& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Historian



The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a classic mystery novel. A history professor – Bartholomew Rossi – goes missing. His favourite student, Paul, goes looking for him. 

Paul, the protagonist of the novel, runs a political crisis-management not-for-profit organization. 

Paul’s daughter, who narrates the story, is with him. His wife is apparently dead. The narrator is not named in the novel.

Both the student and the professor have discovered a book that has mysteriously appeared besides them when they were engaged in some historical research. The book is old and blank but for an image of a dragon. 

Following the history professor's disappearance, his illegitimate daughter, Helen, emerges from the depths of East Europe. Expectedly, she teams up with Paul in the search of the professor. 

Eventually Paul and Helen fall in love and marry. Their romance and the hunt for Rossi occurs sometime in the early 1950s.

The protagonist Paul’s daughter, too, tries to follow the dragon’s path. She has also discovered the book with the dragon and papers left by professor Rossi for Paul. This is sometime in the early 1970s

The story proceeds at a fair pace and we journey to Turkey (Istanbul), Romania and Bulgaria with Paul and Helen; and to France with the narrator. 

For most part, the story is a regular whodunit and follows the predictable, formulaic twists and turns that are standard for this genre. Having said that let me also say that it is difficult to produce a page-turner that makes for a compelling reading. Elizabeth Kostova does a remarkable job in this, her debut novel. 

Partly, she's helped by chosing her geography wisely. 

For a large section of the English-reading audience (including yours truly), the history of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires, and the battles for supremacy that lasted for several centuries between Orthodox Christianity and Islam continues to hold tremendous fascination.

The trail of the disappeared professor leads to Dracula, the mediaeval, “undead” ruler of Transylvania (Vlad the Impaler). Despite Kostova’s valiant attempts, her Dracula does not scare the reader; he’s an erudite scholar. 

I've found Loren D. Estleman’s The Adventures of the Sanguinary Count (Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula) to be far more scary than The Historian

On the other hand, perhaps, Kostova’s intention is not to make her Dracula frightening.

For a debut novel this is brilliant stuff; it earned Kostova $2 million (US); a movie is being made, to be released next year. 

The Historian has been translated in 28 languages. To say that the novel is interesting is to state the obvious. However, it is far too long. I haven’t actually read the book. I heard it on audio CDs. It’s the condensed version of the novel, but even then it’s way too long. 

There are stretches in the novel that could easily be edited. Had that been done the novel would have been substantially more readable (or listenable).

Images: Dracula symbol: http://numbcranium.com/2009/03/24/the-historian-by-elizabeth-kostova/

Elizabeth Kostova & The Historian: Combination of http://www.flickr.com/photos/horselatitudes/2368157238/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/mtkr/21373285/

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