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Lessons from History

By (March 1, 2017) One Comment

The Shadow Land
By Elizabeth Kostova
Ballantine Books, 2017

Let’s play a game: I’ll tell you that a book by an American is set in Eastern Europe, and you’ll try to imagine a premise that doesn’t involve vampires, World War II, Communist labor camps, or forest-based fairytales. If you lose, don’t feel bad; few novelists can write about Eastern Europe without losing themselves in sinister sensationalism.

Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian, is an interesting case. On the one hand, she meets our game’s expectation: The Historian, set in Romania and Bulgaria, tells the story of (you guessed it!) Count Dracula; and her third novel, The Shadow Land, set mostly in Bulgaria, takes a detour into “rehabilitative” labor camps. On the other, she defies expectation: she’s traveled throughout Bulgaria extensively for twenty years, she’s married to a Bulgarian, and she established a foundation to help struggling Bulgarian writers. She’s fascinated by the myths, legends, and history of the region, but she combines that fascination with the kind of firsthand knowledge that allows her to examine stereotypes instead of repeating them.

Similar to Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, in which an Australian author brought 19th-century Iceland to life, The Shadow Land is a foreigner’s love letter to an adopted country. The protagonist, a young American named Alexandra Boyd, has just arrived in Sofia when a mistake leaves her with an urn filled with a stranger’s ashes. Armed with only a name – Stoyan Lazarov – and having befriended a taxi driver named Bobby, she travels across Bulgaria to find the family of the dead man, and finds herself coming alive under the influence of this intoxicating country.

Kostova draws great inspiration in her novels from the Victorians, claiming, “[F]or me they are the great models, and the novelists I read the most often.” Her admiration for the Victorian style comes across in The Shadow Land’s wealth of detailed landscape passages. From open green fields to craggy blue mountains to golden plains, Kostova uses Alexandra’s road trip to share Bulgaria’s multifaceted beauty with Western readers who might picture Eastern Europe as a bleak, gray wasteland.

But Kostova focuses so much of her energy on Bulgaria that she forgets the inner topography of her protagonist. The Victorians employed nature descriptions to complement the intense psychological portraits of the characters, but the lack of distinct artistic flavor in Alexandra’s observations make her seem more like a camera than a person. And this blandness combined with zealous detail becomes even more of a problem whenever Alexandra sets foot in a house, leading to copious passages like the following:

The hall inside was tiny and paneled with dark wood, and Alexandra saw another sunburst on the ceiling, this one carved with storks flying out of it in four directions. A wooden chest sat against one wall and a striped woolen rug lay on the floor. A very small staircase disappeared up into the second story. Even with these simple furnishings, the hall seemed crowded. The walls were covered with oil paintings – trees and windows, houses, but especially faces, in dense confusion from floor to ceiling.

Descriptions of these sort, though dull, hardly seem like a crime – that is, until you read them for several hundred pages and realize that, no, Kostova will not be skipping over a single staircase or china cabinet on this journey.

Where Kostova succeeds in balancing her setting and characters is in her exploration of sorrow on both the personal and the national level. Alexandra moves to Bulgaria to work as an English teacher, but she chooses Bulgaria in the first place to honor her older brother, Jack, who died mysteriously at the age of sixteen. As children growing up in a rural part of North Carolina, one of their favorite pastimes was quizzing each other on the details of an atlas of Eastern Europe, and Jack’s favorite country was Bulgaria. But as the pale green blob from her childhood maps expands into three-dimensional vibrancy and complexity, Alexandra’s sense of loss also expands. Every new word, food, or sunset reminds her that Jack will never travel to the country of his dreams, or witness its richness with her. Given her baggage, there’s a cruel sort of sense in the fact that within an hour of entering the country, she ends up carting around the physical proof of another family’s grief.

As she drives from one corner of Bulgaria to the next looking for the Lazarov family, Alexandra experiences the sweet, insubstantial nature of a foreigner’s attachment to a new place – the wonder that easily leads to mythologizing, the creeping loneliness of miscommunication, the seesaw of embrace and rejection. But unexpectedly, she finds that her sadness anchors her – both to the people she meets on her journey, and to Bulgaria itself. All the people she meets carry their own tales of the hope, opportunities, or people they’ve lost, and Kostova weaves these stories into the histories of World War II and the communist period. In a charming exchange, a middle-aged woman teaches Alexandra “Bulgarian words for sorrow, for potato and table and spoon,” exposing the cultural priorities hidden in even the simplest vocabulary lesson.

But the reader gets a sense that Alexandra’s vision of Bulgaria is somewhat warped by her willingness to associate the land and its people with hardship and poverty. The country she sees is defined by peeling paint, stray dogs, rusted cars, and sleepy villages. But occasionally, an exchange with her local taxi driver, Bobby, reminds us of the unavoidable myopia of even well-meaning foreigners:

They passed an old man sitting outside a house with curtains at the open windows, chickens in a small yard, and a tiny church with a surreally bent-over, folded-up woman locking the door. Everyone they saw was old. Alexandra had only imagined such places, but here were people living in them, finishing out their days.
“Do they have television?” she asked Bobby.
“Television?” He seemed to be driving somewhere else, in his head, a million miles away.
“Here, in these villages,” she said.
“Oh, certainly,” he said. “At least most people. A few might be too poor, but almost everyone has television.”

The themes of national suffering and poverty come to a head in the figure of the book’s villain, Kurilkov, the current Bulgarian Minister of Roads who hopes to ride his slogan of bez koruptsiya (“without corruption”) all the way to a future post as Prime Minister. For Bobby, Kurilkov embodies all the forces sucking the potential out of post-communist Bulgaria, preventing it from leaving behind destructive mentalities and forging a new national path. He notes to Alexandra:

My country has come a long way in a short time, in spite of everything. I think we have something special to give the world – culture, and lessons from history. And beauty. It would be tragic for us to go backward. We have already suffered too much.

Whereas Bobby provides a Bulgarian perspective on his country’s present, Kostova uses flashbacks from the life of Stoyan Lazarov to provide a native’s perspective on the past. The beauty of these flashback sections was enough to make me wonder why Kostova chose not to inhabit the past for the bulk of the novel. We first follow Stoyan in 1940 when he returns to Sofia after several years of studying in Vienna. Kostova sets a brisk, energetic pace as we follow this virtuosic violinist on the way to his childhood home. As a foreigner, Alexandra experiences Bulgaria as a series of unforeseen obstacles – everything from greeting to tipping to smiling follows new, inscrutable rules. But for Stoyan, Sofia is home, the place where he can always speak and act correctly without a thought. In an especially well-crafted moment, Stoyan hears snippets of Bulgarian conversations and appreciates that he can understand these snatches of words divorced from their larger contexts – the kind of privilege that a foreigner might forget he once had, until he returns home.

Fresh off the train, Stoyan heads to a bakery, where the local baker’s talk of political isolation throws Stoyan’s youth and possibilities into stark relief:

For some reason, he wished he could make the baker see the parades, this man who would never leave Bulgaria, who probably took a train out of Sofia once a year to go back to his father’s village – a man who’d perhaps never traveled to the Black Sea at the other end of his own country. Odd, how some people were destined to see the world and some not. He thought of what he himself had already witnessed – horses with tightly braided bundled tails like women’s hair, in a park in London. An aging harpsichordist in a Paris drawing room placing his hands on the keyboard, while a girl with blue satin shoes sat beside him to turn pages. The towering spikes of the cathedral in Prague. The even wider arc he would see in the future suddenly lifted Stoyan, and he felt almost faint with gratitude for the adventure of his life.

Of course, if Stoyan had gone on to live the happy life he envisioned, Alexandra’s story would never have unfolded. Kostova deftly records the unraveling of this gentle, polished, passionate man’s life, revealing the brutality that would haunt him to the end of his days. For these harrowing segments, Kostova transitions to first person, allowing Stoyan to record his memories in the form of a confessional journal. And Stoyan’s account shares the improbably clear memory and hypnotic verbosity of Kostova’s beloved Victorians. His survival techniques avoid feeling like tired literary staples through the fresh, unsentimental quality of the writing.

From there, we flip back and forth between the late 1940s/early 1950s and 2008, with Alexandra’s story usually suffering in the comparison. Stoyan’s struggle feels infinitely more compelling, with Kostova capturing his ever-changing relationships with reality and fantasy in wonderful lines like, “I reminded myself that this must still be happening to me, since I was still alive.” These kinds of moments only make the loose, tedious quality of Kostova’s prose in the Alexandra sections more frustrating. Missteps like, “The woman’s face was like a beak,” and, “[Someone] sighed – Alexandra had never heard such a sound before” are tiresome when they come from a mediocre writer, but completely inexplicable in a novel that contains the clarity and finesse of Kostova’s flashbacks.

Stoyan’s tale is a ringing indictment of the loss of opportunity, free speech, dignity, and sometimes even life that was imposed on the citizens of communist Bulgaria. But interestingly, Kostova ties communist mentality to Alexandra’s own judgments when she and Bobby visit Kurilkov’s mansion. Although Kurilkov lives in the mountains, surrounded by huts that seem to have sprung organically from the surrounding rocks, he has the audacity to impose an ostentatious, alien architecture on the otherwise picturesque landscape:

This [house] loomed – huge but relentlessly traditional, giant Tudor beams crisscrossing it, balconies jutting off the façade, ten thousand folksy new slates slathered over the roof, an actual tower rising at one end. You could have put twenty of Baba Yana’s little dwelling inside it.

Alexandra then scornfully observes that this mansion was constructed not by hand, but, heaven forbid, by “bulldozers and cranes,” and that the folksy clothing worn by Kurilkov’s doorman “could have been beautiful, but it was brand new, like the house.” Although unacknowledged by Alexandra, her ideas align with communist rhetoric that demonizes rich, foreign influence – the kind of rhetoric that made Stoyan immediately suspicious to authorities simply for having studied in that capitalist Sodom and Gomorrah, Vienna. Harmful ideas, Kostova suggests, burrow themselves into the minds of even the most moral people. And when moral people make destructive choices about the philosophies and leaders they follow, a nation’s future can hang in the balance.

Ultimately, Stoyan and Alexandra’s stories merge in the form of Stoyan’s son, Neven. Both characters imagine Neven to be their salvation, and fittingly, he looms larger as an idea than he does as a character. With his introduction into the action, Kostova fuses the past, present, and future, marking a path for her characters that could lead beyond their sorrow. Memory, she suggests, can preserve pain and suffering, but it can also preserve joy and friendship and the beauty of a mountain at sunrise. The ending rings both lovely and hollow, but the real question is how many readers will make it that far. There’s gorgeous, subtle, tender writing in here, but I wonder how many readers will wade through Alexandra’s sections to find it.

Jennifer Helinek is a book reviewer living in Russia.