June 18th, 2008 23:24 EST
The Historian Book Review: Are you looking over your shoulder?
My Dear and Unfortunate Successor...
.. If anyone reading this book-review has already read The Historian, then you will smile slightly at those introductory words, and if it is night-time you may even shiver slightly and look over your shoulder. For this novel is not a dry autobiography of someone like Phillip Starkey, or a peek into the daily routine of Gibbons, but something of a quest concerning the whereabouts of none other than Vlad the Impaler.
And not the decaying mortal remains of the Impaler, either, but the Undead man himself, who is very much up and about and walking the world, with a very inquisitive outlook, and progressive attitude towards modern warfare and interrogation techniques.
Anyone who is interested in Dracula, will have at some time found themselves reading about Prince Vlad`s brief but spectacularly bloody career, in the 1460`s and 70`s. They will know the story that Vlad was overcome by enemies on home turf in 1476, decapitated, and his head was sent to his great enemy the Turkish Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, preserved in honey. It was then impaled on a stake for all to see which, considering Vlad`s favourite method of execution and torture, is as clear a case of insult to injury as I`ve ever seen. Conspiracy theories abound concerning his death, but it is generally considered that his body was buried at the island Monastery of Snagov, whilst his head went to Constantinople. Therefore, if he was a vampire, (as Christopher Lee mischievously observed in the documentary In Search of: Dracula), He would be a headless one.
But is he still headless? Was he buried at Snagov? Permanently, that is? Following an excavation at the island some years, ago nothing remained in his grave but a set of immaculately preserved clothing. A thought to send a shiver through the most level headed reader of vampire fiction, and the excellent open door through which Elizabeth Kostova introduces us to her story.
Through a tale told in journals, in the style of Bram Stoker, and taking place in three distinct eras, Elizabeth unfolds the story of what happened to The Dragon after his conventional death, how his body was reunited in one piece, and the apparent interests he has followed in the centuries since.
In style, it is a cross between an adventure story and a historical detective tale, filled with unusual clues and taking a rather globe-trotting approach to its subject. Coming in at something over 700 pages it is a weighty tome to pick up, but I for one found myself quite gripped by the story, and curious enough to stick with it to the end.
Kostova develops some intriguing mysteries, as I would very much like to know more about the apparently Vampiric Monks of the French Monastery mentioned in the PyrÃ©nÃ©Ã©s, and more to the point, how Vlad`s head was actually joined back onto his body when the two were reunited at last, but I am new to the authors work, and I suspect that these strands may be developed in novels I have yet to encounter.
Some critics, I gather, have rather sarcastically referred to the book as The Dracula Code, an unnecessary and fashionably smart-alec reference to The Da Vinci Code, and it is a joke which will age very quickly. I have to say, in all fairness, that in having read The Da Vinci Code myself last summer it is unavoidable to see certain parallels at times, but this a coincidence of the kind which occasionally occurs when works are published. I myself had to change the name of a character in my own manuscript for my novel at an early stage, because there appeared a character in Buffy with the same name, and I later had to do the same thing with someone else because of Underworld; so Elizabeth Kostova (who was writing The Historian for 10 years, and won the University of Michigan`s Hopwood Award for the Novel-in-Progress whilst still writing it), must have been pretty miffed when Tom Hanks and his mates started chasing across Europe at the Multiscreens, trying to find Mary Magdelaine!
There is a parallel, but Tom Hanks didn`t have to worry about Undead Agents of the Prince of Vampires bursting in on him at Oxford University Libraries, and putting a permanent end to his investigations! And having read the other book, I found this one much more accessible. The Da Vinci Code irritated me hugely, with two page chapters and lightening changes of scene, whereas The Historian kept me reading solidly for the best part of a week.
If you are interested in Dracula and Vlad the Impaler, then this book is a treasure trove of information about the Impaler`s life, and the politics of his day. It looks at the Ottoman Empire, and its attitude to Vlad as a frontier thorn in the side, and makes some interesting observations about Vlad`s position in history as a person in whom east and west collide. Something which is surely very pertinent to our own times.
Vlad himself is shown as a man who is somewhat irritated that his abilities as a scholar are almost overlooked, overshadowed by his brutally practical approach to Real-Politic in action. I do not wish to give the game away, but he has set up a neat and fascinating method of both attracting scholars of promise into his service, and of disposing of those whom he thinks will rebel. They only receive one, rather permanent warning not to delve too deeply. Vlad is shown as something of a dilettante, with a wide scope of interests, but many which inevitably involve the arts of pain. He has notes on the Nazi war machine, and collected memos of Stalin.
As the book points out, it is widely forgotten that although Vlad was a daringly vicious innovator in the prosecution of his campaigns, they were executed in the name of the Church at the height of the Ottoman insurgency, and he learnt his more flamboyant methods whilst a prisoner of the Turks in Constantinople as a teenager. It is also the case that Vlad had plenty of contemporizes who could easily be said to have rival claims for a bloody Reputation. This was the period of The War of The Roses, and Vlad is near enough a contemporary of Richard III, the most maligned King in English History. Similarly, in an earlier era, Richard the Lionheart would happily trot off the battlefield with a dozen or so Saracen heads tied to the crupper of his saddle, and a generation after Vlad, Italy would see The Borgias and Machiavelli. It`s easy to give a dog a bad name, and when his Crusading wars were forgotten, everyone remembered those old woodcuts of Vlad Tepes eating his dinner in a grove of impaled corpses. Like the Malleus Maleficarum, swept historically under the carpet, and spoke of only with a wince.
I do not propose to go into detail about the experiences of the cast of characters who we meet in the book, as I have no intention of spoiling what will be a thoroughly enjoyable story opening out before the reader. I will say in passing that Dracula brings them together by the devise of printed books left in the possession of a promicing historian, marked only with a dragon on the sleeve, and with a woodcut of one inside, which seems to indicate the location of his tomb. And the meeting between The Impaler and Professor Rosi is pure Stoker, and an absolute delight. (It`s particularly nice that a smiling Vlad places a hand on Dracula, but says nothing, like Doctor Bell looking at a Deerstalker hat in Murder Rooms, but not trying it on.) A valid and welcome addition to vampire fiction, in my opinion, and a solid good couple of days reading. I recommend it very highly.