Monday, December 18, 2006

Dracula:What came before

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova - 642 pages - Little, Brown and Company

The novel opens with a 16-year old girl who discovers in her father's library, a cache of letters and a book with a dragon woodcut in its center. This is a story about her, her father and his mentor – all on a quest to learn more about a dark power, at the heart of which, is Vlad the Impaler, the source of the legend of Dracula. Although there are fleeting references to Bram Stoker's Dracula, this novel stands apart for its dash of realism and much history to make you wonder if the entire story is, after all, true.

Vlad III (Tepes) of Wallachia (now part of Romania), lived between 1431 and 1476, unleashing much terror among his people with his bizarre torture techniques, which bestowed on him the title attached to his name – The Impaler. His primary enmity was with the Ottoman empire, in particular, Sultan Mehmed II. The novel at one level, outlines the life, death and the supposed after-life exploits of Vlad. At another level, it's a mission is to bring to an end, Vlad's reign of vampirism.

This book is as much a voyage for the reader as it is for the protagonist, her father, Paul and his mentor, Bartolomeo Rossi. In the midst of all the action, linked to the three main characters, is Helen who plays more than a small part in the shaping of the story. A host of other characters pepper the pages, to move the story forward – from vampire librarians to secret agents to monks to a slew of academics from Istanbul, Bulgaria and Oxford. Where there are academics, needless to say, there are crumbling documents, cryptic maps and many, many yellowing letters.

Kostova writes straight, with just that touch of description of places and things that goes to move this novel a notch above popular fiction. There are disappearances, coincidences, monasteries with secret crypts, stories within stories, paths that criss-cross across decades. There are shifts in timeline, perspective and setting right through the book. The story sweeps across Amsterdam, Oxford, Istanbul, then Romania, Bulgaria and France. The story begins in 1972 and ends in 1476. However, it all ties in rather well, to make one good, albeit weighty, read.

If you were ever curious about the Dracula legend or love your historical fiction, this may prove to be an excellent choice. At 642 pages, The Historian is over twice the size of an average read, but may prove scintillating company for long journeys, afternoons of leisure and weekend marathon reads. 

(edited version published on December 18, 2005 in dna.sunday, Mumbai)

No comments: