Nov. 23, 2005 - Issue #527: Filumena
Bullets over Transylvania
Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian an epic chase tale about the
Prince of Darkness
At 642 pages, The Historian is quite the doorstopper; it’s the kind of book that builds muscles, and if you’re not the gym-going type, lugging this volume around might not appeal. But The Historian is worth every ache.
The story begins with Paul, a history student reading peacefully for his dissertation, who is surprised to find a new book on his desk. It’s an ancient tome whose pages are blank, save for a single woodcut print across the centre, displaying a huge dragon with a winding tail. He is intrigued, all the more so when he finds out what the print means: it is a symbol of the Order of the Dragon, founded more than 500 years ago by the Dracul himself, Vlad III, who was once a vicious king ruling over parts of Eastern Europe and long held to be the legendary leader of the vampires.
It turns out to be more than an academic exercise, though; Paul’s adviser, Professor Rossi, confesses a suspicion that the stories are true, that, in some faraway Transylvanian stronghold, Dracula lives by drinking the blood of others, and the next day, Rossi disappears. The only clues are a pile of letters that begin with “My dear and unfortunate successor.” Paul, accompanied by Rossi’s Romanian daughter Helen and desperately afraid for his professor’s life, chases after the faintest hints of Rossi’s whereabouts, through all the exotic cities of Eastern Europe, still locked behind the iron curtain. And years later, an older Paul, along with his own daughter, is still looking for the missing Rossi, as well as the now missing Helen. Both Paul and his daughter are convinced that finding the X that marks Dracula’s lair will also help locate the lost loved ones.
This is the story of a chase, but it unfolds languorously; it’s about a man who lives forever, after all, and the seekers are scholars, the type who pause occasionally in their frantic searching to admire the expression on a saint’s stone face or the markings on a pillar. But the settings deserve to be savoured. Kostova’s father, also a professor, traveled widely, and Kostova grew up among the mosques and mosaics of Istanbul, Sofia, and Budapest, resulting in descriptions rich and tangible enough that you long for a plane ticket and endless time to explore.
As the title suggests, The Historian also has to do with history, and the version presented is fascinating. Dracula beats back the Ottoman Turks only to trade allegiances, preying on the people he had pledged to defend—but this is Vlad the Impaler, known for his habit of torturing and killing all those nearest to him on spikes. What’s nice, as well, is what isn’t told; this is a tale of secrets, where all is revealed painstakingly, and people treasure their truths. When Paul and Helen are in communist countries, they whisper warily under the eyes of spies and bureaucrats. Later, when Paul speaks of this earlier search for Rossi, he does so guardedly—this is his daughter he’s talking to, after all, and who spills their souls to their children?
Kostova’s book has taken the American market by storm; the first debut novel to hit the New York Times bestseller list’s number-one slot in its first week of publication, it has also become the fastest selling debut novel, outselling even The Da Vinci Code. It’s easy to see why, but The Historian does have a few flaws. In a world where Buffy killed two or three vampires an episode, Dracula’s end—from a bullet, no less—is a bit anticlimactic, particularly after 600 pages about the Fanged One’s life after decapitation. (Dracula himself, though, is not a disappointment, as he’s an eerie, civilized monster who is a historian himself, sipping “red wine” by the fire as he leafs through his many books.) At times, too, the novel strays into some dicey conspiracy theory territory. But these are minor quibbles. The Historian is a fully-fleshed and tasty read, and you won’t even care how heavy it is. V
By Elizabeth Kostova • H.B. Fenn & Co • 656 pp. • $34.95
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