Threshold of Fire by Hella Haasse
Reviewed by Justin Fassino
There’s a certain inevitability to historical fiction, a conflict between the foreknowledge of how the story must end and the dared-for hope that perhaps things will turn out differently than reality, less sad, less hopeless. It is this spirit that Dutch East Indies-born author Hella Haasse channels her 1964 novella Threshold of Fire, a meditation on the end of Rome and the lasting influence it maintains on the world of today.
The 5th Century A.D. is such a compelling setting; we see some of our own institutions in the mirror as we read about the world’s most powerful empire, glory crumbling, undergoing a long, decaying spiral. Large personalities lost to history but found again in our own time with different faces give us a familiarity with what life could have been like feckless rulers cast from the social elite, great military leaders of the world (seen here through Roman magister militum, Stilicho – who himself was not a Latin Roman), and an entire civilization standing on the precipice of massive cultural change.
More of a three act play than a conventional tale, Threshold of Fire picks the choicest bits of the personalities of the era and supplements a few fictional faces to explore the identity of the time. From Haasse’s mind springs Hadrian, the tragic Christian Roman prefect and magistrate, a man conflicted by the ideals and virtues of what it means to be “Roman” and his own troubled past. Opposite him is Marcus Anicius Rufus, himself a Roman noble of considerable wealth and influence, but a pagan and thus shunned by society. Between the spiritual and ideological battle of these two is the introspection of the famous Roman poet Claudian, who historically disappears from the records in 404 A.D., but is thoughtfully realized by Haasse as both villain and hero, the pivotal point of view character around which the story comes together.
The translation of the work is quite good, though there is no envy at Anita Miller and Nini Blinstrub’s challenge; the chronological order of each chapter and the setting of the novel swirls and jumps backwards and forwards throughout, with entire sections of long internal monologues jumping between past and present at the flick of a switch. Ultimately, this is a moderately involved (yet compelling) read, with a unique, soulful cadence to the language and pacing that is a welcome novelty.
There’s an unmistakable kinship between Threshold of Fire and Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow: both are set within a decade of one another in Rome, and both chronicle the impact of the impending fall of the SPQR banners through the eyes of fatal, relatable characters. The important rulers of the time (like the aforementioned Stilicho, and the Emperor Honorius) hover over all, providing the rigid, implacable, recognizable face of The Empire, while both stories’ protagonists become the spirit of The Roman Ideal.
Threshold of Fire is a deeply introspective book; most chapters consist of long monologues and memory sequences that meander through time in non-linear order. The characters face their unavoidable fates with both courage and uncertainty. Like the most resonant historical fiction, Threshold of Fire is a window into our own modern world, our place in it, and the mistakes we can avoid if we so heed the lessons that have come before. Framed within the romantic, melancholic edifices of the city of Rome and her omnipresent force of being, this is an enjoyable, deeply meditative read on the intersection between duty, friendship, and devoutness. “People of Rome, cry with one voice,” writes Claudian early on; Threshold of Fire captures a narrow, poignant facet of Rome’s lasting echo across 2,000 years.