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My Old Wallachian Tome

Elizabeth Kostova's epistolary novel, 'The Historian,' combines nuanced chills and literary thrills

By Rick Kleffel

Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian (Little, Brown; 645 pages; $25.95) is a gripping but beautifully written cri de coeur that evokes Bram Stoker's experimental approach to conveying a story through correspondence, journal excerpts and even fictionalized scholarly articles. Interweaving stories from four different timelines, she tells each in a detailed, literary style, while cutting from one to another to create page-turning urgency.

"The Historian really is a novel in that tradition of collecting documents and pretending they're real—that's just so much fun," says Kostova. "I really had that book [Bram Stoker's Dracula] and the Victorian epic novel in mind when I was working on the forms for this."

In San Francisco signing books, Kostova told Metro Santa Cruz how she tried to combine the two legends we have of Dracula. "One is the legend that Bram Stoker created," she explained, "but he used a much older name, a noble name from Romanian history, a name that also was associated with its own legends, and that was the name of Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Dracula of Wallachia. I've tried in The Historian to play with the connection between these two."

Kostova's complex creation is told from the outermost level by an unnamed narrator, the daughter of an academic referred to only by his first name, Paul. Paul, in turn, tells the story of his academic mentor, Bartolomeo Rossi, who in turn finds himself searching for the story behind an ancient book that comes into the possession of every character. At the core, all of them are searching not necessarily for the historical Dracula. "I didn't know it would revolve around this mystery of what did happen to Vlad Dracula's remains," Kostova said, "which is a true historical mystery, and one that will probably never be satisfactorily solved."

As each of their stories unfold in a series of letters and first-person narrations, they find themselves confronted with hints as to the origin and nature of the book they have been bequeathed. It is clearly an old tome, and all the pages are blank save for one in the center, which is tainted with a disturbing but compelling illustration of a dragon, named: Drakulya.

The novel also offers uniquely nuanced chills. "I wanted to give a sense of how sinister it was for the people who lived under East European communism to be and feel constantly watched. That is one of the most real supernatural experiences that people have, to have a state watching over you."

In the process, Kostova has created a mountain of dense data that comes together with many intelligent and entertaining flourishes. And most importantly, in a novel of this length and complexity, the payoff is utterly satisfying without being over-the-top. Harkening back to the past, slicing and dicing time, story and perspective with clarity and complexity, The Historian is a novel that provides that most pleasant of surprises, a story readers can explore in the labyrinths of their own minds, long after the covers have been closed.

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From the August 17-24, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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