My review of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian - it appeared in yesterday’s Business Standard Weekend. Wasn’t meant to be a review, more like a write-up on an interesting new book with some background detail. But oh well.
Note: I’m not completely knocking The Da Vinci Code; like most people, I enjoyed it for what it was. But I’m rapidly developing a fascination for books like The Historian (another distant relative is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the first half of which was absolutely brilliant) that come from a similar genre but allow events to unfold (and characters to develop) at a more leisurely pace. Next on my list: Jon Fasman’s The Geographer’s Library.
Note 2: Weird that Istanbul suddenly seems to be featuring prominently in everything I read.
The legend of Vlad Tepes, the tyrannical 15th-century ruler whose many acts of cruelty and torture gave him the title Vlad the Impaler, has cast an unusual shadow on the modern world. The novelist Abraham Stoker used Vlad as the inspiration for his vampire novel Dracula, published in 1897, and that tale was in turn appropriated and glamorised by cinema in the early decades of the last century. Through a series of films – from F W Murnau’s genuinely creepy classic Nosferatu and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s atmospheric Vampyr to the Hollywood movies that perpetuated the image of the suave, black-cloaked Count Dracula – the legend spread in popular culture. And in the performances of actors like Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, the vampire was hammed out of all resemblance to the fierce feudal lord who had inspired the story.
Now, in a compelling inversion of literature and history, first-time novelist Elizabeth Kostova gives us a lush fiction based on the Vlad legend. The Historian is set in three time periods (1930, the early 1950s and the early 1970s) and begins with a 16-year-old girl discovering a macabre old book in her father’s library, a picture of a dragon spread across its centre pages. Over a series of journeys around central and eastern Europe with her diplomat-father, she learns in fragments the tale of a quest to discover the tomb of Vlad Tepes, and of separate obsessive searches carried out by her parents, and by her father’s adviser, Professor Rossi. The premise of these searches - hold on to your crucifixes - is that Vlad the Impaler is still alive; or rather, Undead.
Following the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and other books like The Rule of Four, there has been an increased interest in the historical thriller, and The Historian is easily one of the finest works to have come out of this sub-genre recently. Where the Brown bestseller was built on a series of chapter-ending cliffhangers that helped mask the tediousness of the writing, Kostova’s is a better paced, much better written novel.
Much of the narrative is in the form of expository letters and while this stretches credibility - how do these characters find so much time, in the midst of frantic vampire pursuits, to write leisurely letters to each other? - it also enriches the reading experience. In fact, there’s a point in the story when you realise that the journey has become more important than the destination - which is exactly what gives this kind of book a long shelf-life. You start to care about the characters and their internal struggles, and get drawn in by the author’s evocative place descriptions. Reading of a train journey from Budapest to Istanbul, for instance, I found myself wishing Kostova would write a travel book sometime:
"There is something vastly mysterious for me about the shift one sees, along that route, from the Islamic world to the Christian, from the Ottoman to the Austro-Hungarian, from the Muslim to the Catholic and Protestant. It is a gradation of towns, of architecture, of gradually receding minarets blended with advancing church domes, of the very look of forest and riverbank, so that little by little you begin to believe you can read in nature itself the saturation of history. Does the shoulder of a Turkish hillside really look so different from the slope of a Magyar meadow? Of course not, and yet the difference is as impossible to erase from the eye as the history that informs it is from the mind."
If The Historian disappoints at all, it disappoints at the very end, with the all-too-literal confrontation with the mythic Vlad/Dracula seeming anti-climactic compared to what’s gone before. But the occasional sloppiness of the last 50 pages can’t defeat the stately beauty of the 600 that went before. Kostova’s eye for detail, her subtle humour and her thesis that "in history, there are no tiny questions" make The Historian one of the most engrossing reads of the year. Compared to most other books in its genre, this is a richly textured whisky placed amidst cans of Diet Coke.