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Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Originally posted by lexlingua at Book Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
What is history? That is a question that is asked in every introductory class on the subject, and each time the answer is varied and vague. History is many things, from the story of man’s achievements to the tale of his errors, from the story of evolution to the tale of cultural degeneration. Ask Elizabeth Kostova, and she will tell you that history is a story of cruelty, written in blood, repeated in folklore, preserved in architecture and recorded in the notebooks of historians.
//... [His] wail sounded more like a summons to hell—a string of horrorstricken notes that seemed to arise from the memory of a thousand Ottoman camps, a million Turkish soldiers. I saw the fluttering banners, the splashes of blood on the legs of their horses, the spear and the crescent, the glitter of sunlight on scimitars and chain mail, the beautiful and mutilated young heads, faces, bodies; heard the screams of men crossing into the hand of Allah and the cries of their faraway mothers and fathers; smelled the reek of burning houses and fresh gore, the sulfur of cannon fire, the conflagrations of tent and bridge and horseflesh.//

The Historian traces such a story of cruelty, through the narration of a sixteen-year old girl, of whose name we are kept blissfully unaware, and who is in search of her father Paul, and her mother Helen Rossi. You see, her parents have gone missing due to their highly inquisitive nature as historians. They were being nosy about the burial site of Dracula.
For the beginner, Dracula was not always a vampire. He used to be a prince of Wallachia (current-day Romania), called Vlad Tepes, or Vlad III or Son of the Dracul (Dracul meaning ‘dragon’), who was an enemy of the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans, you will remember, had invaded Constantinople (current-day Istanbul) in 1453, destroyed the Byzantine empire and invaded Eastern Europe quite successfully. The only chink in the Ottoman expansion was Vlad Tepes, who is called Dracula today because he had been inducted into the Holy Order of the Dracul (an Orthodox Christianity sect) in his lifetime. Vlad Dracula had originally been a strong defender of his kingdom in Romania, except he was not a very benign ruler for his own people either.
//In the Year of Our Lord 1456 Drakula did many terrible and curious things. When he was appointed Lord in Wallachia, he had all the young boys burned who came to his land to learn the language, four hundred of them. He had a large family impaled and many of his people buried naked up to the navel and shot at. Some he had roasted and then flayed... […]… Vlad Tepes… had learned this form of torture from the Ottomans. Impalement of the sort he practiced involved the penetration of the body with a sharpened wooden stake, usually through the anus or genitals upward, so that the stake sometimes emerged through the mouth and sometimes through the head.//

Thus, Dracula was also known as Vlad the Impaler. If you are unfortunate, you can also catch a documentary on Vlad the Impaler on the Discovery Channel.

Anyway, cutting a long story short, the narrator’s father, Paul, has a rather brilliant mentor called Bartholomew Rossi, who believes that Dracula is still alive. Historical records state that Dracula’s head was chopped off by his Ottoman enemies, and that his beheaded body was buried in a monastery on an island at Lake Snagov, Romania. Except that B. Rossi does not think so. But before B. Rossi can reveal more to Paul, he dies in mysterious circumstances.

From then on follows the adventures of Paul, in the company of Bartholomew’s illegitimate daughter Helen, across the countries of Turkey, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and France, in search of Bartholomew, whom they have reason to believe has changed into a vampire.
Now here is a sore point for me. Kostova does not seem to have showed a realistic connection between the Dracula being alive and Dracula being a vampire. I mean, even if Bartholomew’s revelation that Dracula is still alive is true, where is the proof that he is alive because he is a vampire, and that vampirism allows life after death to go on? For all we know, Dracula could also be a ghost, or a zombie, or an outerspace alien, or some evil wizard. The author mentions it herself, for example, here’s what Bartholomew tells Paul about Stoker’s Dracula:
//At the end of the nineteenth century, a disturbed and melodramatic author—Abraham Stoker—gets hold of the name ‘Dracula’ and fastens it on a creature of his own invention, a vampire. Vlad Tepes was horrifyingly cruel, but he wasn’t a vampire, of course… […]… Stoker assembled some useful lore about vampire legends —about Transylvania, too, without ever going there—actually, Vlad Dracula ruled Wallachia, which borders Transylvania. In the twentieth century, Hollywood takes over and the myth lives on, resurrected.//

Later on, the book gives several instances of plagues across cities where strange puncture marks have been found on the throats of humans. But perhaps, a history of the folklore about vampirism too would have been useful. Dracula says he learnt this interesting method of undead life from a merchant in Gaul—so the idea about vampires existed even before Dracula himself? But perhaps, the author wanted to talk about a historian’s life rather than a myth of horror, unlike what the ‘melodramatic’ Stoker did.

Indeed, Kostova makes a faithful and wry representation of a historian’s life. A historian is a storyteller who often confuses between fact and fiction, and his observant eyes and pen are helpless when it comes to recording events seen or heard or even felt. Take this passage, for instance, a typical rendition of how a historian likes to ‘make a note of things’:
//“The village lay in a hollow just below the meadow where the church stood, and it was the smallest community I’d seen since coming to the East Bloc: no more than fifteen houses huddled almost fearfully together, with apple trees and flourishing vegetable gardens around the outskirts, dirt paths just wide enough for a wagon to drive through the middle, an ancient well with a wooden pole and bucket hanging over it. I was struck by the utter lack of modernity and found myself reading it for signs of the twentieth century. Apparently this century was not occurring there at all. I felt almost betrayed when I saw a white plastic bucket in the side yard of one of the stone houses. These houses seemed to have grown up out of piles of gray rock, their upper stories stuccoed as an afterthought, their roofs made of smooth slate shingles. Some of them boasted beautiful old half-timbered ornamentation that would have looked at home in a Tudor village.//

Often a historian gets so engrossed in the great and terrible moments of the past that he will forget the present, and become quite eccentric, mad, cranky, and fanatical.
//“I know you must think I’m insane,” he said, relenting visibly. “And I grant you that anyone who pokes around in history long enough may well go mad.”//

The historian also tries to be loyal to the spirit of scientic inquiry and rationalist thinking, with a distinct disregard ( at least on paper) for irrational superstitions like garlic and silver bullets and crucifixes, and for folklore which is supposed to be greatly antiquated and exaggerated in nature.

They also seem to have another characteristic—the habit of trusting other historians with the belief that their entrusted knowledge will not be misused. The countless historians that Paul and Helen meet in their search for Bartholomew each have a tale to tell, which is immediately to be taken as the whole and simple truth, no biases, no deception, just like a dying declaration of one comrade to another. I wonder if historians take some kind of Hippocratic oath, sarcasm completely intended.

In any case, the entire novel is a tale of where-is-it, that is, where is the actual burial site of Dracula (since he is not buried near Snagov, where the hell is he/ his dead body)? It makes for a very good ‘mystery book’ actually. The historian travels the path of his predecessor in the quest: Paul and Helen follow Rossi, Rossi followed Georgescu the architect, the narrator girl and her friend Stephen Barley follow Paul, and the historians before them followed yet other monks and troubadours. Each trail is weaved deftly into the story by Kostova, and the trails are so numerous that you will groan with impatience and hungry curiosity to know more, get closer, closer, to the tomb of Dracula.

The scenes with the actual Dracula are few and interspersed, but are marvelously spine-chilling. If you have read The Da Vinci Code, you will understand when I tell you that The Historian feels equally believable. Do not go into the story thinking you will find the macabre and gruesome horror movie, do not read the book with the belief that the book is about the power of God conquering the villainous monster. (I did that, and found the ending rather tame after all that build-up of suspense by Kostova.) Read the book for the astonishing chronicle of the life of Vlad Tepes and the travails of the historian whose curiosity often gets him killed.

And by the way, you should thank me for all the spoilers that I have skipped, crafty winks inserted.
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