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Breathtakingly suspenseful and beautifully written, The Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family’s past connect to an inconceivable evil: the dark fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages. The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe–in a feat of storytelling so rich, so hypnotic, so exciting that it has enthralled readers around the world.
“Part thriller, part history, part romance…Kostova has a keen sense of storytelling and she has a marvelous tale to tell.” —Baltimore Sun
In 1972 I was sixteen—young, my father said, to be traveling with him on his diplomatic missions. He preferred to know that I was sitting attentively in class at the International School of Amsterdam; in those days his foundation was based in Amsterdam, and it had been my home for so long that I had nearly forgotten our early life in the United States. It seems peculiar to me now that I should have been so obedient well into my teens, while the rest of my generation was experimenting with drugs and protesting the imperialist war in Vietnam, but I had been raised in a world so sheltered that it makes my adult life in academia look positively adventurous. To begin with, I was motherless, and the care that my father took of me had been deepened by a double sense of responsibility, so that he protected me more completely than he might have otherwise. My mother had died when I was a baby, before my father founded the Center for Peace and Democracy. My father never spoke of her and turned quietly away if I asked questions; I understood very young that this was a topic too painful for him to discuss. Instead, he took excellent care of me himself and provided me with a series of governesses and housekeepers—money was not an object with him where my upbringing was concerned, although we lived simply enough from day to day.
The latest of these housekeepers was Mrs. Clay, who took care of our narrow seventeenth-century town house on the Raamgracht, a canal in the heart of the old city. Mrs. Clay let me in after school every day and was a surrogate parent when my father traveled, which was often. She was English, older than my mother would have been, skilled with a feather duster and clumsy with teenagers; sometimes, looking at her too-compassionate, long-toothed face over the dining table, I felt she must be thinking of my mother and I hated her for it. When my father was away, the handsome house echoed. No one could help me with my algebra, no one admired my new coat or told me to come here and give him a hug, or expressed shock over how tall I had grown. When my father returned from some name on the European map that hung on the wall in our dining room, he smelled like other times and places, spicy and tired. We took our vacations in Paris or Rome, diligently studying the landmarks my father thought I should see, but I longed for those other places he disappeared to, those strange old places I had never been.
While he was gone, I went back and forth to school, dropping my books on the polished hall table with a bang. Neither Mrs. Clay nor my father let me go out in the evenings, except to the occasional carefully approved movie with carefully approved friends, and—to my retrospective astonishment—I never flouted these rules. I preferred solitude anyway; it was the medium in which I had been raised, in which I swam comfortably. I excelled at my studies but not in my social life. Girls my age terrified me, especially the tough-talking, chain-smoking sophisticates of our diplomatic circle—around them I always felt that my dress was too long, or too short, or that I should have been wearing something else entirely. Boys mystified me, although I dreamed vaguely of men. In fact, I was happiest alone in my father's library, a large, fine room on the first floor of our house.
My father's library had probably once been a sitting room, but he sat down only to read, and he considered a large library more important than a large living room. He had long since given me free run of his collection. During his absences, I spent hours doing my homework at the mahogany desk or browsing the shelves that lined every wall. I understood later that my father had either half forgotten what was on one of the top shelves or—more likely—assumed I would never be able to reach it; late one night I took down not only a translation of the Kama Sutra but also a much older volume and an envelope of yellowing papers.
I can't say even now what made me pull them down. But the image I saw at the center of the book, the smell of age that rose from it, and my discovery that the papers were personal letters all caught my attention forcibly. I knew I shouldn't examine my father's private papers, or anyone's, and I was also afraid that Mrs. Clay might suddenly come in to dust the dustless desk—that must have been what made me look over my shoulder at the door. But I couldn't help reading the first paragraph of the topmost letter, holding it for a couple of minutes as I stood near the shelves.
December 12, 1930
Trinity College, Oxford
My dear and unfortunate successor:
It is with regret that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading the account I must put down here. The regret is partly for myself—because I will surely be at least in trouble, maybe dead, or perhaps worse, if this is in your hands. But my regret is also for you, my yet-unknown friend, because only by someone who needs such vile information will this letter someday be read. If you are not my successor in some other sense, you will soon be my heir—and I feel sorrow at bequeathing to another human being my own, perhaps unbelievable, experience of evil. Why I myself inherited it I don't know, but I hope to discover that fact, eventually—perhaps in the course of writing to you or perhaps in the course of further events.
At this point, my sense of guilt—and something else, too—made me put the letter hastily back in its envelope, but I thought about it all that day and all the next. When my father returned from his latest trip, I looked for an opportunity to ask him about the letters and the strange book. I waited for him to be free, for us to be alone, but he was very busy in those days, and something about what I had found made me hesitate to approach him. Finally I asked him to take me on his next trip. It was the first time I had kept a secret from him and the first time I had ever insisted on anything.
Reluctantly, my father agreed. He talked with my teachers and with Mrs. Clay, and reminded me that there would be ample time for my homework while he was in meetings. I wasn't surprised; for a diplomat's child there was always waiting to be done. I packed my navy suitcase, taking my schoolbooks and too many pairs of clean kneesocks. Instead of leaving the house for school that morning, I departed with my father, walking silently and gladly beside him toward the station. A train carried us to Vienna; my father hated planes, which he said took the travel out of traveling. There we spent one short night in a hotel. Another train took us through the Alps, past all the white-and-blue heights of our map at home. Outside a dusty yellow station, my father started up our rented car, and I held my breath until we turned in at the gates of a city he had described to me so many times that I could already see it in my dreams.
Autumn comes early to the foot of the Slovenian Alps. Even before September, the abundant harvests are followed by a sudden, poignant rain that lasts for days and brings down leaves in the lanes of the villages. Now, in my fifties, I find myself wandering that direction every few years, reliving my first glimpse of the Slovenian countryside. This is old country. Every autumn mellows it a little more, in aeternum, each beginning with the same three colors: a green landscape, two or three yellow leaves falling through a gray afternoon. I suppose the Romans—who left their walls here and their gargantuan arenas to the west, on the coast—saw the same autumn and gave the same shiver. When my father's car swung through the gates of the oldest of Julian cities, I hugged myself. For the first time, I had been struck by the excitement of the traveler who looks history in her subtle face.
B ecause this city is where my story starts, I'll call it Emona, its Roman name, to shield it a little from the sort of tourist who follows doom around with a guidebook. Emona was built on Bronze Age pilings along a river now lined with art-nouveau architecture. During the next day or two, we would walk past the mayor's mansion, past seventeenth-century town houses trimmed with silver fleurs-de-lis, past the solid golden back of a great market building, its steps leading down to the surface of the water from heavily barred old doors. For centuries, river cargo had been hoisted up at that place to feed the town. And where primitive huts had once proliferated on the shore, sycamores—the European plane tree—now grew to an immense girth above the river walls and dropped curls of bark into the current.
Near the market, the city's main square spread out under the heavy sky. Emona, like her sisters to the south, showed flourishes of a chameleon past: Viennese Deco along the skyline, great red churches from the Renaissance of its Slavic-speaking Catholics, hunched brown medieval chapels with the British Isles in their features. (Saint Patrick sent missionaries to this region, bringing the new creed full circle, back to its Mediterranean origins, so that the city claims one of the oldest Christian histories in Europe.) Here and there an Ottoman element flared in doorways or in a pointed window frame. Next to the market grounds, one little Austrian church sounded its bells for the evening mass. Men and women in blue cotton work coats were moving toward home at the end of the socialist workday, holding umbrellas over their packages. As my father and I drove into the heart of Emona, we crossed the river on a fine old bridge, guarded at each end by green-skinned bronze dragons.
"There's the castle," my father said, slowing at the edge of the square and pointing up through a wash of rain. "I know you'll want to see that."
I did want to. I stretched and craned until I caught sight of the castle through sodden tree branches—moth-eaten brown towers on a steep hill at the town's center.
"Fourteenth century," my father mused. "Or thirteenth? I'm not good with these medieval ruins, not down to the exact century. But we'll look in the guidebook."
"Can we walk up there and explore it?"
"We can find out about it after my meetings tomorrow. Those towers don't look as if they'd hold a bird up safely, but you never know."
He pulled the car into a parking space near the town hall and helped me out of the passenger side, gallantly, his hand bony in its leather glove. "It's a little early to check in at the hotel. Would you like some hot tea? Or we could get a snack at that gastronomia. It's raining harder," he added doubtfully, looking at my wool jacket and skirt. I quickly got out the hooded waterproof cape he'd brought me from England the year before. The train trip from Vienna had taken nearly a day and I was hungry again, in spite of our lunch in the dining car.
But it was not the gastronomia, with its red and blue interior lights gleaming through one dingy window, its waitresses in their navy platform sandals—doubtless—and its sullen picture of Comrade Tito, that snared us. As we picked our way through the wet crowd, my father suddenly darted forward. "Here!" I followed at a run, my hood flapping, almost blinding me. He had found the entrance to an art-nouveau teahouse, a great scrolled window with storks wading across it, bronze doors in the form of a hundred water-lily stems. The doors closed heavily behind us and the rain faded to a mist, mere steam on the windows, seen through those silver birds as a blur of water. "Amazing this survived the last thirty years." My father was peeling off his London Fog. "Socialism's not always so kind to its treasures."
At a table near the window we drank tea with lemon, scalding through the thick cups, and ate our way through sardines on buttered white bread and even a few slices of torta. "We'd better stop there," my father said. I had lately come to dislike the way he blew on his tea over and over to cool it, and to dread the inevitable moment when he said we should stop eating, stop doing whatever was enjoyable, save room for dinner. Looking at him in his neat tweed jacket and turtleneck, I felt he had denied himself every adventure in life except diplomacy, which consumed him. He would have been happier living a little, I thought; with him, everything was so serious.
But I was silent, because I knew he hated my criticism, and I had something to ask. I had to let him finish his tea first, so I leaned back in my chair, just far enough so that my father couldn't tell me to please not slump. Through the silver-mottled window I could see a wet city, gloomy in the deepening afternoon, and people passing in a rush through horizontal rain. The teahouse, which should have been filled with ladies in long straight gowns of ivory gauze, or gentlemen in pointed beards and velvet coat collars, was empty.
"I hadn't realized how much the driving had worn me out." My father set his cup down and pointed to the castle, just visible through the rain. "That's the direction we came from, the other side of that hill. We'll be able to see the Alps from the top."
I remembered the white-shouldered mountains and felt they breathed over this town. We were alone together on their far side, now. I hesitated, took a breath. "Would you tell me a story?" Stories were one of the comforts my father had always offered his motherless child; some of them he drew from his own pleasant childhood in Boston, and some from his more exotic travels. Some he invented for me on the spot, but I'd recently grown tired of those, finding them less astonishing than I'd once thought.
"A story about the Alps?"
"No." I felt an inexplicable surge of fear. "I found something I wanted to ask you about."
He turned and looked mildly at me, graying eyebrows raised above his gray eyes.
"It was in your library," I said. "I'm sorry—I was poking around and I found some papers and a book. I didn't look—much—at the papers. I thought —"
"A book?" Still he was mild, checking his cup for a last drop of tea, only half listening.
"They looked—the book was very old, with a dragon printed in the middle."
He sat forward, sat very still, then shivered visibly. This strange gesture alerted me at once. If a story came, it wouldn't be like any story he'd ever told me. He glanced at me, under his eyebrows, and I was surprised to see how drawn and sad he looked.
"Are you angry?" I was looking into my cup now, too.
"No, darling." He sighed deeply, a sound almost grief stricken. The small blond waitress refilled our cups and left us alone again, and still he had a hard time getting started.
You already know, my father said, that before you were born I was a professor at an American university. Before that, I studied for many years to become a professor. At first I thought I would study literature. Then, however, I realized I loved true stories even better than imaginary ones. All the literary stories I read led me into some kind of—exploration—of history. So finally I gave myself up to it. And I'm very pleased that history interests you, too.
One spring night when I was still a graduate student, I was in my carrel at the university library, sitting alone very late among rows and rows of books. Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.
I didn't remember ever having seen the book there or anywhere else, so I took it down and looked through it without really thinking. The binding was soft, faded leather, and the pages inside appeared to be quite old. It opened easily to the very center. Across those two pages I saw a great woodcut of a dragon with spread wings and a long looped tail, a beast unfurled and raging, claws outstretched. In the dragon's claws hung a banner on which ran a single word in Gothic lettering: DRAKULYA.
I recognized the word at once and thought of Bram Stoker's novel, which I hadn't yet read, and of those childhood nights at the movie theater in my neighborhood, Bela Lugosi hovering over some starlet's white neck. But the spelling of the word was odd and the book clearly very old. Besides, I was a scholar and deeply interested in European history, and after staring at it for a few seconds, I remembered something I'd read. The name actually came from the Latin root for dragon or devil, the honorary title of Vlad Tepes—the "Impaler"—of Wallachia, a feudal lord in the Carpathians who tormented his subjects and prisoners of war in unbelievably cruel ways. I was studying trade in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, so I didn't see any reason for a book on this subject to be tucked in among mine, and I decided it must have been left there accidentally, perhaps by someone who was working on the history of Central Europe, or on feudal symbols.
I flipped through the rest of the pages—when you handle books all day long, every new one is a friend and a temptation. To my further surprise, the rest of it—all those fine old ivory-colored leaves—was completely blank. There wasn't even a title page, and certainly no information about where or when the book had been printed, no maps or endpapers or other illustrations. It showed no imprint of the university library, no card or stamp or label.
After gazing at the book for a few more minutes, I set it on my desk and went down to the card catalog on the first floor. There was indeed a subject card for "Vlad III ('Tepes') of Wallachia, 1431- 1476—See also Wallachia, Transylvania, and Dracula." I thought I should check a map first; I quickly discovered that Wallachia and Transylvania were two ancient regions in what was now Romania. Transylvania looked more mountainous, with Wallachia bordering it on the southwest. In the stacks I found what seemed to be the library's only primary source on the subject, a strange little English translation from the 1890s of some pamphlets about "Drakula." The original pamphlets had been printed in Nuremberg in the 1470s and '80s. The mention of Nuremberg gave me a chill; only a few years earlier, I had followed closely the trials there of Nazi leaders. I'd been too young by one year to serve in the war before it ended, and I had studied its aftermath with all the fervor of the excluded. The volume of pamphlets had a frontispiece, a crude woodcut of a man's head and shoulders, a bullnecked man with hooded dark eyes, a long mustache, and a hat with a feather in it. The image was surprisingly lively, given the primitive medium.
I knew I should be getting on with my work, but I couldn't help reading the beginning of one of the pamphlets. It was a list of some of Dracula's crimes against his own people, and against some other groups, too. I could repeat what it said, from memory, but I think I won't—it was extremely disturbing. I shut the little volume with a snap and went back to my carrel. The seventeenth century consumed my attention until nearly midnight. I left the strange book lying closed on my desk, hoping its owner would find it there the next day, and then I went home to bed.
In the morning I had to attend a lecture. I was tired from my long night, but after class I drank two cups of coffee and went back up to my research. The antique book was still there, lying open now to that great swirling dragon. After my short sleep and jarring lunch of coffee, it gave me a turn, as old novels used to say. I looked at the book again, more carefully. The central image was clearly a woodcut, perhaps a medieval design, a fine sample of bookmaking. I thought it might be valuable in a cold-cash way, and maybe also of personal value to some scholar, since it obviously wasn't a library book.
But in that mood I didn't like the look of it. I shut the book a little impatiently and sat down to write about merchants' guilds until late afternoon. On my way out of the library, I stopped at the front desk and handed the volume to one of the librarians, who promised to put it in the lost-and-found cabinet.
The next morning at eight o'clock, when I hauled myself up to my carrel to work on my chapter some more, the book was on my desk again, open to its single, cruel illustration. I felt some annoyance—probably the librarian had misunderstood me. I put the thing quickly away on my shelves and came and went all day without letting myself look at it again. In the late afternoon I had a meeting with my adviser, and as I swept up my papers, I pulled out the strange book and added it to the pile. This was an impulse; I didn't intend to keep it, but Professor Rossi enjoyed historical mysteries, and I thought it might entertain him. He might be able to identify it, too, with his vast knowledge of European history.
I had the habit of meeting Rossi as he finished his afternoon lecture, and I liked to sneak into the hall before it ended, to watch him in action. This semester he was giving a course on the ancient Mediterranean, and I had caught the end of several lectures, each brilliant and dramatic, each imbued with his great gift for oratory. Now I crept to a seat at the back in time to hear him concluding a discussion of Sir Arthur Evans's restoration of the Minoan palace in Crete. The hall was dim, a vast Gothic auditorium that held five hundred undergraduates. The hush, too, would have suited a cathedral. Not a soul stirred; all eyes were fixed on the trim figure at the front.
Rossi was alone on a lit stage. Sometimes he wandered back and forth, exploring ideas aloud as if ruminating to himself in the privacy of his study. Sometimes he stopped suddenly, fixing his students with an intense stare, an eloquent gesture, an astonishing declaration. He ignored the podium, scorned microphones, and never used notes, although occasionally he showed slides, rapping the huge screen with a pole to make his point. Sometimes he got so excited that he raised both arms and ran partway across the stage. There was a legend that he'd once fallen off the front in his rapture over the flowering of Greek democracy and had scrambled up again without missing a beat of his lecture. I'd never dared to ask him if this was true.
Today he was in a pensive mood, pacing up and down with his hands behind his back. "Sir Arthur Evans, please remember, restored the palace of King Minos at Knossos partly according to what he found there and partly according to his own imagination, his vision of what Minoan civilization had been." He gazed into the vault above us. "The records were sparse and he was dealing mainly with mysteries. Instead of adhering to limited accuracy, he used his imagination to create a palace style breathtakingly whole—and flawed. Was he wrong to do this?"
Here he paused, looking almost wistfully out over the sea of tousled heads, cowlicks, buzz cuts, the purposely shabby blazers and earnest young male faces (remember, this was an era when only boys attended such a university as undergraduates, although you, dear daughter, will probably be able to enroll wherever you want to). Five hundred pairs of eyes gazed back at him. "I shall leave you to ponder that question." Rossi smiled, turned abruptly, and left the limelight.
There was an intake of breath; the students began to talk and laugh, to collect their belongings. Rossi usually went to sit on the edge of the stage after the lecture, and some of his more avid disciples hurried forward to ask him questions. These he answered with seriousness and good humor until the last student had trailed away, and then I went over to greet him.
"Paul, my friend! Let's go put our feet up and speak Dutch." He clapped me affectionately on the shoulder and we walked out together.
Rossi's office always amused me because it defied the convention of the mad professorial study: books sat neatly on the shelves, a very modern little coffee burner by the window fed his habit, plants that never lacked water adorned his desk, and he himself was always trimly dressed in tweed trousers and an immaculate shirt and tie. His face was of a crisp English mold, sharp-featured and intensely blue-eyed; he'd told me once that from his father, a Tuscan immigrant to Sussex, he'd acquired only a love of good food. To look into Rossi's face was to see a world as definite and orderly as the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.
His mind was another thing altogether. Even after forty years of strict self-apprenticeship, it boiled over with remnants of the past, simmered with the unsolved. His encyclopedic production had long since won him accolades in a publishing world much wider than the academic press. As soon as he finished one work, he turned to another, often an abrupt change of direction. As a result, students from a myriad of disciplines sought him out, and I was considered lucky to have acquired his advisership. He was also the kindest, warmest friend I'd ever had.
"Well," he said, turning on his coffeepot and waving me to a chair. "How's the opus coming along?"
I filled him in on several weeks' work, and we had a short argument about trade between Utrecht and Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century. He served up his fine coffee in porcelain cups and we both stretched back, he behind the big desk. The room was permeated with the pleasant gloom that still came in at that hour, later each evening now that spring was deepening. Then I remembered my antique offering. "I've brought you a curiosity, Ross. Someone's left a rather morbid object in my carrel by mistake and after two days I didn't mind borrowing it for you to take a look at."
"Hand it over." He set down the delicate cup and reached out to take my book. "Good binding. This leather might even be some kind of heavy vellum. And an embossed spine." Something about the spine of the book brought a frown to his usually clear face.
"Open it," I suggested. I couldn't understand the flickering throb my heart gave as I waited for him to repeat my own experience with the nearly blank book. It opened under his practiced hands to its exact center. I couldn't see what he saw, behind his desk, but I saw him see it. His face was suddenly grave—a still face, and not one I knew. He turned through the other leaves, front and back, as I had, but the gravity didn't become surprise. "Yes, empty." He laid it open on his desk. "All blank."
"Isn't it an odd thing?" My coffee was growing cold in my hand.
"And quite old. But not blank because it is unfinished. Just terribly blank, to make the ornament in the center stand out."
"Yes. Yes, it's as if the creature in the middle has eaten up everything else around it." I'd begun flippantly, but I finished slowly.
Rossi seemed unable to drag his eyes from that central image spread before him. At last he shut the book firmly and stirred his coffee without sipping it. "Where did you get this?"
"Well, as I said, someone left it in my carrel by accident, two days ago. I guess I should have taken it to Rare Books immediately, but I honestly think it's someone's personal possession, so I didn't."
"Oh, it is," Rossi said, looking narrowly at me. "It is someone's personal possession."
"So you know whose?"
"Yes. It's yours."
"No, I mean that I simply found it in my —" The expression on his face stopped me. He looked ten years older, by some trick of the light from the dusky window. "What do you mean, it's mine?"
Rossi rose slowly and went to a corner of his study behind the desk, climbing two steps of the library stool to bring down a little dark volume. He stood looking at it for a minute, as if unwilling to put it in my hands. Then he passed it across. "What do you think of this?"
The book was small, covered in ancient-looking brown velvet like an old prayer missal or Book of Days, with nothing on the spine or front to give it an identity. It had a bronze-colored clasp that slipped apart with a little pressure. The book itself fell open to the middle. There, spread across the center, was my—I say my—dragon, this time overflowing the edges of the pages, claws outstretched, savage beak open to show its fangs, with the same bannered word in the same Gothic script.
"Of course," Rossi was saying, "I've had time, and I've had this identified. It's a Central European design, printed about 1512—so you see it could very well have been set with movable-type text throughout, if there had been any text."
- On Sale
- Sep 1, 2009
- Page Count
- 720 pages
- Hachette Book Group