Onyx reviews: The Historian
by Elizabeth Kostova
Three timelines thread through The Historian, a literary historical suspense
novel that garnered pre-publication comparisons to The Da Vinci Code. The
earliest timeline involves Professor Bartolomew Rossi's Eastern European
research and travels in the 1930s. His doctoral student, later an American
diplomat known to readers only as Paul, recounts his exploits in the 1950s.
Paul's teenaged daughter, who lost her mother when very young and is not named
at all except by an off-handed reference late in the book, is the recipient of
all this lore and undertakes her own adventures in 1972. Given the book's
dedication and fictional introduction (set in 2008), readers are encouraged to
identify with the author; her lack of name in the text enhances this.
The focus of these three historians' compulsions is the man who inspired the
Dracula myth, a ruthless fifteenth-century Romanian leader known variously as
Vlad Tepes, Vlad the Impaler and Prince Vlad Dracule, the latter word meaning
He gained infamy for his penchant for impaling the heads or bodies of his
enemies at the city gates as a warning to others. He is said to have looked out
over fields of impaled bodies from a tower in his castle.
When he was finally captured and executed, his head was delivered to the sultan
in Constantinople as evidence of his death. The whereabouts of the rest of his
corpse is the source of numerous legends. Each of the three historians comes to
believe that Tepes really was a vampire and that he survives to this day. They
wander Eastern Europe, from Istanbul to Bulgaria to Wallachia and Transylvania
in Romania. Along the way, each scours libraries across the continent, looking
for hidden clues as to where Tepes' body was buried.
In keeping with the style of Bram Stoker's Dracula, which was told entirely
through letters, notes and journal entries, Kostova tells only the contemporary
story as narrative. The sixteen-year-old protagonist stumbles upon a strange
book containing a stack of letters addressed to "My dear and unfortunate
successor" in her father's study in their house in Amsterdam, a discovery
that inspires her father to tell her a strange tale.
A mysterious book appeared in Paul's study carrel while he was working on a
doctoral thesis about 17th century Dutch trade at an unnamed American
university. The volume was clearly very old. Inside, it was blank except for a
woodcut of a dragon that filled the central two pages. In the creature's claws
was a banner bearing the word "Drakulya." His supervisor, Rossi, was
stunned to see the book. Twenty years earlier he had received a similar volume,
launching his studies into the lore of Dracula.
Rossi passed his papers on to Paul and vanished the same evening, leaving behind
only a few blood spatters on his desk and the ceiling of his office. Paul
believed that to locate his doctoral advisor he must track down Dracula. He
departed immediately for Europe, accompanied by a young anthropologist he met at
the library while researching Eastern history. She was Helen Rossi, Professor
Rossi's daughter from a brief tryst he had while in Romania. Helen never met her
father and was determined to pay Rossi back by trumping him at his own research.
Helen's family connections behind the Iron Curtain helped the couple travel into
Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, but their studies drew the attention of numerous
factions who were determined that they not succeed-and a couple who were
determined that they do succeed, but for different reasons. Among these were
ardent communists, characters who Paul and Helen came to believe are vampires,
and members of a five-hundred-year-old organization determined to root out and
destroy any remaining traces of the Order of the Dragon, followers of Dracula.
Along the way, they met-sometimes by the type of coincidence that stretches the
believability of fiction-several other people who were the recipients of
mysterious volumes like the ones Paul and Rossi found.
In the modern story, the protagonist travels through Western Europe in the
company of an Oxford student, hot on her father's trail after he mysteriously
abandons her in England. Something he discovered in the Oxford University
library spurred him back into action, and the trail will lead them to a final
confrontation and numerous astonishing revelations.
Before his departure, Paul took his daughter with him on many of his travels.
Over the course of months, she persuades him to divulge his many secrets, which
leads to long sections of narrative in which he recounts portions of his early
adventures with Helen. After his sudden departure from Oxford, he leaves behind
a lengthy document that finishes the tale. Paul himself was the beneficiary of
numerous letters he and Helen found during their travels, primarily Rossi's,
some of which they discover in Romania and Bulgaria. Rossi's research also
relies on the letters of medieval monks who traveled with Tepes' body en route
to his final burial place.
The book's interleaving structure, switching primarily between Paul's story and
the narrator's with occasional revelations from Professor Rossi's era, ensures
that readers don't learn too many important details early on. In addition to the
twentieth century plots, which illuminates life in the Eastern Bloc during the
Cold War era, those on Dracula's trail also learn much about fifteenth century
Eastern Europe, the domain of the Turks, the Ottomans, the Christians, and
lawless warlords like Tepes.
Astute readers may surmise some of the book's biggest secrets long before they
are revealed-Helen Rossi's identity, for example, or the nature of the valuable
relic the 15th century monks are searching for.
When Dracula finally enters the story in person, he is unable to live up to the
legend. He admires modern developments-the atomic bomb, for example, and the
Cold War-but he seems interested in little more than cataloging his vast
library. He's still a vampire, who goes on about his vampirely business of
sucking blood, but he doesn't seem all that threatening. He waxes poetic about
the purity of evil, but in the end he is undone in an almost dismissive fashion.
Kostova's publisher has done an excellent job in stirring up interest in The
Historian. The novel sold after a heated auction for an astonishingly large
advance for a first-time author. Comparisons to The Da Vinci Code make for good
promotion, but are both untrue and unfair. The extent of the similarity between
the two is that both rely to a certain extent on uncovering centuries-old
secrets in European history. However, revelations come quickly and easily to
characters in The Da Vinci Code as they race from one city to the next. In The
Historian, every revelation requires tedious and time-consuming research in
musty archives and libraries. Instead of racing to Paris or London, Rossi, Helen
and Paul travel to increasingly backward and remote parts of Europe, regions
fraught with ancient tradition, legends and folklore.
Simply put, The Historian is not fast paced. Many will say that it could have
used a stronger editorial hand. At nearly 650 pages, Kostova takes her time
telling the story. Who's to say what the book would have looked like if 150-200
pages were trimmed to increase the pacing? By taking her time, alternating
snippets of contemporary narrative with longer epistolary sections, the author
conveys the sense of history and time. The tale of Paul and Helen, which is the
novel's central focus, takes place in a time without cell phones or easy travel
in certain parts of the world. Research isn't done on the Internet, but by
consulting with librarians and other historians.
Letters are the books' biggest conceit. These aren't brief missives, but
pages-long treatises. Even Rossi's final letter, which Paul and Helen find under
tragic circumstances and was written well after the professor's disappearance in
less than comfortable surroundings, reads like narrative rather than the urgent
ramblings of a man in fear of his mortal soul.
If readers are willing to look past this, The Historian is an adventure for a
different era. One where every pursuit needn't occur at the speed of sound, and
where the characters aren't in constant fear for their lives. There is suspense
in The Historian, but it isn't artificially contrived to propel the story. The
mere presence of vampires is enough to create tension, and the plot is propelled
by the urgent need to find Professor Rossi before it is too late.
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