Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Done to death.


Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian was a novel ten years in the making. Which makes me not feel so bad about my own glacial writing pace. Kostova's debut novel broke a number of records when it was published, becoming the first debut novel to land on number one of the New York Times bestseller list and earning Kostova $2 million from Little, Brown, and Company. It sold more than Dan Brown's da Vinci Code in its first week alone.

Which is kind of weird for a langorous novel about a dusty group of academics whose greatest occupational hazard seems to be papercuts, until they get a myssssssssterious book that propels them into a multi-country search for Dracula, who is still noodling about but has mellowed somewhat in his old age and collects books instead of impalements.

When The Historian is good, it's very good. Kostova does an excellent job of evoking landscape, mood, and atmosphere, and conjuring up the darker corners of Bulgaria and Romania under the grip of communism. Her descriptions of the beknighted monasteries, churches, and mosques in the liminal zones of Europe and Asia where they start to bleed together are rich with detail, reflecting Kostova's childhood in Slovenia in the early 1970s and later return to Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. The book's philosophical wanderings about the nature of history and man are thoughtful and sad, but the book's central villain and his lair come across as more of a Madame Toussaud villain than a real menace, and the obligatory final confrontation is clumsy and forced. Kostova's otherwise gentle and flowing writing becomes stilted when she has to depart from the world of historiography and try to extricate her characters from the scrapes they get into.

The Historian begins in Amsterdam with the peripatetic and insulated lives of the unnamed teenage narrator and her father, Paul, an American diplomat (in Kostova's work, history is the pursuit of the wealthy). The narrator's mother is dead, and she and her father have a close, if guarded relationship, as they tiptoe around hidden sources of grief. The narrator finds a little book, blank except for a woodcut of a dragon, in her father's study and asks him about the book's provenance, which sets The Historian's plot into motion. As the pair travel around France, the narrator tries to tease out her father's story, which he parts with reluctantly.

The book came to Paul as a graduate student in New England. Paul's mentor, Professor Rossi, has a similar one, and reveals that the book prompted him to begin researching the location of Vlad Tepes' remains. He warns Paul of the danger of pursuing this research, then promptly vanishes. Paul then meets Rossi's daughter, Helen, a sharp-tempered Romanian student determined to best her father in his own profession in revenge for his abandonment of her mother. Helen and Paul take off for Istanbul, pursuing a trail of dusty, cryptic clues, and fall in with a Turkish professor, Turgut Bora, who so serendipitously happens to have access to exactly the documents they need, an obliging archivist friend, the willingness to shadow them around Istanbul's libraries and translate, and his own obsession with Dracula.

Convinced yet? The coincidences mount up, with Helen and Paul always finding exactly the help they need when they need it (Helen has a well-connected aunt in the communist government of Hungary who can get them travel visas and access to the university; they keep stumbling across helpful monks and librarians, and Helen's mother is a descendant of Vlad Tepes). Their search for Rossi takes them to an isolated outpost in Bulgaria, where Dracula has apparently spent the intervening centuries building a really sweet underground library that seems like something from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, complete with magical fires and replenishing food for his captive historian. I half expected a singing ottoman to show up and belt one out.

The narrative continues to jump between 1950s Eastern Europe and 1970s Western Europe, until the narrator's father disappears and she's prompted to follow him to a monastery in southern France that's connected with the Dracula myth and the mystery of her missing mother, which prompts a FINAL CONFRONTATION BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL ZZZZZSSSSNRK.

Of course, in the vein of all good horror movies, we only THINK the villain is dead (undead undead undead, with apologies to Bauhaus), but he turns up again in the epilogue, leaving our heroine to continue the fight.

There are some really, really great things about Kostova's novel. She's wonderfully adept at capturing the dusty world of historians and how sometimes, a passage in a book or document will abruptly spring to life and leave the researcher shaken, as well as showing how the horrors of history can become miasmic, overwhelming, and terrifyingly alive. Even Dracula seems ready to hang it up in the face of a world narrative that makes his own crimes seem petty and small. Watching Helen and Paul follow the thinnest thread of conjecture and myth through Asia and Europe in search of their quarry should be exhilarating to anyone who has spent hours chasing that one elusive footnote or paragraph. But when Kostova's characters leave their study carrels, their real peril seems hasty and sloppily constructed.

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