I'd not intended to read Salammbô
, Flaubert's close-to-unknown second novel, but I was at the end of Madame Bovary
and saw a yellowing 1922 edition in the 1 Franc pile at the Geneva flea market's book stall. How could I resist? It's a strange book, and at first I had trouble getting into it. I'd expected it to be like Madame Bovary
, and it really isn't. Instead of the tedium of French provincial life and the brilliant character development, we have a wide-screen historical epic set around Carthage, shortly after the end of the first Punic War. There is no character development to speak of, and the story is a non-stop thrill ride featuring, among other things, mass gladiatorial combat, cannibalism, parades of crucified lions, war-elephants with scythes strapped to their trunks, and magic rites involving nude women and pythons. For the first few chapters I wondered if Flaubert had gone mad, or was at best having a really serious off-day.
As I got further into Salammbô
, though, I began to like it more, and by the time I was half-way through I couldn't put it down. You have to hand it to Flaubert. With Madame Bovary
, he created the modern psychological novel; most authors would have been content to do it again for the rest of their careers. Flaubert thought he'd try something different, and created another, less respectable type of book, the decline-and-fall blockbuster. Since then, it's been copied innumerable times, and is particularly popular in the SF/fantasy genre: Salammbô
reminded me rather strongly of Foundation
, Conan the Barbarian
and Star Wars
, to name just a few. I immediately recognised the decadent, overcivilized Empire, the uncouth but virile barbarians, the sexy virgin priestess, the twisty, double-crossing intrigues and the graphic battle scenes. They've become standard ingredients that any author can take down from the shelf and stir into a plot that needs a little livening-up. But the 20th century imitations I'd come across had mostly been written by hacks; it was weird to see it all presented in Flaubert's beautiful, ornate French.
It's a remarkably modern story. Carthage is playing host to a large army of mercenaries, who are waiting to be paid for their services in the recently concluded war; the greedy council are reluctant to part with their gold; negotiations turn sour; soon the merceneries have started an insurgency that lays the country waste. As the war becomes more and more savage, the polytheistic Carthaginians lose faith in the benevolent Tanit, goddess of the Moon and fertility, and come under the sway of the dreadful Moloch, god of fire and destruction. The scene where the children are sacrificed in the belly of the bronze Moloch-idol is the most horrifying thing I have read this year.
If the novel had came out today, I would have believed I saw references to current events. We are turning away from Tanit, and towards Moloch. It'd make a good movie: I can already see the poster, with Gerard Butler as Mâtho, the hunky leader of the Mercenaries, Emmy Rossum as Salammbô, the beautiful priestess of the Temple of Tanit, and Sean Penn as General Hamilcar, her father. If you happen to be in the movie business and you're looking for ideas, consider asking a hungry young screenwriter to put together a draft script.
Oh yes, and here's the oddest thing: I looked it up on Wikipedia, and pretty much the whole story is true. That really made me think.
Ah... I was saying it was surprisingly modern, and would make a great movie. Having done a little googling, I've discovered that there is indeed a bad and completely forgotten 1960 movie. More interestingly, there's a video game! Here's a picture of the title character:
I don't think they've taken the costume directly from the book (at least, I don't recall her wearing this precise outfit), but it's true to the spirit of the thing. Salammbô is a hot chick and dresses to display her assets to best advantage.
I'm still stunned by the idea that one of Flaubert's novels exists in game form. What other classics have been given this treatment?
After some more googling, I find that there's a moderately famous painting by Gaston Bussière featuring the aforementioned scene with the magic rites and the python. Given this site's strict no-nudity policy, I'd better not include the picture itself. But you can see most of it on the cover of the edition I'm reviewing here.