Translate

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

People of the Book

The Sarajevo Haggadah, a real Hebrew codex, has miraculously survived five centuries of violence, warfare and mankind’s tendency to destroy whatever is seen as a threat to those who for the moment have that kind of power. The fact that this haggadah is an illuminated text, a surprising style for a Jewish text of that period, makes the book exceptionally rare and of great historical value. The book might have been destroyed during the Bosnian conflict that devastated Sarajevo but for the intervention of a Muslim scholar who moved it to the safety of a bank vault, at least the second time in its history that this Jewish book was saved with direct Muslim help.

This is the point at which Geraldine Brooks chooses to begin her latest novel, People of the Book. Dr. Hannah Heath, an Australian expert in the field, has come to Sarajevo to ensure that the book is being properly cared for and to prepare it for exhibition in a Sarajevo museum as a symbol of the city’s, and a people’s, survival. During her examination of the book, Heath is thrilled to find inside it a few clues that might allow her to partially reconstruct the history of the book and its travels through the centuries. She finds: part of an insect wing, a white hair, a few salt crystals and what appears to be a wine stain.

Through a series of flashbacks drawing ever nearer to the book’s origins, Brooks details for readers what the few clues can only hint at to Dr. Heath concerning the book’s travels across Europe and the people who possessed and protected it over the centuries. Throughout its history this haggadah has been important to the people who owned it. It survived through a combination of luck and the extraordinarily brave efforts of people who were determined to see it survive. One flashback tells how it barely escaped falling into the hands of despicable Nazi looters, another of what happened to the book in 1894 Vienna, and others recount its creation and subsequent survival of the Spanish Inquisition years. As the book passes from hand-to-hand, backward in time, the reader comes to appreciate the miracle of its survival and the people who made that happen.

As Hanna Heath seeks to learn as much about the Sarajevo Haggadah as she can, she finds herself on a parallel journey in which she learns as much about herself and her personal origins as she does about the book. She finds herself attracted to the man who carried the haggadah to safety in Sarajevo, has to fight self-doubts about her professional competence, and is forced into a confrontation with her mother that will forever change her life.

People of the Book is at once a mystery, a history lesson and a modern day romance. My only quarrel with the book is its “Mission Impossible” ending which, for me, served to completely change the tone of the story being told and rather jarringly reminded me that I was reading fiction. Fortunately, this distraction came late enough in the narrative not to ruin the book for me.

Rated at: 4.0

Post a Comment