If you’ve been following me for less than two and a half years, your reaction might now be: “Who? Why?!” but if you’ve been with me for a while, you’ll now be nodding your head with an indulgent grin. Yes, I’m at it again! My favourite Carthaginian general, subject of my 2014 novel “Darkness over Cannae”. My falling for him is a weird and rather illogical story.
When I was twelve or thirteen, I watched a 1960 peplum movie with Victor Mature in an eyepatch that left out no Hollywood cliché. I was by then realistic and critical enough to know that Hollywood was usually never right, which had, at the age of thirteen, developed into a characteristic of mine that my mother called “The Digger”. To read up on Hannibal, I bought a young adult novel translating as “I went with Hannibal”, by author Hans Baumann, which made me completely fall for Hannibal.
In hindsight, the very last thing Mr Baumann must have wanted was for a reader of his novel to fall for Hannibal. In fact, he wrote the book to come to terms with his own Nazi past, having written half the songs the Hitlerjugend sang as they learned to be proper little Nazis, beat up Jews and kill Russians. The book was a cautionary tale about a charismatic but unscrupulous leader who drags all those around him to ruin with him.
That wasn’t totally lost on me. On the last 50 or so pages, the kind, funny, witty, brave Hannibal of the first 200 pages suddenly became a cruel figure who broke his word and alienated his friends and allies. I didn’t want that to happen. But neither did I want to fall in love with someone who didn’t deserve it. I was very conscientious that way. Naturally, I did what every thirteen-year-old would have done: I spent the next three years in libraries and read everything on Hannibal that I could get my hands on. I started with young adult novels and ended up with historical works whose footnotes covered more space than the text on the page. I wanted to know. It became a precedent that I employed for any topic that caught my interest from then on (skipping the young adult novels meant I could cover the same distance in about a year rather than three, the next time around).
Years later, as a University student, I came across the literary professor and Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, one of whose works started with the sentence, “I began with a desire to speak with the dead.”
There it was. My motivation for most of my life, for everything that had ever fascinated me. I had by then arrived at Richard III (who obviously was a far tougher case than Hannibal), and reading Greenblatt opened a world of understanding about facts and fiction for me.
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