A monster is haunting the world, from Boston in the United States to Istanbul in Turkey, and passing by Oxford, England, and Perpignan, France. The monster heads a bizarre fraternity of bookworms who work in major public libraries, and, at the behest of their “master”, are constantly on the look-out for rare and ancient tomes.
The problem is that “the master” and his acolytes are not ordinary bibliophiles but vampires who form a global family of “the un-dead”. The “master” is none other than Dracula, better-known to history as Vlad the Impaler , a prince of Wallachia, in present-day Roumania, whose story, mixed with myth and legend, made Bram Stoker’s famous 19th century novel an instant classic.
One may wonder what is the point of re-telling a story that almost everyone knows, as Stoker’s version, translated into more than 100 languages, has been in print for more than 120 years. It is like re-making great film classics such as “Casablanca” and “High Noon”.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel, once you have been hooked into it, is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Kostova, an American writer of Central European origin, takes the Bram Stoker character as the base of a palimpsest to which she adds shades of the real, historic Vlad, and the chiaroscuro of uncertainties regarding good and evil in a post-modern world.
The yarn starts with a series of mysterious travels by an American, living in Europe and apparently engaged in some unspecified diplomatic-cum-academic pursuit, with his teenage daughter in tow. The father-and-daughter duet end up in all sorts of weird places and situations, apparently looking for clues to a mystery not exposed until after we have crossed page 500 or so of the book. (We won’t tell you what the mystery is as not to spoil your fun. But you can bet it has to do with vampires!)
In the process Kostova’s book treats of a bewildering range of topics- from ancient esoteric sects to the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the artificial birth of Greek nationalism, to the demise of Communism in Europe. We are offered a feast of unusual anecdotes, bizarre tales, and mysterious events each of which could sustain a whole evening’s conversation at your dinner table. Whether it is alchemy or architecture, linguistics or lithography, and navigation and necromancy, Kostova has something interesting to offer.
At one level “The Historian” could be seen as a Bildungsroman built around the trials and tribulations of its teenage heroine on her way to premature womanhood. At another level Kostova’s tale reads like a labyrinthine thriller with as many rebondissements as the best of Conan Doyle.
But would it be reading too much in a novel if we also detected a deeper political and cultural message? Let me explain. The vampire image in “The Historian” could be seen as an avatar of Europe’s dark past that rooted in dogma, hence the monsters’ perverted bibliophilic obsessions, dreams of rewriting the past.
The historic Vlad was seen by his admirers as something of a “holy warrior” who fought the advent of he Ottoman Muslims by brandishing the cross. His speciality was to have captured Ottoman soldiers skinned alive and exposed at the centre of towns and villages he controlled. Vlad did not mind which brand of Christianity he fought for. He started as a champion of the Orthodox Church, prevalent in Eastern Europe, but ended up as a convert to Catholicism when he had to flee to Hungary where he married the daughter of the local king.
Roumanian folk tales present Vlad, alias Dracula, as a “soldier of Christ” who resisted the Ottoman aggression not only while he was alive but also after his death. In Kostova’s version of these tales, Vlad-Dracula pursues his anti-Muslim campaign as a vampire, striking in Istanbul, the very heart of Turkish-Ottoman culture and power.
In Kostova’s book the books’ heroes, including the mysterious American father and his teenage daughter, later joined by her young English boyfriend, discover an unexpected fact. This pertains to the existence of a secret society of Ottoman “warriors” that has survived the fall of the Caliphs and their empire. These “warriors” who inherit their status from generation to generation have a sole mission: to hunt down Vlad and his army of vampires and kill them, thus ending a war of more than five centuries with a final victory for the Caliph-Sultans.
Kostova’s message is clear: the West, in its struggle against the evils of its own past, represented by the “un-dead”, cannot do without the active support of Turkey and, perhaps, the Muslim world as a whole. Pone of the most sympathetic characters in this novel is a Turkish professor who belongs to the secret society of Ottoman “warriors” against Vlad.
Was Kostova conscious that her novel could be read as a strong argument in favour of inviting Turkey to join the European Union? Perhaps, not. But whichever way the book is read its main theme is clear: the Western civilisation and Islam have common enemies represented by “vampires” such as postmodernism in Europe and obscurantism in the Muslim world.
This reading of the book may not please people who, like France’s former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, regard Turkey as a threat to the European Union rather than a partner in peace and prosperity.
Although this is an enjoyable book to read, a word of warning is necessary. At times, Kostova is unable to manage the economy of her novel and the vast mass of information she has collected turns into an uncontrollable avalanche. Another problem is Kostova’s experimentation with the rhythm and cadence of the narrative and her obsession with flashbacks and flash-forwards. The devices she uses often break the tempo of the narrative and dissipate the tension she has so deftly created. Her prose is also marred by writing-school conceits and a recherché lexicon which, although it adds to the mystery in some places, may confuse the average reader.
“The Historian” is the ideal beach-read. But now that the beach season is all but over, you might want to read it in your bath-tub. If you do, beware that you might spend the night there.