Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

“The story that follows is one I never intended to commit to paper. Recently, however, a shock of sorts has prompted me to look back over the most troubling episodes of my life and the lives of the several people I loved best. This is the story of how as a girl of sixteen I went in search of my father and his past, and of how he went in search of his beloved mentor and his mentor’s own history, and of how we all found ourselves on one of the darkest pathways into history. It is the story of who survived that search and who did not, and why. As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward for us with its shadowy claw.”

I still remember with surprising clarity the popular hysteria that followed the release of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Although I was just 14 at the time of the book’s publication, there was an inescapable sense of being surrounded by the novel. Everyone I knew was reading and discussing the mixture of fact and fiction that Brown so successfully utilised to propel himself – and the histories upon which he capitalised – into the public eye. That feeling of being surrounded by the mysteries of the Priory of Sion, Opus Dei, and their strange conspiracy in the legacy of Jesus Christ is something that it took many years to escape. Four years after the book’s release, I began both my undergraduate degree and a lengthy stint as a volunteer in a local charity shop. The piles of copies of The Da Vinci Code were unending and apparently rivalled only by the phenomenon that accompanied the – significantly more adult – obsession with Fifty Shades of Grey. 

Although Dan Brown’s particular mix of climatic thrills and disguised fiction has drawn significant derision from the literary world, The Da Vinci Code sparked a publishing revolution in attention to this unique brand of historical thriller. It is from this context that 2005 saw the release of Elizabeth Kostova’s epic Dracula-inspired thriller, The Historian. Bought by Little, Brown and Company for $2 million, the novel was the product of 10 years worth of researching and writing –  a fact made evident by Kostova’s impressive grasp of medieval history and the myths surrounding vampiric lore. The Historian is a journey across centuries, although the narrative itself is firmly rooted in the 20th century. Narrated from the contemporary perspective of an unnamed diplomat’s daughter, the story juggles the girl’s search  – in 1972 – for her father, Paul, and his history, whilst simultaneously exploring the story of his mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi, in the 1930s. When Paul inadvertently finds himself in possession of a mysterious book, blank but for a woodcut depiction of a dragon at the centre, he turns to Rossi for guidance. Finding that Rossi himself had been gifted a similar book many decades ago, Paul is dragged into a mystery that invokes the very real atrocities of Wallachian prince, Vlad Tepes – also known as Vlad the Impaler – and the folkloric mysteries of Dracula. When Rossi disappears after revealing his own efforts to unpick the history of his curious book and the strange occurrences that seem to surround anyone who sets out to untangle the web of fictions that surround the death of Vlad Tepes, Paul takes it upon himself to work through history and rescue Rossi from his now-uncertain mortality.

“My dear and unfortunate successor:

I take some comfort today in the fact that this date is dedicated in the church calendar to Lucia, saint of light, a holy presence carted home by Viking traders from southern Italy. What could offer better protection against the forces of darkness – internal, external, eternal – than light and warmth, as one approaches the shortest, coldest day of the year? And I am still here, after another sleepless night. Would you be less puzzled if I told you that I now slumber with a wreath of garlic under my pillow, or that I keep a little gold crucifix on a chain around my atheist neck? I don’t, of course, but I will leave you to imagine those forms of protection, if you like; they have their intellectual, their psychological, equivalents. To these latter, at least, I cling night and day.”

As a thriller, The Historian delivers everything for which a reader could wish. The mystery at the novel’s heart – the histories surrounding Vlad the Impaler and the myths of Dracula – operates from a premise that comes steeped in the fantastical medievalism that renders this kind of historical mystery so intriguing. The details of Vlad Tepes’ approach to warfare, including the penchant for impaling victims that earned him his popular name, reads with a strange surrealism that one might expect to find in only the most brutal of fantasy fiction. It is no surprise that Tepes’ taste for torture – “…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.” – would serve as sufficient inspiration for the cold, blood-thirsty barbarity of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Kostova’s direct invocation of Vlad the Impaler’s history alongside the folkloric realities of Dracula is certainly not a new literary combination. Her decision to juxtapose the two into such a thoroughly researched and historically-minded piece of work is, however, a far more satisfying take on the possibilities of historical thriller/mystery than Dan Brown was able to serve to his readers.

Much of The Historian‘s merit lies in Kostova’s commitment to writing a novel that embodies its title. Although straying quite heavily into the realm of fetishisation – “It is a fact that we historians are interested in what is partly a reflection of ourselves, perhaps a part of ourselves we would rather not examine except through the medium of scholarship” – and often leaving the reader feeling that they are being hammered with a rather large medieval weapon labelled ‘academia’, Kostova’s ability to play easily in her source material is evident. Relying not only on the myths that fed Stoker’s infamous work, The Historian reeks of Kostova’s expert grasp of Vlad the Impaler’s own history and that of his Ottoman enemies. The fact that much of the novel is narrated in the form of letters and pieces of incunabula adds to the sense that one is reading a book both knowledgeable and playing in fascinating mimicry of Stoker’s own approach to writing Dracula. Kostova handles these multiple timelines and stylistic diversions with ease, although with some quite apparent difficulty in easily distinguishing the voices of the multiple characters narrating the story through their own letters and histories.

“What sort of place had I come to, and among what kind of people? What sort of grim adventure was it on which I had embarked? …I began to rub my eyes and pinch myself to see if I were awake. It all seemed like a horrible nightmare to me, and I expected that I should suddenly awake, and find myself at home, with the dawn struggling in through the windows, as I had now and again felt in the morning after a day of overwork. But my flesh answered the pinching test, and my eyes were not to be deceived. I was indeed awake and among the Carpathians. All I could do now was to be patient, and to wait the coming of the morning.”

The novel’s title is key as much to understanding The Historian‘s major flaws as it is to grasping its successes. The constant references to aspects of academic historical study, particularly in the teenage narrator’s many allusions to the unbelievably formulaic “historical education” provided to her by her father, reek of insufficient attention to characterisation. Most of the novel’s characters fail to achieve any real depth, beyond their own commitment to historical rigour and academic prowess. That The Historian also fails to offer any real distinction between the voices of characters that operate across both generational and cultural boundaries only adds to the sense that ‘the historian’ is an abstract, indistinct stereotype into which all of the characters are forcibly mashed. Given that the novel sails along on the merits of its excellent storyline, it is easy to miss these failings. However, when the book suddenly strays upon characters that offer slightly more substance – Turgut Bora’s wife and mother, for instance – the degree to which the reader realises that they know incredibly little of the main players becomes stirringly apparent.

The way in which this lack of distinction serves the novel’s fetishisation of historical academia is further brought home by the stereotypes and strangely out-of-place details that surround the academic institutions mentioned. The very name ‘Master James’ belongs purely in the remit of a fantasy novel, having no bearing on a title that would be given to the head of any Oxbridge college. Similar references to a ‘rare book room’ have no actual foundation in reality, beyond serving a convenient plot detail. While one certainly does not look to literature of this kind – particularly novels that play so openly with a blurring of the lines between fact and fiction – for any type of factual rigour, I often felt that The Historian was selling itself as a cross-cultural story written for the tastes of Americans. The tone, characters, and settings of the novel certainly serve the Harry Potter-esque unrealities of an audience ready to believe the archaic myths of sweeping cloaks (which, in all fairness, do exist) and ready, easy access to medieval manuscripts. The book suffers a similarly problematic divergence from reality with the characters’ travels in Eastern Europe. Having spent a good amount of time in Romania, Hungary, and the Baltics myself, Kostova’s descriptions are found wanting. While smiling faces, ready welcomes, and fairytale villages certainly exist – and I wouldn’t for one moment wish to suggest that Eastern Europe is populated with unfriendly, bitter people – there is a lack of depth in her descriptions of these places that speaks to ignorance. More focus appears to be with Cold War communism and a preoccupation with political motives than with a tangibly real description of the many fascinating countries into which The Historian takes us. It is a significant missed opportunity – particularly for an author so wonderfully poetic in her descriptions of place.

“I couldn’t bring the dry chuckle out of my throat. What on earth was he driving at? It occurred to me that perhaps I’d underestimated some peculiar sense of humor in my mentor. Maybe this was an elaborate practical joke – he’d had two versions of the menacing old book in his library and had planted one in my stall, knowing I’d bring it to him, and I’d obliged, like a fool. But in the ordinary lamplight from his desk he was suddenly gray, unshaven at the end of the day, with dark hollows draining the color and humor from his eyes. I leaned forward. ‘What are you trying to tell me?’

‘Dracula -‘ He paused. ‘Dracula – Vlad Tepes – is still alive’.”

For all its stylistic faults, The Historian still deserves its plentiful success. The impressive knowledge that Kostova has at her disposal positions this novel as an incredibly educated one, operating with a mind to that strange juncture that exists between historical fact and lasting legend. The book is not perfectly executed but what it lacks in characterisation, it more than makes up for in gripping pacing and a thoroughly fleshed-out premise. The Historian will have you turning pages into the early hours of the morning and certainly inspire fresh desire to spend this Halloween back in the gothic chambers of Bram Stoker’s own masterpiece.

The Historian

 

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