Wednesday, February 17, 2010


"People of the Book", by Geraldine Brooks, is a work of fiction inspired by the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, "a famous rarity, a lavishly illustrated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustration of any kind." A Haggadah is a Jewish religious text that sets out the order of the Passover Seder. Reading the Haggadah is a fulfillment of the scriptural commandment to each Jew to "tell your son" about the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus. 

This fictional Haggadah was created in medieval Spain and, like the real Sarajevo Haggadah, ultimately ends up in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Herzegovina). In 1996, Hanna Heath, a book conservator, is called to Sarajevo to study the Haggadah and do the conservation work on it. During the conservation (which is not a restoration), Hanna discovers some mysterious objects inside the book that she feels may give clues as to its history. She also discovers that something is missing from the book: its original clasps.

Through research, she discovers that the clasps had an extraordinarily beautiful rose and feather design. By taking the other objects to various experts for analysis, she learns what they are, but can only surmise how they got into the book. But we, the readers, are treated to flashbacks in which the book's history is revealed. We know the origin of the fine white hair, the salt crystals, the red stains, the fragment of an insect wing.

Although I am never bothered by a book that jumps back and forth in time, it was a bit confusing to read the Haggadah's history from end to beginning rather than the other way around. I was also confused by the map on the inside cover of the book portraying the stops the Haggadah took on its journey from Seville to Sarajevo. The map and the story did not match. I finally determined that one leg of the journey was incorrectly illustrated. To give her credit, perhaps Brooks had no say or no involvement in choosing this map (but if not, she should have).

As if the questions raised by the objects found inside the book aren't enough, there is a modern-day mystery as well, for after the Haggadah is placed in a display in a special climate-controlled room in the new national museum, Hanna is invited back to see it. At first glance, Hanna, an expert in ancient parchments, can immediately tell that the parchment in this book is different from that of the book she conserved. However, she cannot change the minds of the the museum authorities, who convince her she is wrong. Losing confidence in herself, she returns to her native Australia and gives up book conservation.

Was the book on display a fake? And if so, will we ever see the real book again?

Six chapters are devoted to Hanna, and we follow her from Australia to Sarajevo to Vienna to the US and back home to Australia. Along the way we learn about her Sarajevan lover and about her strained relationship with her mother, a famous and driven surgeon. Unfortunately, Hanna's character is rather flat and one-dimensional, and I never warmed up to her.

It is in the other chapters that we meet way more compelling, sympathetic and vividly-drawn characters - the true "People of the Book". There is Zahra, the Moorish slave girl who, in 15th-Century Seville, paints the illustrations in gorgeous colors like lapis lazuli and saffron. By the late 1400s the book is still in Spain - but in Tarragona. There we encounter David Ben Shoushan, who buys the illustrated parchment pages, adds Hebrew text to them and has them bound into a small book with a soft kid covering and silver clasps. It is his daughter, Ruti, who takes the book on the next leg of its journey. Using the silver medallion from the cover of the book as payment, she boards a ship bound away from her homeland.

The book surfaces again over 100 years later, in 1609 Venice. At the last minute, Father Domenico Vistorini, the official censor of any books suspected as being against the Catholic faith, uncharacteristically saves the Haggadah, which had been destined to be burned along with the Pope's other banned books.  After "disappearing" for a lengthy time, the Haggadah comes to light again in Sarajevo in 1894. It is briefly taken to Vienna, that city being the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There, bookbinder Herr Florien Mittl is assigned the task of restoring the book. He remove the worn binding and replaces it with a cheap, shoddy cover and also sells the valuable clasps to pay for his expensive medical treatments for syphilis.

The Haggada was eventually returned to Sarajevo and placed in the National Museum. Many years later, we meet one of the most interesting "book people" of all. Lola is a young Jewish girl who fights with the partisans in WWII. After the partisan group breaks up, she is befriended by museum worker Serif and his wife. In order to save "a Jewish girl and a Jewish treasure", Serif smuggles the book out of the museum and takes it and Lola to a hiding place high in the mountains. We meet up with Lola again in 2002, in Jerusalem. There, some unresolved questions are finally answered.
I have known that Brooks is an excellent historical fiction writer since I read her book, "Year of Wonders".  In it, she turns the bare-bones, seemingly depressing story of how the plague affected the lives of 17th Century English villagers into a compelling, highly-readable book. With "People of the Book" her reputation is cemented in my mind.
(PS - The real Sarajevo Haggadah has an exciting history too. It is one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, originating in Barcelona around 1350. It also survived several episodes of near destruction. It was hidden from the Nazis during WWII and magically survived a break-in at the Sarajevo National Museum during the Bosnian War in 1992. Painted with vivid pigments and copper and gold, it is considered to be the most beautiful illuminated Jewish manuscript in existence and one of the most valuable books in the world, appraised at $700 million.)

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