Hannibal and Me
By Andreas Kluth
(Riverhead, 325 pages, $28.50)
Hannibal was one of the world’s greatest warriors and military strategists, leading his Carthaginian forces across what was considered an insurmountable barrier, the Alps, and whipping Rome’s armies in pivotal battles. In his greatest victory, at Cannae, his troops killed 70,000 Romans in one day. Despite such crushing successes, he never captured Rome, remaining in Italy for 14 years fighting skirmishes before returning home. After his death, Rome conquered Carthage (today’s Tunisia), and wiped it from the map.
“All of Hannibal’s successes on the battlefield seemed, mysteriously, to amount to a huge failure. His triumphs turned out to be, in a word, imposters,” Andreas Kluth, U.S. West Coast correspondent for The Economist, writes in Hannibal and Me.
Mr. Kluth first read about Hannibal as a youngster, when he was too young to contemplate success and failure in life. The he saw a documentary about Hannibal, at a time, in his twenties, when his career was bogged down in a job at a bank. Mr. Kluth’s victories at work were banal, if not imposters.
He began to see a deeper meaning in the arc of Hannibal’s life – from the young boy tutored by his father Hamilcar, a famous general, to his own years as a wise elder, and then his suicide before the Romans could capture him.
In this book-long essay, Mr. Kluth weaves together the lessons and messages from Hannibal’s life and career with examples from an eclectic group of famous people including Albert Einstein, Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amy Tan, Steve Jobs, Picasso and Ernest Shackleton.
Start with the influence of parents: Hannibal was intent on emulating his parents, wanting to gain the victories that eluded his father. But some adolescents, such as Barack Obama and Eleanor Roosevelt, grow up with an absent parent, and the search for their father or mother and the love or values represented by the parent becomes a mission. Other adolescents, such as Ms. Tan, rebel against their parents, even if, in her case, she ended up writing a book about how much she loved her mother.
Hannibal had a goal from his childhood: conquer Rome. But Mr. Truman’s life, for one, offers a different path to success. The former U.S. president was a wanderer and searcher who dabbled in several unsuccessful businesses; arguably, Mr. Kluth writes, he didn’t become his own man until he was nearing 60 and took the chairmanship of a Senate committee investigating waste and fraud in defence.
The story of Hannibal, including his initial stunning victories, also demonstrates how success can became a trap. Mr. Kluth notes that “the invincible invader of Italy was now, paradoxically, captive in Italy, as though it were a shrinking prison of success. The fact that Hannibal was still officially successful made it impossible for him to escape this captivity.
“If he had suffered a military disaster of some sort, Hannibal would have had to evacuate Italy. It would have been humiliating, but he would have started over, with a different strategy, and the overall war might have gone in a different direction. But Hannibal was still successful, and victors don’t flee,” Mr. Kluth writes.
Ms. Tan found the height of her success – after writing The Joy Luck Club – to be like a plateau, which she needed to defend. But she couldn’t seem to, and struggled with writer’s block. She started her next novel seven times, throwing each version away after writing a few hundred pages, wanting to write differently – to be more erudite, or with no characters from her Chinese heritage – to prove her abilities.
Einstein, too, became a prisoner of his own ideas. He couldn’t search for the answer to some physics questions he had raised, because he had become conservative. “The intellect gets crippled, but glittering renown is still draped around the calcified shell,” he remarked to a friend. Physicist Max Born observed that Einstein “could not take in certain new ideas in physics which contradicted his own firmly held philosophical convictions … Many of us regard this as a tragedy.”
On the other hand, failure can be liberating, as the many career stories demonstrate. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was tossed out of his position and went on to develop new visions for computing and animation. Eleanor Roosevelt discovered that her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had a long-time mistress, and decided to reinvent her marriage; she found her own friends (and lovers) and her own role in the political sphere.
The book is a fascinating, illuminating look at careers through the prism of Hannibal’s life and the other people Mr. Kluth weaves in. His writing is seamless, the ideas provocative, and the book may offer you insights about your own career and life journey so far, as well as what lies ahead.
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