By Michael Dirda
Sunday, June 12, 2005
By Elizabeth Kostova. Little, Brown. 642 pp. $25.95
A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of . . . communism? Christian-Muslim conflict? Ancient evil? As so often, the answer is all of the above, for The Historian -- an ambitious, albeit overlong suspense-horror novel -- takes up our enduring fascination with Dracula and inserts the immortal fiend into the political history of the second half of the 20th century. Elizabeth Kostova, who worked on this book for 10 years, focuses her narrative on three generations of a single family repeatedly sucked into battle against the master of the Undead.
Like Bram Stoker's Dracula , The Historian takes the form of a dossier, mixing memoir, letters and archival materials. Such an approach unobtrusively persuades the reader to believe in the facticity of what follows, that -- in Diderot's celebrated phrase -- "this is not a story." More cleverly still, Kostova manages to present nearly 650 tightly packed pages without ever revealing the full names of her two principal characters, a historian (who is called Paul from time to time) and his daughter, the latter our main source for these hideous revelations. Given the book's dedication ("For my father, who first told me some of these stories"), we are subtly being urged to identify the heroine with the author herself. Obviously, then, the unsettling and heart-rending events of The Historian must be all too personally and horribly true.
A sequence of harrowing disclosures takes place over more than 50 years, or -- from another point of view -- 500 years. In the main story, set in 1954, a young graduate student studying 17th-century Dutch trade discovers that someone has left a strange book in his library carrel. All the leaves are blank, except for the center double-page spread, which bears the woodcut of a dragon with a looping tail and the single word "Drakulya." When Paul goes to his adviser, the distinguished Professor Bartholomew Rossi, he learns that the older scholar once received a similar book and has spent years trying to blot out its evil meaning. For, as Rossi finally confesses, "Dracula -- Vlad Tepes -- is still alive." At which point, with a melodramatic chutzpah that even the old pulp writers might hesitate to employ, Kostova breaks off: " 'Good Lord,' my father said suddenly, looking at his watch. 'Why didn't you tell me? It's almost seven o'clock.' " He has been reluctantly telling his 16-year-old daughter about this evil period of his earlier life. But since Kostova doesn't want to reveal too much too soon, and because she aims to generate ever-increasing anxiety in the reader, she periodically stops and shifts to a complementary and (seemingly) secondary series of adventures set in 1972. Kostova will keep the reader shuttling back and forth between the 1950s and the 1970s, with occasional comments that look ahead to the 21st century (when she is thinking back over the entire story). This may sound confusing but is actually fairly simple -- and its intent all too obvious. Anytime one has multiple plot lines, they will inevitably converge in the end. The buckle must be buckled.
The basic engine of the adventure novel is the quest. When Professor Rossi suddenly disappears, Paul goes in search of him, eventually enlisting the aid of a stern but attractive Romanian anthropologist called Helen Rossi. (It takes our hero a while to ask about that last name.) When Paul disappears 18 years later, his daughter duly goes in search of him, accompanied by a young English historian named Barley. The two quests result in a Grand (Guignol) tour of Europe. Ancient documents, enigmatic legends and poems, saints' lives, folk songs and uncannily timed coincidences lead to hurried visits to Oxford, Istanbul, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and France, with occasional layovers in Italy, Greece and Switzerland. We are served up heaps of local color. To keep the pace lively, both couples are tracked by various forces of evil, most notably a gray-fleshed vampire librarian. This plays as slightly comic, inadvertently bolstering the stereotype that most librarians already belong among the undead.
In each place that our heroes visit, they seek out or encounter scholars and antiquarians who supply pieces to the great puzzle: Where is Dracula's secret tomb? At the same time, Kostova works hard to add a contemporary political resonance. In Istanbul, she stresses how much the original Vlad, back in the mid-16th century, hated the Ottomans and made holy war upon these infidels, thus reinforcing a sad pattern in Middle Eastern relations. In the former Eastern-bloc countries, she keeps us guessing whether the sinister figures shadowing Paul and Helen are secret police straight out of J. Edgar Hoover's Cold War dreams or Dracula's robotic and relentless minions.
Or possibly both. For at one climax, Dracula himself appears from the shadows to explain how much the 20th century's horrors owe to his covert machinations. The more sanguinary and predatory the world, the better he likes it. And of course, he holds out some really high hopes that the future will be exponentially more gruesome, cruel and deliciously bloodthirsty than the past. Here, it's hard not to believe that Kostova may be onto something: Most of history's worst nightmares result from an unthinking obedience to authority, high-minded zealotry seductively overriding our mere humanity.
After all, the horror we feel for vampires is different from that provoked by, say, ghosts, werewolves or Frankenstein's misunderstood monster. These we simply find frightening and perhaps life-threatening. But our fear of Dracula lies in the fear of losing ourselves, of relinquishing our very identities as human beings. In the vampire's embrace, we discard our most cherished values and submerge our will to obey his (or her) commands, no matter how transgressive. What's truly disturbing about the thrice-bitten is not that they become blood-sucking fiends but that they take so completely to the lifestyle. In exchange for our bodies and souls, Dracula grants us our darkest, most repressed wishes.
As Kostova writes, "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; it is also true that as we steep ourselves in our interests, they become more and more a part of us." The original Vlad Tepes, we are reminded, revered books and scholarship, and it proves no accident that the key figures of this novel are all historians, nor that love -- between man and wife, parent and child, student and teacher -- is the one force than can sometimes overcome the dark lord's obscene allure.
A novel like The Historian depends on the systole and diastole of its narrative -- the breakneck pace of action and horror will regularly give way to some musty detective work, a leisurely tour of an exotic city or the human drama of two people falling in love. Fans of the antiquarian romance -- in which personable modern scholars encounter ancient conspiracies -- will compare this novel to such books as Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum , Lawrence Norfolk's Lemprière's Dictionary and, inevitably, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code . It also works variations on motifs known from such films as "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Van Helsing." Nonetheless, I found myself most often calling to mind Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell . That fantasy saga -- about two magicians in the late 18th century -- first appeared about this time last year and was also the product of a decade's work, an amalgam of history and imagination, much heralded by its publisher. It was also, sorry to say, slow-moving and a little dull. Similarly, The Historian is artfully constructed and atmospheric, yet nothing that happens in it is really all that surprising.
Still, Elizabeth Kostova has produced an honorable summer book, reasonably well written and enjoyable and, most important of all, very, very long: One can tote The Historian to the beach, to the mountains, to Europe or to grandmother's house and still be reading its 21st-century coda when Labor Day finally rolls around. ·
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.