Salammbo: A Book Review

It is often said that, for modern novelists, the field can be divided into periods of time “before” and “after” Flaubert. It is said that his influence on the modern novel is so all-pervasive that it is almost indistinguishable.

I can certainly see that in Salammbo; Flaubert’s historical fiction about a mercenary revolt in post-Punic war Carthage. In the novel, the protagonist Salammbo is a Carthaginian priestess of extraordinary beauty who falls in love with the mercenary barbarian general. Written almost 200 years ago, it still has the graphic descriptions, the beats and the forward momentum which we have come to expect from a (well written) novel today.

Interestingly enough, it has the same defects. Albert Camus used to complain about American novels, that they were the simple retelling of events and did not inject the protagonists state of mine, perceptions and impressions and hopes and dreams into the narrative. Camus can blame Flaubert – at least in the case of Salammbo. I believe the famous novelist was going for a “Helen of Troy” or a “Romeo and Juliet” experience by adding the fictional maiden corrupted by forbidden love, with death as the only possible outcome. The challenge is that, without letting us into Salammbo’s heart; without giving us her feelings and her anguish and her desperation the character becomes somehow cardboard and the love – less impactful.

Maybe I blame Flaubert for America’s chronic lack of personality in our characters, which has extended into Hollywood and beyond. More than likely its our own fault. Either way, I did not like Salammbo – the scenes of graphic “realism”, the genre for which Flaubert is given credit, were too brutal, too gory and not ‘cut’ or softened or rounded out by characters with whom the reader connects and which would make the reading experience beautiful and excruciating.

Nevertheless, it was a well written book by one of the masters. For that reason, alone, its worth spending time on.

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About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright, author of four novels. The most recent is "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps. Other works include "Lords of Misrule", "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio".
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