a carthagenian captain, free slaves (some of whom they kill), burn the gardens and mutilate animals. Until, out of her habitations, Salammbo steps down, enchanting the mercenaries, and in particular two of them, Narr-Havas the Numidian and Matho the Libyan. With promises of payment, the mercenaries are thrown from the city and they go to Sicca, where they will start the war after feeling cheated again.
Salammbo is a religious fanatic, a virgin, who awakens in Matho an insane passion which will be his driver in the war. One of the freed slaves, the italo-greek Spendius, becomes MAtho's adviser and one of the leaders of the insurgents. Knowing the carthaginian superstitions, he convinces Matho of stealing into the city through the aqueduct, in order to profane Tanit's temple and steal the sacred veil of the goddess. Matho shows the veil to Salammbo and tries to elope with her, but she refuses and feels hatred against Matho for having transformed her in a sacrilegious sinner by having shown her the veil, a sight allowed only to the priests.
The insurrection attracts numerous supporters, since Carthage, as Flaubert puts it, lacks Rome's integrating political genius. One of the strong points of the novel is the description of the absolute religious eclecticism and of the overpowering spell of superstition. Everything could be divinized, adored and feared: statues, amulets, names. The gods were esentially cruel and bloodthirsty. Out of so much fear for them, the people ended up not believing in anything but Fate and Death.
Flaubert depicts the development of the war and both sides' repulsive cruelty. Images are strong, like the cloud of vultures circling over two thousand corpses on the beach. The fortunes of the armies shift, and the mercenaries put Carthage under siege.
Matho is hurt by Salammbo's rejection, and, possessed by Moloch, takes revenge on the women who follow the mercenaries. Meanwhile, Hamilcar has returned and taken charge of the army, tiring the mercenaries with cunning skirmishes. Hunger forces soldiers to commit actions like that of the Balear Zarxos, who drinks the blood right out of a soldier's wound. The war is strange: why does Hamilcar spares the mercenaries after the mountain battle? Why do the carthagenian cities Utica and Hippo-Zaryte join the mercenaries? The description of the tribes who join them is a recounting of lost and forgotten peoples, savage and exotic, like the ones who eat lice and grasshoppers.
Flaubert counterpoints the war with Salammbo's interior conflict. She's a hysterical barely controlled by the lugubrious eunuch Schahabarim, her preceptor and priest of Tanit, a man learned in the Mediterranean and Persian cultures, who believes the Earth is round and revolves through space at great speed.
The mercenaries' moment of glory comes when Spendius breaks the aqueduct,, plunging the city into despair. The Carthagenians chain and cover the gods so they won't desert them, "cruel masters who were appeased with prayers and who let themselves be bribed with presents". Th Crathaginians attribute the disaster to the theft of the sacred veil.
Schahabarim convinces Salammbo to show up at the mercenaries's camp, to recover the veil. For that, she has to surrender sexually to Matho, which provokes in her a mix of lust and hatred. The veil recovered, the Carthaginans pick up steam and fight the mercenaries back. In the city, they perform a grotesque sacrifice of children to Moloch. Corralled in the Ax Gorge, the mercenaries are massacred and eventually Matho is captured.
Like in "Blood Meridian" or "The War of the End of the World", the rebel armies attract the scum of the Earth: the losers, the mutilated, the miserable, the mad, the desperate. In turn, the war turns their opponents into beasts and worse, abject and stupefied beings drenched in blood. Horrifying images abound, like cannibalism in the Gorge or the crucifixion of the leper Hannon, whose body falls in bits and pieces from the cross.
Salammbo is a mystical figure, more than a real woman; Matho and Spendius are soldiers of fortune gone crazy; and Hamilcar is a military genius denuded of humanity. The country and city landscapes' description, and in general the recreation of this lost world are proof of the erudition and literary genius of Flaubert.
Thus my thoughts on this book
: I think that to enjoy a novel, rather than
: just endure it until it's over, you have to
: find a way in. A hook, if you will. For
: me, I think I most commonly am attracted to
: a character. But different novels work in
: different ways. In Tom Jones, I am
: fascinated with the narrative voice. In
: Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow, I am dazzled
: by the technical skill. In The Sun Also
: Rises, it is style. Bleak House has a
: wonderful plot. Most of these novels excel
: in many ways, but these are the things that
: are most remarkable and that draw me in.
: Usually, description is the boring part that
: I have to force myself not to skim over in
: Victorian novels, but in Salammb˘, it is the
: main course. Flaubert had already shown
: himself to be a master of characterization
: in Madame Bovary, but he chose to almost
: completely eschew character development in
: Salammb˘. As for plot, most of it is actual
: history, drawn from Polybius. No, this is a
: novel about description--things gorgeous and
: exotic, things weird and otherworldly, and,
: of course, things overwhelmingly savage and
: gruesome. It cries out to be read slowly
: (and probably in short sittings), the better
: to visualize all the overwhelming
: description that flows from his pen. I did
: finally get caught up in the action toward
: the latter part of the book, but for most of
: the trip, it was languid and decadent. I've
: never read anything quite like it.
: --Previous Message--
: I finished it. The only passage that ever
: roused the slightest interest was Matho
: dying before Salaambo.
: I think this is a book one has to be
: prepared for. I will probably enjoy it more
: if I ever reread it. As you remarked, it is
: long on description, exoticism and lushness.
: It begs a lot of visualization. I did,
: occasionally, try to make more of an effort,
: but I could never sustain it for long.
: Perhaps it's the sort of book I need to read
: in short sittings, but these days I have
: less time for secondary reading.
: You got caught up in the ending. I think I
: had more or less checked out by the time I
: got to the last third. I just wanted to
: finish and read something else.
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