Darkness Nearly Beyond Words: On Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Shadow Land”

By Robert ZaretskyJune 20, 2017

Darkness Nearly Beyond Words: On Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Shadow Land”

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

AS HE NARRATES his infamous voyage up the Congo River — at the end of which waits the horror, the horror — Charlie Marlow provides a bit of personal background. As a child, he tells us, he had a passion for maps — especially for the unmapped regions, or “blank spaces,” that dotted them. Over time, Europeans came and named these regions, yet one “blank space” still gripped Marlow’s imagination: the Congo. As he discovers at journey’s end, its blankness veils a moral darkness nearly beyond words.

The spirit of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness hovers above Elizabeth Kostova’s haunting new novel, The Shadow Land. The story’s protagonist, a twentysomething aspiring writer named Alexandra Boyd, arrives in Bulgaria in order to teach English. She has her reasons to be there: as a child in rural North Carolina, she and her beloved brother Jack would spend hours poring over a book of maps of Eastern Europe. While she favored post-1918 Yugoslavia, Jack loved the countries surrounding the Black Sea and vowed to visit them. The pale green space on their map, Bulgaria, was at the top of his list.

But Jack never fulfills his vow. During a tense family hiking trip, a rare but violent argument occurs between the siblings. Stunned by Jack’s brutal language, Alexandra turns her back and continues along the trail, leaving her final retort — “[W]hy don’t you just get lost, if you’re going to be such a jackass about everything?” — hanging in the heavy air. That was the last time she, or anyone else, ever saw Jack. His disappearance places a deep burden of guilt on his sister’s shoulders. In effect, Alexandra’s journey to Bulgaria begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

It is when Kostova moves from the Carolinian to the Bulgarian shadows that the narrative begins to bristle, piercing ever deeper into the reader’s heart. Barely arrived in Sofia, and at sea in this strange city, Alexandra helps a trio of Bulgarians — an elderly woman and man, escorted by a middle-aged man, all dressed in respectable but fraying clothing — into a taxi. Settling into another taxi, she makes a horrifying discovery: one of the Bulgarians’ bags had become tangled with her backpack. Upon opening the small bag, Alexandra discovers an ornate wooden box inscribed with the words “Stoyan Lazarov.” The box turns out to be an urn, containing what appear to be ashes.

At that moment, the memory, if not the body, of the human reduced to those ashes will begin to rise, Lazarus-like, slowly and painfully. With the help of the taxi driver, a mysterious figure who speaks English and goes by the name “Bobby,” a guilt-stricken Alexandra tries to find the urn’s owners. (Alexandra resembles another figure whose story Marlow tells, Lord Jim: both are willing to sacrifice their lives to redeem mistakes made in their youths.) Careening between coasts and mountains, cities and villages in Bobby’s taxi, the couple’s search veers from the picturesque to the grotesque. Well-known historical sites like Plovdiv and the Rila Mountains give way to darker and dimmer landscapes, littered with the dire, decaying remains of the country’s communist past.

As they plunge deeper into this world, Alexandra learns, in bits and pieces, about Bobby’s past. Kostova builds her characters with skill and patience, making them both fully human and deeply humane. Her portrayal of Alexandra’s emotional and intellectual confusion, as she struggles to piece together the puzzles presented by this unexpected companion and unanticipated situation, is bone-deep and wrenching.

But it is the portrayal of Stoyan Lazarov, and through him of communist Bulgaria, that burns a lasting mark on the reader. In her best-selling debut novel, The Historian, Kostova wove a brilliant tale around Bulgaria’s celebrated native son, Vlad the Impaler, better known as Dracula. With The Shadow Land, she moves to a lesser-known and far grimmer chapter in Bulgarian history: the concentrationary universe hatched by the postwar communist regime. Emulating the Stalinist blueprint, the Bulgarian state constructed its own Gulag, whose crown jewels were the camps of Belene and Lovech. In the early 1960s, a women’s camp, Skravena, opened its gates to about 100 prisoners.

In totalitarian states, there are courts and prisons that serve the same function as they do in free societies: courts judge those charged with crimes, and prisons become home to those found guilty. But concentration camps serve a different function: they swallow not the guilty, but the innocent. In a totalitarian state, terror — random and rapid — is always already the order of the day. It atomizes family, social, and professional groups, dissolves the most intimate bonds, and instills not just universal fear but also individual guilt. When anyone can be hauled off in the middle of the night, everyone imagines they have, at some point, committed an offense. This is what the state works to achieve; as Václav Havel observed, the genius of totalitarian regimes is that they make everyone complicit in their crimes.

As Alexandra reassembles the pieces of Stoyan Lazarov’s grim life, he comes both to exemplify the truth of Havel’s insight and embody the same courage and integrity Havel himself showed as he rose above the fate assigned to him by the state. A gifted violinist, one night Lazarov is stripped from his home and wife and bundled off to Zelenets. This abandoned rock quarry turned into a hell is not unlike Kurtz’s Inner Station: a place out of sight and out of law, where everything is permitted. In the depths of this dark place, Lazarov turns to Bach and Vivaldi, as Primo Levi had turned to Dante, in order to maintain enough light to see within oneself and survive.

As Kostova brings her riveting tale to a climax, weaving effortlessly between Lazarov’s past and Alexandra’s present, we discover both a superb storyteller and a subtle moralist. She not only recounts the horrors men perpetrated against fellow men at Lovech but also recalls their small, salvational acts of goodness. No less important, Kostova resurrects the thousands of lives that have, as she rightly notes, remained “overwhelmingly un-memorialized” until now. Her novel reminds us that the past is never past. At the start of his searing account of the Bulgarian camps, Voices from the Gulag, the recently deceased French-Bulgarian thinker Tzvetan Todorov wrote: “For those of you comforted by the strange names or circumstances, beware: these events could have happened in your own countries. Indeed, they still can.” As the shadows lengthen, the moral clarity of the Lazarovs and Alexandras is more urgent than ever.


Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author of numerous books and articles on French intellectual history. He is also the LARB history editor.

LARB Contributor

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War: Religion, Politics, and Public Opinion in the Gard, 1938–1944 (1994), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (2004), Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (2010), Boswell’s Enlightenment (2015), A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (2013), and Catherine and Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment (2019). His newest book is Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


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