Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian has as it's center, one of the spookiest legends of all time, one that has spawned multiple spin offs in both movies and books. I am referring to 'Count Dracula' or 'Vlad Tepes' the actual person on whom Bram stoker based his Dracula. No, this novel is not a desperate rip off of the Twilight series, it actually does not have much vampirism so to say, this is in a different league and much more erudite and better plotted novel than the crap being dished out by Dan brown and others of his ilk.

The novel is split into 3 parts. The first part begins with an unnamed narrator, describing the events that happened in the 70's. The narrator is never named throughout the novel. In the 70's she is a teenager and  living with her father 'Paul' in Amsterdam. It's an idyllic life, with Paul running a center for peace, which helps out in humanitarian operations. One day the narrator finds in her father's library, a woodcut book with a single figure of a dragon which is associated with Dracula. She questions her father about it, who seems to unwilling to tell about it. But eventually she drags it out of him and he starts telling about it in bits in pieces. It turns out that the woodcut came into his possession on it's own when he was a graduate student. (in the 50's). He brings it to the notice of his guide/mentor 'Rossi' who is as shocked by it as Paul is when his daughter finds it. Turns out that Rossi too has such a book with him which again came into his possession on it's own (in the 30's). Rossi's suspicion is that Dracula is not just a legend but is still un-dead . Rossi disappears immediately after leaving Paul some letters of his. The novel is at this point split into 3 separate narratives, one in which the narrator travels with her father throughout Europe as his father narrates what happened in the past,  the other concerning the events that transpired in the 50's to him and the third is Rossi's narrative from the 30's in the form of letters. (Maybe a homage to Bram stocker's epistolary style of writing). This is something like a story within a story structure. As the first part ends, Paul goes missing and the narrator decides to go in search of him. 

The second part sees the narrator's story being sidelined and the focus is on Paul's past and the past of Rossi. Paul meets Helen, who is the daughter of Rossi and they begin a journey through central and eastern Europe, going to Istanbul, Bulgaria, Budapest and to Romania and the place of Vlad Tempes (Dracula). I am not exaggerating here, but the the first part and the some areas of the second part has some genuinely scary, spine chilling moments. (Explaining them would act as spoilers, so am desisting from it). I would not say this is a road novel, but there is quite a bit of travelling going on, with even the actual story line being bit sidelined as Kostova sets up the scene for the finale. Midway through the second part, you see that the scary moments are becoming less and that the pieces of the puzzle are being put together. Paul and Helen meet Helen's mother who provide them some inputs and also 'Turgut Bora' in Istanbul who helps them in their search. This may be putting off to some, but I did enjoy the characters travels. That's because personally I have been fascinated with the eastern European countries, with their gloomy, fog bound castles, buildings and also by the romatic imagination of Istanbul as the gateway between east and west. Kostova shows us a glimpse of the sights and sounds in these countries, tells us about the superstitions about werewolves, vampires that exist in the countryside. Someone like me, who is never going to go to any of these places would surely like this part. Kostova also gives some tantalizing bits on how Dracula became the un-dead, some scary moments that happen when the monks keep watch over his body, but stops short of saying that this what exactly happened. We get to understand Dracula's power and the fear and loathing he inspired in the Turks, so much so that his tomb was sought after by the Ottoman sultan? But why? Kostova gives us some clues on to this. A reason for this digression from the main thrust of the novel could be found in one of Kostova's interviews where she says that she wanted to write a Victorian style novel foremost, which had some elements of a thriller and not just write a straight forward thriller. So the unfolding of the novels happens in a unhurried pace, though the events in the novel themselves are exciting.

In the third part, Paul thinks that Dracula's tomb could be buried in a monastery in Bulgaria and searches for it. He and Helen find it and reach there leading to a per-climax confrontation. The stories of Rossi and Paul/Helen converge at this point and the narrative now shifts to the 70's and to the narrator. After understanding what happened in the 30's and 50's, the narrator now is sure of where her father could be. She goes to a monastery in France, where all the principal characters from the past and the present converge leading to a confrontation with Dracula and a supposed end to all that happened. 

What of Dracula, the object of the quest? We can sense his malevolent presence throughout the novel, though he makes an appearance only towards the end. The reason for the disappearances and dracula's actions was to me personally weak, but it did show a different facet of Dracula as a erudite well read person. It does nothing to mitigate his evil but just shows that there could be another side to him and that Dracula could have been a product of his times which were extremely violent. But I was totally disappointed, even disgusted by the novel's epilogue. It was a total let down, mainly when you consider Kostova's clean planning and unraveling of the events in the first 3 parts, the epilogue seemed completely unnecessary other than to give a twist in the tale in the tail. But that should not bother a prospective reader. I know I have not mentioned much about the story line, but with novels of the mystery/thriller genre, it is better to mention only some points which will not act as spoiler to the future readers. Considering this is Kostova's first novel, it is indeed a success. Fans of the Dracula legend, thrillers and general readers too would be able to enjoy this thrill ride through Europe. Be warned however, this is a huge novel running into 800+ pages with the setting of the various characters taking most of the first part running to 300 pages. If you are looking for a page turner from page 1 to the end, then maybe this is not the book for you. This is a more leisurely, languid read and should be approached as a general normal with some elements of thriller and not as a hardcore thriller. I think that with some patience readers would be able to enjoy this. 

1 comment:

  1. This book provides a great amount of historical accuracy, without the condescending tone of Robert Langdon's asides in any of Dan Brown's books. This is a true work of art that will appeal to any fan of history, historical fiction, and a great mystery!

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