Friday, February 13, 2009

The Historian (A Review)

I had stumbled into a world of sickness, a netherworld of the familiar academic one I'd known for many years, a subtext of the ordinary narrative of history I'd always taken for granted.

I've been lousy about posting lately. That's because I've been reading Elizabeth Kostova's amazing debut novel The Historian - 642 pages in hardcover. It's one of those books you fall in love with immediately, and put everything on hold until you finish. A ten years' labor of love, The Historian is everything The Da Vinci Code should have been: a suspenseful, well-researched, and wonderfully evocative story that delves deep into history and takes the reader along a present-day quest through ruins, monasteries, and ancient cities in search of some explosive truth hidden for centuries.

The narrative is multilayered. It is framed as a memoir and collection of primary sources compiled by in 2005 a middle-aged scholar who also includes long letters and journal entries written by her father and grandfather, the latter a world-renowned historian who vanished under suspicious circumstances in 1952. It is both three generations of a family and three generations of historians. Not surprisingly, the overall plot – that of a decades-long search for Vlad the Impaler, who still lives and continues to carry out his terrible deeds – is deeply concerned with the past and how it is beautifully and brutally alive. "He wanted to know everything about the past," says one mad character, "but the past does not want you to know her. She says no no no. She springs up and injures you." Stalin admired Ivan the Terrible, who idolized Vlad Ţepeş, who later expresses a high regard for Hitler. It is almost a metaphor for the horrors the historian must live with daily, as he chronicles mankind's numerous atrocities and constantly ensures their survival in the collective memory.

The tale begins in 1972, when the unnamed narrator is sixteen. She and her father, Paul, a diplomat with a peace foundation, are American expatriates living in a seventeenth-century Amsterdam townhouse. One rainy afternoon she finds a mysterious blank book in her father's library, an obvious antique with a wood-carved print of a dragon in the middle. It also contains several letters addressed to my dear and unfortunate successor. Paul is distressed by her discovery, but slowly begins to tell her the tale of how he acquired the book, how his academic advisor Bartholomew Rossi had a similar one, and how Rossi went missing shortly afterwards, leaving behind only a trail of blood on the ceiling of his office. All the while, the narrator is accompanying Paul on a sojourn through Cold War Europe as he travels from one meeting to another. Kostova's descriptions of 1970s Europe alone make The Historian worthwhile reading. Her mastery of mood and setting are easily on par with that of a select few other authors I've read such as Anne Rice (lush, decadent depictions of New Orleans and baroque Italy), F. Scott Fitzgerald ("There was a fish jumping and a star was shining and the lights around the lake were gleaming. Over a dark peninsula a piano was playing the songs of last summer and the summer before that. . ."), and Kate Chopin ("There were strange, rare odors abroad – a tangle of the sea smell and of weeds and damp, new-plowed earth, mingled with the heavy perfume of a field of white blossoms near.").

Then, one day at Oxford University, where they had gone for a series of lectures and meetings, the narrator awakes one morning and finds her father gone. She searches his room and discovers several long letters written to her detailing his previous search through Istanbul, Hungary, and Bulgaria for both Dracula and the missing Bartholomew Rossi. He was accompanied by fellow Ph.D. candidate Helen Rossi, the woman who would later become his wife. She is also the illegitimate daughter of Professor Rossi, conceived while he was in her mother's small Romanian village in the 1930s, also on the trail of Dracula. Paul's letters will eventually lead the narrator to a monastery in the Pyrénées-Orientales region of Southern France. Although she is escorted back to Amsterdam by Steven Barley, an Oxford undergrad, she slips away and boards a train for Paris, where Barley once again meets up with her. They read the letters along the way to their final destination, and the focus of the novel shifts to Paul's first-person recount of his quest two decades ago, with only infrequent breaks to the present (1972). Both the reader and the two fictional characters are engaged in Paul's story in the same manner: we are all immersed in the violent and fascinating history of Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, particularly where the two cultures – Christian West and Islamic East – collided in the Romanian region of Wallachia and Dracula began his blood-drenched reign as a prince and ferocious military commander. It is not unlike Heart of Darkness, as a singular individual is discussed, speculated about, and built up as a sinister figure until we finally meet him in all his dark persona.

I've already declared that Dracula totally kicks that loser Edward Cullen's ass. Now that I've learned about him as simultaneously a real historical personality and as a vampire, I have to say that he also kicks the ass of everybody in Anne Rice's The Vampire Chronicles, as well as that of his silly gun-toting zoot suit-wearing manga version Alucard. Kostova's Dracula is a true monster: the ravenous undead whose bottomless cruelty has been cultivated over centuries.

In terms of Kostova's skills as both a writer and researcher, The Historian is a real achievement and an excellent addition to the library of vampire lore. (The same cannot be said of that godawful Twilight series.) One of my few criticisms is basically a pet peeve I have with fiction in general. When a story is told from one character to another, why is it that the storyteller always seems to remember every last shred of dialogue? Paul's letters and verbal recollections are impossibly detailed. He supposedly wrote is such a big hurry, and yet he seems to have filled out dozens of pages of minutiae such as the interior decorating of people's houses and details like this:
"The Friday plane to Budapest from Istanbul was far from full, and when we had settled in among the black-suited Turkish businessmen, the gray-jacketed Magyar bureaucrats talking in clumps, the old women in blue coats and head shawls – were they going to cleaning jobs in Budapest, or had their daughters married Hungarian diplomats? – I had only a short flight in which to regret the train tip we might have taken..."
I think Kostova would have been much better off presenting the letters as something Paul had written over a period of several years for his daughter to read one day. In a fictional academic article embedded in the narrative, it is noted that a Renaissance manuscript that been dictated to a scribe "reflects a polish he could not have achieved on the spot." One can say the same about Paul's letters – they're too polished to have been written in a rush overnight.

Another issue I had was the overuse of coincidences. Paul and Helen meet a random guy in a café in Istanbul who just happens to be a famous literary professor also obsessed with Dracula. With a huge collection of Dracula-related books and artifacts. And who is also a member of a secret order dedicated to killing the vampire Dracula. Later on, in Budapest, Paul and Helen meet yet another historian who also has one of Dracula's blank books. I really wish Kostova could have been more creative in how she introduced both those characters. But I did appreciate that she was actually realistic about the difficulties of traveling in this area at the height of the Cold War, as well as how expensive it would have been. When writing about "religious conspiracy" novels (of which The Da Vinci Code is one), blogger Nancy of When in Doubt, Read! describes their penchant for "plot[s] [that trail] us along on a world-wide adventure (I can't help wondering when the main characters eat, sleep, and use the bathroom) over a short period of time, to heck with the expense, the long waits at the airport while security makes you take off your shoes, and where the cash is coming from." I felt The Historian was more believable in that respect.

Those minor issues aside, I strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys vampires, historical fiction, or history in general. I took grad courses on historiography in college, so I've only brushed the world of the historian. Kostova, however, fully brings to life that realm of study and scholarly passion, vividly contrasting dusty libraries and hidden archives with the vibrancy of a present built upon the past represented by so many of these fragments. With each history book we read and discussed, my professors were forever emphasizing how we mush "engage the sources." Kostova does this brilliantly: Paul and Helen discover Dracula not only through secondary research, but encounter him in art, folk songs, contemporary accounts, Ottoman government documents, and cultural memory. Even though we do not meet him until nearly the very end, Dracula pervades the entire book as a personification of mankind's uncontrollable lust for power and capacity for destruction - a side to human nature every historian must confront when immersed in times gone by.


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