Excerpt from The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Historian

by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 656 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2006, 688 pages

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Because 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."

Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Kostova. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher Little, Brown & Co.

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