Catholic Herald, 8 November 1985
Review: Hannibal’s Footsteps by Bernard Levin (Jonathan Cape, £10.95)
The most surprising thing about this lively retracing of Hannibal’s journey from France to Italy over the Alps is the fact that this self-confessed sybarite is able to walk at all. Like TV news-readers one never connected legs with the face. A brief glance at some of the excellent photographs reveals Mr. Levin’s spindly little legs which, albeit aided by his redoubtable walking-stick, look hardly capable of crossing Fleet Street let alone the Alps.
Setting out from Aignes-Mortes in the Camargue Mr. Levin plods more or less in the footsteps of his long-time hero Hannibal; completing the journey some six weeks later at the Italian border in a blizzard.
And all credit to him, considering his bad back, his little legs, and the imminence of his fifty-sixth birthday.
Unless you’re in the habit of reading the end of books first, or dust jackets very carefully, the fact that he’s accompanied by a TV crew of six never obtrudes. His companions are the guide and the donkey-man who take him over the Col des Aiguilles (the high point of the book and of his alpine crossing), the people he meets en route and mainly, his observations and reflections. These reflections are usually amusing, frequently informative, and often philosophical.
This is not a travel book in the strict sense of the genre, there are too many distractions. Neither will it add much to your store of knowledge about Hannibal: this shadowy Carthaginian seems almost incidental. (What a shame the plan to take elephants had to be abandoned! Hannibal and elephants being synonymous surely. Mr. Levin and elephants would have been an irresistible combination and I call it niggardly of Channel 4 to deny us such a spectacle.)
No, Mr. Levin’s book isn’t strictly a journey from A to B. What he was really looking for he might just as well have found in his own back-yard: (in the unlikely event of him possessing anything so humdrum) some sort of reconciliation between this world and that other world.
Peace and serenity are words that frequently occur. He looks for answers in the grandeur of nature (perhaps they lie beyond the next peak?), glimpses them in the faces of the country folk he meets along the way but knowing all along that the answers can only lie within himself.
Among the many incidents in the six week journey is a marvellously unselfconscious juxtaposition of a night spent spartanly in a Trappist monastery at Aiguebelle, followed shortly afterwards by the consumption of the menu Rabelais at M. Pic’s three star restaurant in Valence.
The food, the wine, the Wagner, the silk shirts, all combine to make up the ultimate “civilised” urban man. To find him let loose in the deepest countryside with his loathing of dogs, his total lack of knowledge concerning flowers, trees and everything else that goes to make up the countryside is somehow disarming and one admires the man’s courage in covering some 400 kms when he seems so ill-equipped to do so.
I suspect this journey will make a better TV series than it does a book but go on Mr. Levin, walk from Aix to Ghent or follow Hadrian’s Wall or tiptoe behind the future Henry IV from Malbork to Vilnius. And in between travels take down that dusty box labeled Trans-substantiation you refer to, puzzle it out and let us what you come up with – in your own inimitable style of course.