Review: The Historian

Not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And…sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward for us with its shadowy claw.

This passage, which opens Elizabeth Kostova’s bestselling Dracula reworking The Historian, both refers to the novel’s functionally immortal villain, the elusive Vlad Tepes, and expresses the book’s mThe Historianain thematic concern: the haunting effects that history has upon the present, the ways in which the past remains alive and well, trapping people in old patterns.

When, at the age of 16, the narrator of the novel discovers in her father Paul’s library a strange old book containing a woodcut of a dragon, alongside a mysterious and ominous letter, she convinces him, gradually, reluctantly, to tell her its story: of his brilliant doctoral supervisor Rossi, who disappeared shortly after telling Paul of his suspicions that the historical Dracula was real and alive; of Paul’s quest with Rossi’s daughter Helen to find him, tracing Dracula through the libraries and monasteries of Eastern Europe; of Paul’s romance with Helen, and her own disappearance.

Ostensibly a literary treasure hunt enacted by ivory-tower academics, the novel is in fact strongly informed by Cold War politics and by the centuries of cultural and religious conflict that have shaped Eastern Europe in particular. Vlad Tepes, the fifteenth-century ruler of Wallachia who later became identified with Stoker’s suave vampire Dracula, was a staunch and often brutal opponent of the Ottomans: that enmity proves a vital source for Paul and Helen as they attempt to track down Vlad’s (and thus Rossi’s) whereabouts, referring to monkish accounts of Vlad’s supposed corpse’s progress through Eastern Europe and gaining the assistance of a secret society of Turkish academics who claim legitimacy in their opposition to Vlad/Dracula from the long-dead Sultan Mehmet himself. This historical religious conflict is reflected – resurrected, we could say – in the hostility Helen and Paul face as they follow in Vlad’s footsteps through Bulgaria and Hungary. As an American in the 1950s, Paul can travel in Eastern Europe only because Helen’s aunt, high up in the Communist Hungarian government, has been able to pull some political strings; but the authorities are nevertheless suspicious of him and thus of Helen, and ultimately turn out to be pursuing Vlad/Dracula for their own ideological ends (in what is perhaps the novel’s least convincing subplot). Helen, too, finds herself at potential risk when the pair visit Istanbul, owing to her Hungarian heritage and the historical conflict between the two countries.

This sense of history’s patterns repeating is focused through the figure of Vlad himself. Unlike Stoker’s Dracula and most of his contemporary descendants, Kostova’s vampire is not particularly suave or seductive, not associated with forbidden desire, but brutal, beastly and utterly monstrous: Vlad Tepes’ historical atrocities (he was not called Vlad the Impaler for nothing) haunt the text; a vampiric librarian, servant to Vlad, who appears in the narrative early on is a “frail”, sobbing wreck, and the threat of infection from his bite is an ever-constant fear; the day after Rossi disappears, police find on the ceiling of his office a dark smear of blood, something it’s hard to imagine Stoker’s fastidious Dracula leaving behind.

Kostova’s Dracula figure, then, operates as a metaphor for the enduring power of sociopolitical conflict, for the bloody internecine battles of the past that refuse to die, casting their monstrous, undead shadows upon the present. Both Dracula and the 1950s politics the novel depicts haunt its narrator and her family in enduring ways: fear of vampiric infection has kept the narrator’s mother from her, in the same way that the invasion of Hungary by Soviet forces shortly after Paul’s visit to that country cuts Helen irrevocably off from her family there. By folding a typically Gothic family drama (featuring such genre staples as the missing mother, the wronged woman and the child seeking revenge against her parent) into her tale of political violence, Kostova’s able to illustrate the human costs of that violence, the way it redounds through the generations.

I would say, however, that the way that Kostova characterises particularly the Ottoman-Christian conflict that overshadows the novel is problematic: conceptually, the Ottoman/Turkish side is othered and orientalised, despite the help that Paul and Helen receive from the modern-day Turkish academics who oppose Dracula. Istanbul, for instance, is described as having “an Arabian Nights quality”; European influences in its architecture are called “borrowed elegance”; there’s an overall sense of foreignness, a drive towards conceptualising Istanbul as fundamentally different and exotic, that we don’t get in the descriptions of Europe or America. In a novel that mourns the families shattered by political conflict, this approach seems overly careless of the modern political divides it may be perpetuating.

Much has been said about the current vogue for rebooting and recycling classic properties and texts as a way of capitalising on audiences’ nostalgia, little of it complementary. And there is certainly a nostalgic, consolatory dimension to The Historian: its 700-page bulk promises immersion, the prospect of sinking into a comfortably suspenseful but never truly unsettling tale; its prose, as other critics have noted, fails to differentiate the novel’s various narrators, and prioritises aesthetics (as in the text’s orientalised Istanbul) above the true textures of life. For all its flaws, though, it is for my money doing something unusual and interesting with a much-imitated pop-cultural figure, drawing in Gothic concerns about the deep past, the return of the repressed and fraught structures of family inheritance to talk about our recent political history. The Gothic is a tricksy mode, and it’s more difficult than it might seem to do anything new with it; that Kostova has managed it is testament to her facility and familiarity with the genre.

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