I have just finished reading “The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova and, although – for various reasons - I seldom write reviews of contemporary literature, this time I felt drawn to share some thoughts on it with you.
It’s a vampire book but not like others, and certainly not like the ones where vampirism is only a background for the tale. And it’s a history book, and a travel book, and a delightfully detailed account of a historian’s work.
I must admit I loved it. I felt sad and frustrated when I last closed the book, which for me is a sign that I truly loved it and didn’t want it to end. My frustration comes not from the ending, which is probably as satisfying as it could be under the circumstances, but from a feeling that I experience with other books and subjects too, and that is that I really want to know and not just to imagine...
I had started reading it a while ago and abandoned it after only a few chapters because I couldn’t stand the dread that was coming out of its pages, not a direct but a subtle one and thus much more menacing. In a certain measure, I could say it reminded me of reading Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” though no book yet has reached the pedestal of fright and wonder on which this book exists for me.
One night, while rummaging through her father’s library, a girl of sixteen makes a strange discovery: a bunch of letters, addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor:”, and a bizarre book, all its pages blank, except for the middle.
”I can’t say even now what made me pull them down. But the image I saw at the center of the book, the smell of age that rose from it, and my discovery that the papers were personal letters all caught my attention forcibly.”
She finally gathers the courage to ask her father about it. This is how the story he will tell her starts:
”One spring night when I was still a graduate student, I was in my carrel at the university library, sitting alone very late among rows and rows of books. Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.
I didn’t remember ever having seen the book there or anywhere else, so I took it down and looked through it without really thinking. The binding was soft, faded leather, and the pages inside appeared to be quite old. It opened easily to the very center. Across those two pages I saw a great woodcut of a dragon with spread wings and a long looped tail, a beast unfurled and raging, claws outstretched. In the dragon’s claws hung a banner on which ran a single word in Gothic lettering: DRAKULYA.”
Thus commences the account of the obsessive quest for the tomb of Vlad Ţepeş (pronounced Tsepesh), the Impaler, the Wallachian ruler of the 15th century, defender of Christianity against the Ottoman Turks, who – through his renowned cruelty - has apparently served as an inspiration for the figure of Dracula, the vampire.
Those were cruel times, all over the known world, and I don’t think that he was much worse than his contemporaries, his Ottoman counterpart, for instance, the Sultan Mehmet II.
Vlad is a fascinating figure. He’s lived only forty-five years, from 1431 to 1476, which is not surprising in those times of wars. He was born in Transylvania, where his father, Vlad II, was in exile, and where he’s been taught the skills of a Christian knight. He’s lived as the Sultan’s hostage in Adrianople. He’s reigned twice in Wallachia (the southern part of today’s Romania). The number of his victims is conservatively set at 40,000 during his brief six-year reign. He died at the hand of an assassin, at the end of December 1476 or in early January, 1477. The tomb in the church of Snagov Monastery, near Bucharest, thought by many as Vlad’s burial site, was found empty. The location of his real tomb is unknown.
This is history.
And this is what Bram Stoker says of him:
“He must, indeed, have been that Voivode Dracula who won his name against the Turk, over the great river on the very frontier of Turkeyland. If it be so, then was he no common man, for in that time, and for centuries after, he was spoken of as the cleverest and the most cunning, as well as the bravest of the sons of the 'land beyond the forest.' That mighty brain and that iron resolution went with him to his grave, and are even now arrayed against us. The Draculas were, says Arminius, a great and noble race, though now and again were scions who were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One. They learned his secrets in the Scholomance, amongst the mountains over Lake Hermanstadt, where the devil claims the tenth scholar as his due. In the records are such words as 'stregoica' witch, 'ordog' and 'pokol' Satan and hell, and in one manuscript this very Dracula is spoken of as 'wampyr,' which we all understand too well. There have been from the loins of this very one great men and good women, and their graves make sacred the earth where alone this foulness can dwell. For it is not the least of its terrors that this evil thing is rooted deep in all good, in soil barren of holy memories it cannot rest."
But let me return to “The Historian”.
The quest spans (eventually) over three generations and, although centred in the geographical area where Vlad had lived and fought the Ottomans, from Wallachia to Istanbul and Transylvania, it also takes us to England, Holland, France, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and back to the United States. It is now the turn of this young woman to trace the incredible mysteries that shadow her family’s past.
The mirage of old books holding within them the promise of forgotten (or forbidden) knowledge will never cease to fascinate me, and a book that tells of such books will always appeal to me.
The meanders of the quest are followed mainly through various letters written by two of the main characters, and partly by a third. One drawback here is that there are no different voices to tell these complementing stories, only one, the author’s.
If I were to bring just another objection to the novel, it would be that more than once I had the impression that coincidences drove the story forward or introduced new characters. This puzzled me at the time, even slightly bothered me, but the yarn is so enticing that I was perfectly willing to ignore them just to find out what discovery they would make next.
The writing is simple, yet elegant, and it has a deep poetry about it, one that I think comes not from the words themselves but from the elegant flow of the sentences and from the beautiful things they describe.
Elizabeth Kostova has taken Dracula from the Hollywood vampire movies and put him back where he belongs, in the history books. But a History that makes us think, and wonder,
“The Historian” is a rich, quiet, serious novel, a remarkable historical and psychological thriller, one that awes and instructs with equal ability.