Not A Book Review: The Historian

There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.

There is more to this book than I care to admit. And I hope you would indulge me a little as I look back on its premise.

In the months leading up to my father’s final diagnosis, I clung to books as a way to cope with the inevitable news of his cancer. I scoured bookstores for anything that resembled a father-daughter story in the hopes that I could try to prolong mine. I was in a foreign land at that time, where English books were limited compared to what I could find back home. Even bigger bookstores such as Red only had a few shelves of English books.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is one of the few books I came across in this hopeless search. I bought it not knowing it was essentially a vampire story – a fact that I am only accepting now that I finished reading it. Perhaps it is with the same goggles I used to look for the books that I read its story; convinced that it is more a father-daughter adventure than it is a postmodern historical take on Dracula. That is the beauty of fiction – I am allowed, once in a while, to corrupt it with my own agenda.

The story starts off with the unnamed daughter scouring her father’s library. She finds a mysterious vellum-bound book with a woodcut of a dragon in the center as well as letters addressed to “My dear and unfortunate successor.” The dragon, it turns out, is the symbol of Vlad Tepes or the historical Dracula, and the book is an invitation to enter his otherworld.

The story spans a generation of historians that are bequeathed with the dragon book by mysterious means, including the daughter, a historian-in-the-making. What follows after finding the book is a rat race of questions and discovery behind its origins, its meaning, its purpose, the bequeathed one’s role, and a lifetime of tragedies brought on by the historical Dracula (as opposed to the romanticized, Hollywood version of Dracula). Between the flashbacks in the form of letters from previous historians, there is beautiful prose on the places that lay the foundation for much of the story. From Amsterdam, to Venice, to Bulgaria, to Turkey, and to Wallachia – the places were lifelike, unrushed in its writing, and considered equals to the characters themselves.

Despite the detective-like flow of the book, much of what I took away from it are found in the first few chapters. The dynamics between Paul and his daughter is the very reason I spent weeks reading and rereading Part One and only a few days finishing Parts Two and Three.

The few silences in the book are used to establish the relationship of the father and the daughter. Theirs is a subdued one, restrained even as the story around them has reached its climax. It is these silences that I have come to love about the book – the daughter’s gradual understanding of her father, finding meaning even in the slightest nuances in his eyes; the father taking his time to calmly share his story, finding relief in their shared silences as they both process their histories.

John Goodman also wrote about Silence, although his was more deliberate and devoid of any tragic Dracula story. I cannot help but connect Goodman and The Historian as I try to understand my own shared silences with my father. He wrote,

“There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy… the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul… the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos.”

I am convinced that at this time you will no longer consider this an appropriate book review. It is not. The book is only a means by which I was allowed to appreciate the same shared silences I had with my own father. I set out wanting this one last adventure with him, that extra milestone in the lifetime we spent together. But what I got was an appreciation of the spaces in between those adventures. Turns out, those aren’t so bad at all.