Tuesday, 26 October 2010

History and fiction

History has being one of my passions. I find understanding different ages, different thoughts, and how the shape the way we are in the present fascinating. For some the only value of history is to prevent doing the same mistakes on the future, I reckon it goes far beyond that, it’s about getting immerse in a world that is not ours, but is not far beyond. Human passions and vices can be encountered and tasted as we look into the past.

I want to dedicate this post to three books I just finish no too long ago, which circle the history frame, from different views, all based on fictional characters who are mixed with historical ones, when this intermix of fiction and history makes your mind drift away in wonder.

The first is “The last of the wine” by Mary Renault

Mary Renault, was an English writer best known for her historical novels set in Ancient Greece. In addition to vivid fictional portrayals of Theseus, Socrates, Plato and Alexander the Great, she also wrote a non-fiction biography of Alexander. Her dedication and research on the historical basis for her novels is tasted on every page of the novel, we can get immerse in the ancient Greek society, their uses and customs, without the need to read an academic book, but with a sound root that speaks of an author who did her homework before writing of a historical period only from imagination.

Alexias son of Myron, the main character, is a noble Athenian who speaks about his life from growing up to adulthood. He lives during the time of the Peloponnesian War, in an Athens that just adopted democracy as their form of government, dropping monarchy and giving the power to the citizens, and that is confronted in different military conflicts, being the main one the one with the kingdom of Sparta. As we see Alexias grow up, we experience some of the traditions of his world. War, power, heroism, love, loyalty, philosophy, all are present. We walk with him in his first training in the art of words, with Socrates himself, as well as the physical one to compete on the Olympic games.

Alexias find love in Lysis, another young man, but older than Alexias, according to the Greek customs, and their lives become united until the end. Even when there’s no obvious mention of Lucian (125-180 AD) we can see a lot of the ideas that he gives on his speech, Amores,reflected on the way that Renault shapes this relationship, there’s even a small wink on the Sacred Band of Thebes, when Alexias find a dying Theban soldier and his lover who won’t leave him. A same-sex love on which each lover looks for honour, pride and courage to show to his lover that he’s man enough to deserve him.

Renault also make a great emphasis about the Greek view on women, even though there’s no a feminine main character, women are present in the story, from the mother and the sister figure, to the prostitute who gives Alexias lessons on love. But most importantly the way Greek society thought of women as second class humans, of course not deserving the right to be citizens, and held as ignorant of philosophy and logic, and fearing of men, and in some cases, as expressed by some characters in phrases that could be so offensive today like “We will look as fools or women if we asked that”, in doubt of their value as human beings.

Perhaps the most important and interesting part of the book are the philosophy and politic dialogues, which reflect with great accuracy the thinking of the era, and a lot of the ideas that Socrates shared with his students and friends, as Plato, who have some interventions on the story.

Even though the content is extremely interesting and even educating of the ancient Greek time, the novel has a weak point on the narrative, which fails to trap its reader and wanting to know what happens next. All that taken into account, is a recommendable reading for those who like history and the classical world.

The second book is “The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova

This could be labelled as “When Bram Stoker’s Dracula meets Brown’s Da Vinci Code”. But I think that the result is very synergic, and it’s better than just the sum of its parts, far better written than Brown’s novel, and far more entertained than Stoker’s one.

Kostova goes back to the basics, to tell a vampire story, without the vampires being the main active characters, but passive and ever present characters, that we don’t fully see until the end, and even then, their motives and true essence is not revealed. Where this mysterious and seductive character follow us through the whole story (and in this case history) without clearly revelling himself, making us wanting to know him, and to drop ourselves in to his footsteps. This Dracula is not the lover of Coppola’s film, is not the tormenting vampire of Anne Rice’s books, is not the juvenile hero of Twilight, nor is the vicious character of true blood. This is the basic vampire, the one of whom we know nothing but we can feel everything.

In a clear tribute to Stoker’s work, the novel narrative is being told to a great extent through the medium of letters and other memoranda, and how the unnamed main character explains them and interlink them. Although nearly everybody in the novel is a researcher of some kind, the 'historian' of the title is Dracula himself, as we would learn later on. They are all at one part The Historian, and they are part of the story.

The story goes in a parallel way, in one, we walk with the girl who discovers some letters that his father kept from his tutor, Professor Rossi, on which he describe his journey in trying to find the truth about Vlad Drakulya or Vlad III of Walachia, also known as Vlad Țepeș (Vlad the Impaller).

The narrator's father, Paul, then gets involved in this mysterious journey, and his daughter learns of it in the form of Rossi’s letters, tales told by her father, and her own father letters. On the second way, we follow her own journey to follow Dracula’s steps around Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire. We end up going back and forth trough history, from Paul's odyssey in search of Rossi (1952) with the intercut with Rossi’s search for Dracula (1930), the peregrinations of a group of Orthodox monks (1477), and the daughter's search for her father (1972). One of the weak point of the novel is that Kostova, even though creating scenarios, atmospheres and historic backgrounds in a very clever and credible way, fails into give the different writers of the letters, different voices. Her voice as a narrator is the same voice as her father’s or than Rossi’s, and even when some good attempts on trying to differentiate characters with some things as their accents and grammar structure when they were not English speakers, the main ones remain indistinguishable from each other.

The narrative, even when slow at first, traps you in wanting to know the mysteries that it involves, even though some are blatantly obvious, there are others who makes us think and even can surprise us a little bit.

The most plausible part is that Kostova introduce us to a character that somehow is unknown, the historical Vlad, the medieval tyrant and savage warrior, and at the same time the hero of his people and one of the most furious fighters of the spreading of Islam into Europe. It also makes a credible atmosphere of the cold war period and the cultural differences between Eastern Europe and the West.

The third book is "Pharaoh" by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

This is a typical bestseller, which follows the thriller / world conspiracy way, but in a prolific and entertaining way. Manfredi is an archaeologist, but his novels are much more a imagination exercise than a real sound historical basis. The plot goes around some mystery tomb that could have a big repercusion on the history of the abrahamic monotheisms, the tomb of Moses himself, in the traditional Egyptian style, in other words, implying that one of the main patriarcs of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim world was at the end a pagan. In addition to the religious-mystery formula, Manfredi tries to spice it up with a new element, namely the West-Muslim conflict.

The reading is quick, but the characters are too topical, and the plot itself not really deep. I will only recomend it if you like nice and light readings, to pass by time. I was a little bit disapointed, since Manfredi's trilogy on Alexander is a good work, and the Last Legion is a very entertaining book.


Anonymous said...

I posted about Mary Renault and the lure of historical fiction myself recently as you know. The Historian sounds very interesting and I must put it on my list.

Erin said...

You should check out Under the Banner of Heaven which chronicles (sort of) the history of the Mormon church... It's a scary read.

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