Monday, March 13, 2006

There's always plenty to see and do in Bulgaria!

If a mysterious, yellowed volume holding only a single woodcut sounds intrinsically exciting, “The Historian” is the novel for you. Vampire tales have always been fetishistic, from Bela Lugosi’s cape to the garlic-’n’-crucifix on back to Vlad the Impaler’s wooden stake. Now Elizabeth Kostova sets the undead to hankering after old books. Vampires spread terror by leaving volumes in library carrels, and her characters uncover Dracula’s trail in dusty old museums and monasteries. Our heroes thrill to the discovery of a couple of letters from a fifteenth-century monk about his wagon trip through Wallachia. They sneak across borders, minutely examine frescoes, and chat up fellow vampire hunters in colorful Turkish cafes, surrounded by exotic sights and smells. Action, mostly, takes a back seat to travelogue. This is Dracula for the “Da Vinci Code” set.

Once you’ve got that figured out, it’s actually a pretty engaging story. Our unnamed main character (a gimmick that always distracts me) is reading her father's records of his hunt for his mentor, who left him his own records of his hunt for Dracula. She's got her own quest, but it unfolds in snippets between old letters and diary pages. It sounds choppy, but Kostova manages to sustain the main narrative thread through all the "source material."

She's a hell of a travel writer, too. Through the generations, the various characters travel to Istanbul, Oxford, Amsterdam, Venice, Budapest, the Pyrenees and the wilds of Bulgaria. Kostova's settings are full of lyrical passages:
"…Morning light hadn’t yet reached the chasm below. Something hung and glinted in the air beneath us, and I realized even before my father pointed to it what it was: a bird of prey, hunting slowly along the pinnacle walls, suspended like a drifting flake of copper."

Kostova's characters are a bit wooden, but so was Jonathan Harker. She wants all her heroes to be perfect world citizens, so they’re very respectful of other cultures – not like that nasty Turk-slayer they’re after. And although they’re well versed in history (though not all of them are actually historians - they're always asking each other things like "How does an anthropologist know so much about medieval lore?"), they constantly express dismay at the atrocities they read about. When Paul learns some of the physical details of impalement, he has to close his book for a second. The modern reader can only think: Sissy.

Kostova’s point, however, is that to these people, the past is immediate. History is being made all around us, and the modern era knows monstrosities as savage as any that’s ever been. The vampire becomes a neat metaphor for the past: it never dies - at least, not until we make ourselves confront it.

Next up: "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," by Laurence Sterne. I gots to read like the wind before the Steve Coogan movie opens here. My friends have accused me of attempting to improve myself with books, so let me just add that I plan to wash Tristram down (ew) with plenty of beer this week.

Today's plant: Hot crocus action in the back yard. They are purple and gold, and doomed. (This hill will be rubble by next spring; I'll try to dig them up but surely won't get them all.)

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