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Hannibal the hero: in his latest work, David Anthony Durham writes an epic novel about the ancient North African military leader.

On the heels of two award-winning novels, Gabriel's Story (Doubleday, 2001) and Walk Through Darkness (Doubleday, 2002), David Anthony Durham's epic tome Pride of Carthage is generating buzz in the publishing world as a mammoth literary achievement. Durham's novel is based on the heroic tale of Hannibal Barca, the brilliant North African military leader of third-century B.C. Carthage and his valiant resistance against the powerful Roman Empire.

Officials at the Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group are banking on this one propelling Durham into the literary spotlight. As Gerald Howard, vice president and executive editor-at-large of the company, says: "He has managed to reinvent the historical novel for his literary generation, and it will make him a star." The book appears in stores this month.

At 35, Durham understands how much is riding on his fictionalized version of Hannibal's story and what it can mean to broadening the horizons of African American fiction. He took a breather after a recent stint as a guest writer on the West Coast to speak with Black Issues Book Review at his new home in Massachusetts. He said the idea of doing a book on Hannibal and the history of classical European history has been with him since elementary school; and the images of "a guy who took a multiracial, multinational, multilingual army to war with the Roman Empire" never left him.

"What inspired me was Hannibal Barca himself," Durham said. "He's the military leader from a North African nation who almost toppled the Roman Empire! If we lived in a more equitable world, there would already be as many books and films about him as there are about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. His achievements were on a similar scale, as were his talents, charisma, triumphs and tragedies. His soldiers rode elephants over the snow-covered Alps, won battles that are still studied in military academies around the world, and nearly set history on a different course than the one we know today."

Durham was born of West Indian parents and came from Trinidad to live with his grandmother in New York. At age five, he and his mother, who worked for the federal government, relocated to Maryland, where he attended high school and college. His mother's interest in African American life in Annapolis--in bondage and in freedom--provided Durham's inspiration for his second novel, Walk Through Darkness. For his latest novel, Durham was determined to research the story thoroughly, a painstaking quest that took him two years to complete. "I read everything I could about Hannibal, the Punic Wars, as they were called, and the ancient Mediterranean world in general" he added. "I had the pleasure of a few extended trips to the area, and drove and walked as much of the territory as I possibly could. But all that aside, the work remains a project of fiction."

Still, at the center of this impressive work is Durham's stunning portrait of Hannibal. Durham's Hannibal is one of the more complex, contradictory figures in both fiction and history. "The ancients who wrote about Hannibal were either Romans or Greeks employed by Romans," he said. "Considering that Rome eventually wiped Carthage from the face of the earth in a genocide of mass proportions, one has to read their characterization of Hannibal with a grain of salt. Most of the serious works on Hannibal make it clear that he was a military genius, a well-educated man, multilingual, a talented orator, loved by his troops, feared by his enemies, and he was driven by simple, unbridled hatred of Rome."

As America is currently engaged in war with Iraq, parallels will not be lost to readers as Durham transports them to the savagery and bloodlust of conflict in an ancient time before Christ. Hannibal's clashes at the major battles of the Trebia, Lake Trasimene and Cannae are memorably rendered. "There were so many instances in this novel where I had to describe men killing each other.

I chose to look at the different battles from differing perspectives, from alternating character's points of view, from different sections of the military, right from the highest officers down to the foot soldiers and cavalrymen, down even to the poor people who followed behind ancient armies to scavenge what they could from the dead. One of the things I was faced with was putting myself into the mind of a person standing before another."

There is the same care in his depictions of life beyond the battlefield as with family and community, especially the women. Durham has created some of the most intriguing, interesting women and relationships in fiction today--Hannibal's mother, Didobal; his wife, Imilce; and his sisters, Sapanibal and Sophonisba. Comparisons can be drawn to the ancient Roman Empire and its modern counterpart, the American Empire, as many European scribes note today.

"A lot of Americans claim to have no imperial aspirations, but I know that most of the world believes we do, and think we prove it time and time again with our actions," Durham says. "Ours is as yet a young experiment. Rome's sway was much longer and during a time when the pace of change was much slower. Comparison may be apt, but then again it may not be."

Durham says that during his adult life, he has enjoyed traveling. "I have always loved exploring other cultures, seeing new things and interacting with other worldviews. I've traveled all across America, quite a bit through Latin America and the Caribbean. After finishing my MFA [at the University of Maryland in College Park], I had the opportunity to work abroad. I took it and lived briefly in London before settling in Edinburgh, in rural Scotland."

Now, having returned to the States, Durham is writing full-time, occasionally appearing at colleges and universities. He is married with two children, so he reserves critical time for his family. As for his next project, he will not reveal the subject of the book--only that he's into 425 pages of it, so it will be another big, epic effort.

Being a writer means putting your neck on the chopping block, as Durham knows. "The majority of the reviews of both [earlier] books were favorable and really great," he concluded. "On the other hand, there was one who hated it and tried to convince people who hadn't read me that I never should have been published in the first place. I wanted to write a novel that could stand comfortably as a work of international historical fiction. I think some people are going to find that threatening. I expect to have a higher profile this time, but honestly that also means I anticipate more reviewers are going to think I'm getting too big for my britches and take it upon themselves to knock me back a little. We'll see. I have no control over it whatsoever."

Robert Fleming is a contributing editor to BIBR and the author of Havoc After Dark: Tales of Terror (Dafina Books, March, 2004).
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Author:Fleming, Robert
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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