Shored against ruin

Meet at the Gate, Canongate’s excellent book site, has just posted a short piece I wrote about Ross Leckie’s Punic trilogy: Hannibal, Scipio and Carthage. These are great historical novels and my piece looks at the way the trilogy contrasts the two warring cities in a sort of paradigmatic way. I won’t repeat that here, though I hope you’ll take a look over there. But one of the things I most enjoyed about the books – and didn’t say in the piece – was the way they play around not so much with the past as such, but with just how we know what we know, or think we know, about the past. The opening novel, Hannibal, is straightforward first-person narrative, and excellently done (as I’ve said before). The other two novels are – on the surface – a bit more complex and, in some ways, might be less successful as a result, but they’re also more intriguing because of what can’t be said. First person narrative presupposes a very modern notion of what constitutes character and the self, as in self-awareness and its opposite, self-delusion, and Hannibal takes this as given. Hannibal tells us all he knows but also reveals himself to us in a way that’s closed to him, through accidental lacunae and deliberate refusals, so that, by the end of the novel, our knowledge of the man is greater than his knowledge of himself. This is the kind of knowledge about the past we can rarely have, however we seem to be promised it by the notion of history as a sort of authority. In the second novel, Scipio, the story is told, once again, by the hero, Scipio, but this time the information is mediated by Bostar, the man to whom Scipio is dictating his memoirs, but also the teller of his own more ambiguous tale and a man, we discover in the third volume, with his own agenda, in its way as extraordinary as that of the two men he’s served. Carthage, which describes the destruction of the great Punic capital (the harbour of which you can see in the picture), takes this doubling one stage further, gathering together a sequence of fragments that imitate the eventual fate of the city and, also, the failure of the Hellenistic faith in reason and logic that Bostar represents. There’s a mimetic shift in the feasibility of confidence as the trilogy develops. By the end of it, any faith we might have had in the uniqueness and authenticity of voice, and of history, has been replaced by something more modern.

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