The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a book that defies summarizing. It’s a labyrinth of travel, history, families, horror, and legacies. It goes layers deep, with every generation working its way through a different part of the maze. Every now and again a shaft to the past opens to show the centuries past and how their shadow may be more than just a shadow. It can be described, but begs to be experienced.
But if you need a description, this quote from the book should suffice:
“To make it short and shocking, I’m on a quest of sorts, a historian’s hunt for Dracula – not Count Dracula of the romantic stage, but a real Dracula – Drakulya – Vlad III, a fifteenth-century tyrant who lived in Transylvania and Wallachia and dedicated himself to keeping the Ottoman Empire out of his lands as long as possible.”
This novel is a genre-bender like nothing I’ve ever read before, but it somehow remains a cohesive whole, which is a really impressive accomplishment. A solid case could be made for the book being historical fiction. Or literary fiction, with a focus on family and what passes from one generation to another. Or a thinly disguised travelogue, with its detailing all kinds of libraries and castles in Europe.
Or, of course, horror.
The story begins slowly, opening with a note addressed directly to the reader, and unfolds in layers upon layers. The narrator, who is never named, describes her life: a quiet one spent with her ambassador father, who frequently travels. One day when she is going through his library, she finds a letter addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.” When she finally gets the chance to ask her father about it, he starts telling her of the letter’s history. That’s where the true depth of The Historian starts to emerge. We hear more and more of the story of the narrator’s father, and as his story emerges, it becomes clear that his story didn’t start with him, but rather centuries earlier. And as the story goes on, it becomes clear it has not ended.
Reading books, it’s easy to get caught up in the processing of the words: deciphering the meaning, determining the meaning, assessing what happens next. It’s a process of steps, and it’s very easy to focus only where the story ends up. It’s easy to forget how important the words and their structure are to a story, and how the best ones can almost defy explanation. How often have we heard “You just have to read it?” And yet it’s pretty rare for me to come across a book where I have to honestly say that you do have to read it. I found it in The Historian. It weaves the present and the past together, and the richness of the reading comes from seeing the layers of letters, documents and story connect.
One of the most interesting things about this book is the push and pull between movement and what is fixed. In The Historian, there is constant travel, through different countries, over different times- but throughout the goal is constant. The knowledge that is sought and the power of knowledge itself is a constant, and one of the things that I loved most about it was how well it captures the captivating nature of stories and the intoxication that comes with grasping the reality of history. The horror that the characters are both seeking and evading is constantly on the move and constant in its goals, its aims, and its outlook, as the climax of the story shows.
The climax of the story takes place on several layers of time, and there are even hints of more to come. And it was in one of these that I felt like the story struck its really only false note. Given how the joy of knowledge and the power of the past rings throughout the story and in the characters, it’s not surprising that the crux of the story comes in facing that power gone dark. What struck me as untrue was how immune to the temptation of getting knowledge spanning centuries – getting it first-hand, no less – the characters seemed. They seemed to have no trouble at all comprehending the dangers of taking up the offer of boundless knowledge from the horrific being that offers it.
Perhaps I can only chalk this up to my weakness, as I would have had a very hard time not signing over my soul, so to speak, for the knowledge, the texts and the words that would have been offered in exchange.