“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 as we steep ourselves in our interests, they become more and more a part of us.” – The Historian
While Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel The Historian is a notoriously slow read, it contains some of the most beautiful pieces of writing in its genre. A product of ten years of historical research, The Historian is an intricate combination of a dark fantasy novel, a travel journal of 1950s Eastern European cities and villages, and an archive of the medieval conquests and torture habits of Vlad the Impaler – also known as Dracula.
Through repeated images in pop culture and media, the tux-wearing and fanged villian of Bram Stoker’s 1897 fiction novel Dracula is the version of the vampire that has been imprinted in our minds (and has since evolved into a sparkling Edward Cullen). Most readers have forgotten that Stoker’s Dracula was based on a real political and historical figure, known by many names: Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Tepes, Vlad III Prince of Wallachia, Son of Dragon, and Dracula.
Throughout The Historian, the characters travel across Europe and Turkey in their search for clues to find a missing scholar and the true whereabouts of Dracula’s grave. The majority of the team’s research takes place in the deep recesses of libraries and churches, hovering over yellowing manuscripts and fraying 500 year old documents in ancient Greek, Latin, Arabic, Romanian, and Bulgarian. In an example of Kostova’s considerable talent as a writer, she does an excellent job throughout the novel detailing the constant struggle of translating foreign languages:
He pointed to a page of beautiful Arabic, and I thought for the hundredth time how terrible it was that human languages and even alphabets were separated from one another by this frustrating Babel of differences, so that when I glanced at a page of Ottoman printing, my comprehension was immediately caught in a bramble of symbols as impenetrable to me as a hedge of magic briars.
But after fighting a constant battle of linguistics, the narrator finally reaches that moment of reward and understanding while reading a passage in French:
Never before had I known the sudden understanding that travels from word to brain to heart, the way a new language can move, coil, swim into life under the eyes, the almost savage leap of comprehension, the instantaneous, joyful release of meaning, the way the words shed their printed bodies in a flash of heat and light.
Any future readers of The Historian should be patient throughout the detail-heavy 700 pages, and read to appreciate Kostova’s unrivaled skill with travel imagery. Do not expect an action-packed vampire hunting adventure, because you will not get past the first 200 pages.
Image Source: The Urban Politico