Monday, 17 February 2014


Salammbô by Alfons Mucha (1896)
from Wikipedia

I recently finished Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô published in 1862. The only other Flaubert novel I’ve ever read is, inevitably, Madame Bovary. Salammbô is not at all like Madame Bovary.

Wikipedia describes it as largely an exercise in sensuous and violent exoticism which is about right. It is set in Carthage during the Mercenary Revolt triggered when Carthage failed to pay its mercenaries after the First Punic War.

Flaubert researched the period in great detail, using Polybius as his main source and the novel simply oozes fascinating detail. It almost makes one want to rush off and imbibe the history of this exotic city.

The main characters are Salammbô herself, a fictitious Carthaginian priestess, her father Hamilcar the Carthaginian general and father of Hannibal, plus two mercenary leaders Matho and Spendius.

While reading the book I had to look up what Dickens was publishing at the time - by way of a cultural comparison. It turned out to be the serialised version of Great Expectations completed in 1861, highlighting the vast gulf between Salammbô and Dickens' typically sentimental tale.

A single example of the exoticism in Salammbô will probably suffice. It concerns Hanno, a rich Carthaginian general suffering from an incurable and highly unpleasant skin disease :-

From time to time he would rub his limbs with his aloe-wood spatula, or perhaps he would break off to drink a ptisan made of the ashes of a weasel and asparagus boiled in vinegar from a silver cup handed to him by a slave; then he would wipe his lips with a scarlet napkin and resume:

For me, a key feature of this impressive work is its depiction of an ancient yet complex society with its tangled themes of casual violence, abject superstitions and sensuous decadence amid the most grotesque inequalities.

Crucifixion and torture are commonplace yet almost understandable in a society driven by a constant, nagging fear of bloody conquest where the victor takes all and the vanquished may count themselves lucky if merely killed quickly with a clean sword thrust.

Even dogs howl at their peril, with no RSPCA to look after their canine rights.

He awoke her before daylight. The dog was howling. The slave went up to it quietly, and struck off its head with a single blow of his dagger. Then he rubbed the horses' nostrils with blood to revive them.

At one point, the mercenaries' siege of Carthage, the situation becomes so dire that the citizens resort to sacrificing children, burning them alive within a huge hollow brass effigy of the Baal Moloch.

Then the faithful came into the passages, dragging their children, who clung to them; and they beat them in order to make them let go, and handed them over to the men in red.

The instrument-players sometimes stopped through exhaustion; then the cries of the mothers might be heard, and the frizzling of the fat as it fell upon the coals.

Far removed from the death of Little Nell isn't it?

In the end, Hamilcar is victorious. After a series of skirmishes, sieges and battles such as the grisly Battle of "The Saw", Matho ends up captured and tortured to death while Spendius is crucified. The mercenary army is destroyed, its remnants no longer of any account. For the Carthaginians, Moloch has been satisfied. 
For now.

When night had fallen yellow-haired dogs, those unclean beasts which followed the armies, came quite softly into the midst of the Barbarians. At first they licked the clots of blood on the still tepid stumps; and soon they began to devour the corpses, biting into the stomachs first of all.


Sam Vega said...

I recommend "Bouvard & Pecuchet". And the "Dictionary of Received Ideas" which is only a few pages long, but very funny, in aim and in some of its rather dated details. There are some daft modern English copies, but nothing with its sly inventiveness.

A K Haart said...

Sam - thanks, I've just checked and I have both on my Kindle collected works so I'll take a look.

Sackerson said...

What is it with Frenchmen and perversion?

Read Huysmans?

James Higham said...

Quite fascinating. I'm exploring Turandot and Tosca at this time too and the recurrence of such types in art/lit is interesting.

Demetrius said...

Is this bedtime reading or early to prepare the mind for the days politics? 1861 was the time when Prince Albert died which possibly has nothing to do with it. Re James Higham, in the late 80's we were at Covent Garden for a "Turandot" when Margaret Thatcher was in the Royal Box. The Zefferelli Met' one is a good watch.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - it's all that absinthe. Yes I've read Huysmans' À rebours.

James - a age of grand exotic drama, now replaced by EastEnders.

Demetrius - it is mostly evening reading in my case - after I've said goodnight to the blog.

Pete McAdam said...

Have not read all of it, but the account of Baal sacrifice is chilling.

A K Haart said...

Pete - it is - and difficult to understand how people could be so insanely superstitious.