“The supreme artist, Flaubert”, Robert Lowell writes, “was a boy before the mania for phrases enlarged his heart.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in Salammbo, Flaubert’s fictional retelling of the war between the city-state of Carthage and a band of mercenaries who lay siege to it.
The fascinating thing about Salammbo is the way it is so many books at once. On the one hand, it is fantasy – a great historical war adventure, complete with a quasi-mythical setting, exciting battles, engaging characters. Yet the events described are meticulously researched and historically accurate and Flaubert, Herodotus like, describes the civilization of Carthage in detail: the customs and beliefs of its people, the social structure, the economic and political foundations.
For all that, Salammbo is no dry history text. Flaubert’s battle scenes have a vividness and energy even CGI couldn’t do justice to. For sheer goriness Salammbo is as bloodthirsty as the Iliad, except that unlike Homer’s epic, Flaubert describes the horrors of war from the perspective of the common people – the ordinary soldiers, the besieged citizens. This is realism at its finest, yet it is realism in prose that is both flamboyant and lyrical, the phrasing so lush (even in translation) that the very act of reading becomes a sensual experience.
Finally, and perhaps most improbably, Salammbo is a love story, or at any rate, a lust story. Beneath the savagery of the war runs an electric undercurrent of sexual tension between Matho, the leader of the rebels, and Salammbo, the daughter of the Carthaginian general Hamilcar. Framed between these two figures, the war becomes something hallucinatory, a thing of the sub-conscious, a battle of sexual principles. Salammbo is more than a fantasy, it is a horrifying yet unforgettable dream – one that will continue to haunt you long after you awake from it.