Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo - a Historical Masterpiece

If you have read Flaubert's masterpiece Madame Bovary you will hardly recognize that the historical novel Salammbo is written by the same author. Whereas in the first book the French novelist focuses on the adulterous affairs of Emma Bovary as a means to escape the banal and empty provincial life, in Salammbo he depicts a rather unexplored period of history - Carthage immediately before and during the Mercenary Revolt in 3rd century BC.

What unites both works of literature is Flaubert's astonishing writing style. While I was reading his novels I felt as if there were no unnecessary words or expressions; the author searches for the perfect set of words to describe an event, an emotion, or a character. The result is obviously brilliant - Salammbo is a historical masterpiece about Carthage, which amazes the reader with the author's extensive research and knowledge about the topic.

When after the First Punic War Carthage is unable to fulfill its promises to the mercenaries, it finds itself under their brutal and outrageous attack. Three years of war are portrayed by constant shift of power between the Carthaginians, lead by their brave general Hamilcar Barca and the mercenaries under the rule of the Lebanese Matho. The novel gives a brutal depiction of the battles - the warriors are grotesque, vulgar, and heartless. They have lost their human shape; friendship and love have been change by the instinct to survive. The Carthaginians rituals to conciliate the Gods are unimaginable - they sacrifice all the nobility's children to ensure the positive outcome of the war. The mercenaries are no angles either. Hunger and thirst deprive them from their human virtues and force them to act as animals - killing and eating each other in order to beat death.

In the middle of this horrific picture rises the character of Salammbo - Hamilcar's beautiful daughter. Matho falls deeply in love with her and steals the sacred veil of Carthage. This prompts Salammbo to enter the mercenaries' camp and to return the sacred symbol thus securing Carthage's victory. The girl feels strangely attracted to him and when the war ends and Matho is publicly executed in Carthage on her wedding day, she dies as well.

Although the novel was extremely difficult to read, I enjoyed it quite a lot. Flaubert indeed did his research. The author shows extensive knowledge in this tale of blood and cruelty. The book is all about the precise and accurate description of the barbaric tribes, the ancient rituals and weapons, the battles, and the strategic moves. Gustave Flaubert indeed creates a detailed portrait of the Mercenary revolt. Salammbo is an epic masterpiece about sensuous and violent exoticism. Even though Flaubert's first novel Madame Bovary is considered his absolute masterpiece, Salammbo is another bestseller, which seals his reputation as one of the best French novelists. If you enjoy historical novels, I would definitely suggest Salammbo because you get to explore a time period not largely exploited in literature. Hence, you will be interested and fascinated.

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