Hannibal Rising is Thomas Harris' exploration of what made Hannibal Lecter the cannibal madman we all know and love, and it's that touching kind of Bildungsroman--one in which the young man's ever-important loss of virginity is replaced with his first bloody kill. Don't ask why the world needed an explanation of what makes Dr. Lecter tick, but odds are it has much to do with the impending movie adaptation, due in theaters this February. Do we really need to know what horrible event transmogrified the sweet young Lithuanian boy who blows bubbles at his little sister in the bathtub into a decisive killer who dines on his victims' tender cheeks?
No, we don't, which makes Hannibal Rising an uninteresting read and a classic example of why it's better to leave pop-cultural characters shrouded in their own mystery instead of drawing them out into the light of public and psychological scrutiny. If you cringed at the sight of Darth Vader as a whiny teenager in the Star Wars prequels, then you will shudder to discover that Hannibal Lecter's entire modus operandi can be deconstructed into (surprise) a single meal: namely, a pot of soup made with the flesh of his baby sister Mischa. As Harris has it, a group of Nazi sympathizers in WWII Eastern Europe imprison the young Hannibal and his little sister in a barn where, in order to survive, his sister is boiled and eaten.
Why this unspeakable act would turn someone into a cannibal is beyond logic; if anything, you think it would make somebody a strict vegetarian for life. Aside from providing the only grotesque images in the entire novel--speckles of baby teeth in a stool pit, the skull of a little deer banging inside a bathtub of boiling water "as though it tried to butt its way out"--the event holds little implication for the rest of the book. Instead, we're meant to assume that watching your little sibling be consumed by starving villains leads to a life of cannibalism and criminal mastermindery.
Thus follows a standard plot involving Hannibal and his uncle's wife Lady Murasaki, who cultivates the young man into the calculated and slightly effete surgeon, artiste, and gourmand with whom readers of Harris' previous novels are familiar. Once grown, he seeks revenge on the band that betrayed his family and turned baby sis into Campbell's. It's here where the ridiculous antics reach their zenith, with Hannibal hunting down his prey one by one and submitting them to gory fates that will no doubt look brilliant on the big screen.
Hannibal as a samurai-cum-superhero? You won't recognize this character and, honestly, you don't want to. Within these pages, the mystique of Hannibal Lecter doesn't rise so much as it detumesces.