Friday, September 16, 2005

September Book Club: The Historian

You may want to wait until after you finish the book before you continue. . .
The Historian
By Elizabeth Kostova

Professor Rossi suddenly appeared gray as the humor drained from his eyes. “ ‘Dracula – ” He paused. “Dracula – Vlad Ţepeş – is still alive.’ ”

Indeed Dracula lives. This is the narrator’s “cri de coeur” as she draws the reader into a fast paced tour of libraries and monasteries across the globe. An American man, her father, who I see as less than dashing, joins forces with a Hungarian speaking Romanian to fight evil. The woman, Helen, seeks revenge against her absentee father; he is compelled to rescue his doctoral advisor who has mysteriously disappeared. They fall in love, of course, somewhere between the silver bullets and the archive stacks. It is their daughter who tells the story of adventure, temptation and sacrifice. She has grown into a staid professor herself, but the appearance of a book has caused her to dig into her father’s past and tell the story so that someone out there in the world of books will hear her cry and beware Dracula, who lives and lurks among us.

Kostova presents the hero/devil perspective problem in history. The Wallachians view Vlad as a hero because he held off the Turks and their unholy traditions. The Turks see him as a devil/terrorist who threatens their power. The world sees Dracula as an enemy to the natural order, but Dracula and his minions see humans as fundamentally evil and are willing to “live” with the consequences of this philosophy. In life Vlad was a warrior willing to destroy life to gain/retain power. In death he is willing to take life so that he may pursue the great books in which the “truth” of humanity’s dark side is preserved. What is his ultimate goal? He does not want to gain power over humanity. Rather he sees himself as a guardian of the truth. A painful truth that humanity tries to deny by preserving only the good books and all the while falling victim to their own evil nature in the course of history. So Dracula is a protector of the truth of humanity as evil. While this does not make him redeemable, it does give him a valuable role in humankind. This may explain why he lives among us today, at least in our literary souls.

Kostova presents Dracula's evil as pure ego—pure self interest. Perhaps evil is inherent in human nature, but it is not the predominate trait unless it is cultivated. It can not be set loose easily—except perhaps in large anonymous crowds. If the personal/relational is maintained, then evil energy/power can be sublimated or transformed into harmless activity—sports or competition, or even civilization building. Vlad stopped defending his people and instead fought the faceless/inhuman Turks. In this process he lost control of his evil tendencies and become evil himself.

Yes, Evil exists. Yes, humankind wants to hide or deny this truth. We want to suppress this truth precisely because we cannot conquer evil AND we fear that evil is not a supernatural force (like Dracula) but an intrinsic feature of our humanity. It is the beast inside of us as Golding knew and illustrated in The Lord of the Flies. Kostova hints at this by presenting Helen as Vlad's long distant descendant who carries Vlad’s blood. She gives both his hidden genetic evil and the more pressing contamination of her vampire wound to her daughter, our narrator. The beast is inside of her, but perhaps it is not inside of all of us. So, like the narrator, we must confront the possibility that we have inherited evil or that we could be contaminated at any time by a sudden or subtle attack. We must learn to live with this knowledge. Perhaps this is why the narrator never marries. The novel supports the idea that family and love are worth protecting from evil, even at great personal sacrifice. Yet the narrator does not marry or have a family in the end. Instead she has devoted her time to research, uneventful travel, her students and friends, writing innocuous historical accounts and university politics. This could be a plot device to free up the narrator to fight evil in a sequel perhaps.

Kostova’s novel is timely, and not because of the tension between the West and East. Specialists in America knew that the a sizable population of poor and elderly people in New Orleans would not be able to afford escape or be physically unable to help themselves in the event of the inevitable Hurricane. Yet nothing was done to effectively solve this problem. I suspect that much of the population provided the work force to support more affluent tourists in the city. Their labor was necessary to support the city’s lucrative tourist trade. Thus we had the intellectual power to see the problem, but lacked the will to do it. Is this not inherent evil? To see injustice and stand aside? Did that population really have a choice about living there? Were there excellent public schools to empower them to choose their careers? Did they have healthcare to empower them physically to pursue a productive career? They suffered in life and eked out meager lives alongside our quaint picture of New Orleans. Now they are exiles and many have paid with their lives.

So is evil out there or in here? That is the question. As we grow more global, the truth may be that evil grows along with our collective humanity. Perhaps evil grows in strength as we give our will into the collective. Evil grows in crowds. Or at least the potential for mass evil grows as we lose our sense of moral responsibility and become anonymous.

Love flourishes where two or three are gathered. Evil reigns when we forget that we are human—animals, really—who are made of meat and can be reduced to meat and in the eyes of a man turned butcher such as the various Vlads of the world today.

Burning Questions
(and some possible answers or at least page references)

1. Why couldn’t the librarian find Dracula himself? Why did he have to follow the others? Did Dracula not want him to get at his library? Probably he was not a good enough scholar. Part of the deal is that you have to prove your undead self to Dracula by actually finding him.

2. What happened to Massimo?

3. Why was Barley there except to add a bit of romance? They don’t end up together in the end? Will he come back in a sequel?

4. What was the deal with the bibliography? Was Dracula leading these scholars in their research in order to document his evil deeds? Why add their names to the list except as a way to brag or lure further scholars?

5. Why does Dracula have his tombs (his homes) in monasteries? What is Kostova trying to say with this choice? Is it merely the surprise of it? Evil hidden inside of goodness? Are good and evil often confused or hard to distinguish—for example when the narrator is confused about whether she sees an altar or a sarcophagus in France? Note: Dracula becomes a vampire by acquiring the knowledge from monks in the West who have written it in a book. See page 640.

6. What exactly is Dracula researching? He has two tasks for Rossi: catalogue AND make new acquisitions…perhaps he is still researching the occult?

7. How was Master James involved? Who was Elsie? See page 625.

8. Why was Helen’s old boyfriend, Geza Joszef, looking for Dracula? To destroy him or somehow join his minions? I think he wanted to destroy him. But I don’t think he got a book. Somehow he is defending Hungary, but is not personally invested in the search for Dracula. Maybe he represents the disinterested State or the vestiges of the historical attempts to conquer Vlad.

9. What is the point of defeating death if life after death is so grotesque? What is Dracula after? Why is he willing to be undead? What is Dracula’s ambition? He says that the world is changing and that he intends to change with it. Does this mean that evil as we know it will morph into a more evil form? Is Kostova hinting that the modern clash between East and West is the continuation of the same battle fought by Vlad?

10. Is Dracula a hero because he protects the truth as he sees it?

11. Dracula needs someone to catalogue his collection: thus he is not a genius, a creative thinker. He needs help. Is this humility? Laziness? Does evil always need minions? Note: Dracula does have “magic” or supernatural powers—the food and travel, names appearing on documents, changing shape, etc.

12. Is Dracula a librarian or a historian? He collects books—all kinds with no canon. A historian uses books and texts to understand the past and shed light on human nature. Dracula has no perspective on the past—he is still in or of it. He does not see both sides of the issue. He is not a historian; rather he collects texts that humans want to suppress. This makes him a collector or a preservationist, not a historian.

13. What is the significance of the narrator getting the book in the end? Is Dracula still alive and distributing his books? What was the function of those books in the first place? Were they temptations?

14. What is the point of pursuing Dracula if he cannot be destroyed (as the novel indicates) and if the pursuit destroys families and lives?

Quotes and Memorable Language:

“As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward with its shadowy claw.”

“It’s the reward of the business, to look history in the eye and say, ‘I know who you are. You can’t fool me.’”

“But history, it seemed, could be something entirely different, a splash of blood whose agony didn’t fade overnight, or over centuries.”

“The Dracula of Stoker’s imagination had a favorite sort of victim: young women.”

“I was becoming wise in the way of the story.” --narrator, 78

The dragon was our protector,
But now we defend ourselves against him
.” --folk song

“I know the modern world. It is my prize, my favorite work.” --Dracula

“I became an historian in order to preserve my own history forever.” --Dracula

“With your unflinching honesty, you can see the lesson of history,” he said. “History has taught us that the nature of man is evil, sublimely so. Good is not perfectible, but evil is. Why should you not use your great mind in service of what is perfectible?” --Dracula

“Together we will advance the historian’s work beyond anything the world has ever seen. There is no purity like the purity of the sufferings of history. You will have what every historian wants: history will be reality to you. We will wash our minds clean with blood.” --Dracula

Fun Links

Meet the Author: an online video of Kostova discussing her novel:

Online NPR interview with Kostova:

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