The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

For my father, who first told me some of these stories. -- Elizabeth Kostova

Order of the Dragon insignia My first acquaintance with The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova was when I heard it read on BBC Radio 4 a couple of years ago.

The Historian is a retelling of the Dracula tale by Bram Stoker. A set of papers have been collected together for the reader to follow and make of what they will.

A 16-year-old girl looking through her father's library finds a very old book with a curious letter inside. The book itself is all blank pages apart from across the centre pages a woodcut of a dragon. She asks her father to tell her of the history of the book and the letter. Over a period of a couple of years he starts to tell her what for him is a very painful story which is in part his story but begins with a story told him by his professor. He then on a trip to Oxford disappears.

Austrian oil painting of Vlad the Impaler c 1560, possibly from a lost original The girl finds herself following in her father's footsteps, on a quest in search of her own history.

A modern retelling of Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler. The seemingly eternal conflict between Islam and the West, between the past and modernity, between the Socialism of the Communist Eastern Bloc and the West, the conflicts of the Cold War, the antagonism that is still felt towards Ottoman Turks from the people they once conquered and enslaved..

The story is set in several distinct periods: The Middle Ages, 1930s, 1950s, early 1970s and the present day. The action takes place in Amsterdam, Oxford, an unnamed university in the US, Istanbul, Hungary, Bulgaria and Wallachia in Romania. The trip to Hungary in 1954 was during a period of brief flowering of liberalism, two years before the Soviet invasion and brutal crackdown of 1956.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, we forget all too easily how difficult if not impossible it was to travel behind the Iron Curtain, and how equally impossible it was for citizens of the Eastern Bloc to travel to the West other than as defectors.

A very well written novel. A worthy successor to Dracula, or that other Gothic classic, Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. A chilling tale!

Intertwined in the chilling tale are several love stories.

Somewhat surprising for a first novel, Elizabeth Kostova was given a reputed advance of $2 million! She has been accused of writing a 'me too' Da Vinci Code. Somewhat unfair, as apart from the fact it bears no resemblance to The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, unlike Dan Brown, Elizabeth Kostova can actually write!

Elizabeth Kostova was awarded the Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress whilst she was writing The Historian.

        They rode to the gates, up to the great city.
    They rode to the great city from the land of death.
    “We are men of God, men from the Carpathians.
We are monks and holy men, but we bring only evil news.
          We bring news of a plague to the great city.
      Serving our master, we come weeping for his death.”
      They rode up to the gates and the city wept with them
                    When they came in.

What is it about the tale of Vlad The Impaler, now better known as Dracula, that has led to such an enduring legend? He was the Feudal Lord of Wallachia, now a region of modern-day Romania, a brutal warlord, no different to the brutal warlords in present-day Afghanistan, and yet his notoriety did not end with his mysterious death and strange burial in 1476. Is it the 1897 novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, the pretty awful motion pictures that followed? What is it that keeps him in the darkest recesses of our minds?

Woodblock print of Vlad III attending a mass impalement Vlad III (1431-1476) reigned in Wallachia 1448, 1456–1462, and 1476. At the time, Wallachia, now part of Romania, was part of the Ottoman Empire. As ruler of Wallachia, Vlad III, fought against the Ottoman Turks. He was finally defeated by the Turks in 1476, his severed head was put on display in Istanbul. During his rule he was a cruel master, his opponents would be impaled on a stake. As a child, he was held hostage by the Turks. During his reign he maintained Wallachia as an independent state.

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(c) Keith Parkins 2008 -- June 2008 rev 0