Monday, June 26, 2006

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I opine that too many novels have romanticised the vampire myth. I myself, dear reader, have fallen for the whole Lestat-Interview-With-A-Vampire line of how he's the one who's really been hard done by as he lives his glam-rock moneybags whinging lifestyle - "Don't blame me, blame the vampire that sired me", "Don't hate me because I'm going to be eternally young and beautiful", "Oh no, I can't have sex but I can do this thing that's really a million times better", "It's OK to kill people as long as they've been bad" etc etc nyah nyah nyah you piffly mortals.

In high school we all prayed for some Dark Knight (not Batman™) to save us from the drudgery of prep and school dinners (by the way, Jhonen Vasquez penned a hilarious satire on this theme in his Squee comic). We promised to make each other vampires if we were taken first. Not quite as kooky as goths, but equally whiny and depressing, I suppose we would have been emos if emos had been around then.

Anyway, it's nice to see someone resurrect the vampire à la Bram Stoker, and with such style. In some ways, The Historian reminded me of The Da Vinci Code, with its meticulous research unpeeling layer after layer of history like an artichoke revealing its heart. Happily though, Kostova's novel is much less smarmily self-conscious, and it genuinely draws you in instead of keeping you at arm's length. I greatly enjoy Dan Brown's works, I really do, but this novel has heart.

A girl finds some letters in her father's library addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor", and their contents and consequences gradually strip away her reality to show her the chilling truth behind her family tree. To be quite honest, if someone had to pitch this novel as a movie, it would sound like some ridiculous gore-fest/collegiate romp/Indiana Jones monstrosity. I mean, really, if I were a movie producer and the person in front of me was saying "Now see, Dracula's actually ALIVE," I'd be pressing the button for security before they even drew breath for the next sentence.

However, written in Kostova's frank prose, the story unfolds so simply and so naturally that you start wondering where you put that crucifix your mother gave you and shouldn't you be wearing it right about now?

There are some plot conjunctions that are, of course, too convenient, such as the aunt highly placed in the Hungarian government who seems to be a kind of Visas-R-Us, but I like that Kostova even thought of these obstacles in the first place, and didn't skim over them as if her characters were James Bonds who could freely flit from country to country with no more trouble than a snowflake.

I truly like the characters in this book, well, all the good ones anyway. The human weaknesses of these people make them accessible and familiar, and in turn show their strength in adversity as remarkable and admirable. To quote Steven Levitt: "People are much less harsh on weaknesses that are clear than weaknesses that are hidden - as they should be."

Read this book, and rediscover Bram Stoker's Dracula. Crucifixes are optional, but you'll definitely feel less scared without one.*

*Note: This comes from a person who couldn't sleep or go to the bathroom by herself for two weeks after watching The Ring. If you're made of sterner stuff, you'll be just fine.