Most historical fiction centred around battles comprises thoroughly modern characters trotting across historic scenes speaking more or less modern language, with the occasional colourful archaism or medical term for added authenticity. They’re designed to be highly accessible page-turners, with the reader cheering on his or her hero, be he humble foot soldier or senior general, to greater heights.
Neither Carthage, by Ross Leckie (the last in his trilogy on the Punic Wars), nor The Siege, by Ismail Kadare (curiously translated, the title page informs us “from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by David Bellos” fits into this category of historical war novel. They won’t be everyone’s cup of tea — many will find them “too literary” — but if you want to get as imaginatively close to the action of either Rome’s destruction of the great African trading city, or into the massive army of the Ottoman Turks, you could hardly do better. And if you want to read fine writing, fine imaginings of a subject that doesn’t often get the “literary” treatment, then you’re also on the right track.
Carthage is told through the difficult device of the epistolary novel (well more or less – some chapters are also the “memoirs” of Leckie’s characters). Readers who know the story well will find many little in jokes and causes for reflection in the “papers of Marcus Porcius Cato, the Censor”, and the other real and imagined characters here, all “gathered” by the central narrator, the Greek historian Polybius, who introduces the tale and adds explanation along the way. For this is a tale of the politics of Rome as much as the battle for Carthage, although it is the battlefields that make for the most memorable moments, and those in which the author has caught ancient voices most, it seems, accurately, made them seem most truly foreign, as they surely would be could we enter a time machine.
So Hanno, the Carthagian leader, has taken on a local tribe, the Eraxth, and defeated them in battle. In his “memoir” he records:
The perhaps 3000 Eraxth surviving just threw down their swords and dropped their wicker shields. Some fell on their knees, muttering imprecations. We backed away, and Halax led the elephants down. The Eraxth who tried to run we speared or shot with bows. Most though, lay down to accept their fate. Halax had said their will to fight or live could ends as quickly as a summer storm. He was right. But that did not prevent their screams as the elephants, trumpeting and rising on their hind legs, trampled and pulped them.
Language too is one of the notable elements of The Siege, and language that seems both foreign and intensely human, easy to identify with. Travelling an odd path from its native Albanian, this Man Booker Prize winner also seems to give genuine voice to the historically voiceless, from the humble members of the general’s harem, uneducated women with small horizons dragged unknowingly into history, to the astrologer, desperately battling for safety in waters that can give him the responsibility of command without training or background, with desperate personal consequences for failure.
The subject of the siege by this great army is the fortress of George Castrioni, Christian rebel against the Ottoman yoke, and in occasional interspersions along the text we here from inside, the other side of the wall from the main story, as the defenders hold against the great horde.
But it is the voices of the Ottoman’s army that are most brought to life, in characters that are seldom attractive yet who somehow seduce you into caring about their fate, from the commanding pasha himself, right down to the master caster of the great guns.
You can read this tragic tale told from an usual perspective as simply a great story, or you could read it, as with Carthage, as a reminder of the great human failure that is war itself. The value of these novels is the depths in which they dwell, the heights they reach, and the world views across which they range – and they both conclude that war is stupid, war is hell, and war consumes humanity.