In this issue:
People of the Book: Our reviewer didn’t get out of her chair for a very long time, and when she did, she made the move with regret; Beginner's Greek is a comedy of manners; it’s a cynic’s delight; it’s a social satire; it’s a paean to love at first sight. And If a high-class, feel-good tale is your cup of tea, you will love World Without End.
PEOPLE OF THE BOOK
by Geraldine Brooks, © 2008
Published by Viking Press, hardcover; 732 pp
Considering that the writer of People of the Book is Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer prize-winning author of March and Year of Wonder, I was prepared for a treat when I settled down by the fire on a cold winter’s afternoon, book in hand. I was not disappointed. In fact I didn’t get out of my chair for a very long time, and when I did, I made the move with regret.
It seems odd to be reviewing, within two months, another book whose heroine is a book conservator/restorer. The first was The Italian Lover, Robert Hellenga’s light-hearted take on Hollywood in Florence, reviewed here last November. Aside from the occupation of their leading ladies, however, the books could hardly be more different.
People of the Book is billed as a novel, and its author assures us that the characters are of her own creation, but it is a fictionalization of an actual event, the discovery and preservation of a Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah.
Brook’s story begins as Hanna Heath, a 30-ish Australian who has studied many languages, earned a doctoral degree, and apprenticed with a famed expert of rare books, is brought to Sarajevo. She has been offered the job of analyzing and preserving the 15 th century Haggadah. The book is something of an anomaly, because the text is accompanied by drawings done during a period when Jews did not illuminate their manuscripts in the way that Christians did. The illustrations are particularly beautiful and exotic.
Sarajevo is still recovering from the battles that accompanied the dismantling of Yugoslavia. Bosnia has emerged as an independent entity, but the city of Sarajevo is filled with rubble and shell holes. That the book survived those years is a miracle, attributable to the wisdom of a brave Muslim. Indeed, it has, over the centuries, been saved by the actions of people of all faiths, not only by Jews. It has escaped the Inquisition’s fires, as well as the Nazi’s destruction of Jewish art.
Hanna received the Haggadah from the hands of its kustos (custodian), a young man named Ozren Karaman. After an initial rather rocky introduction, Hanna and Ozren join forces (literally). It’s a rather contrived romance, but it gives us an easy way into the exposition needed to understand the history of the Haggadah and its wanderings.
In the process of examining the book, Hanna discovers tantalizing clues to its history, caught in the binding, or marking the parchment – a scale from a butterfly’s wing, a short, white hair, crystals of salt, a wine spill. The physical evidence that Hanna uncovers traces the manuscript to various locations — Spain, Venice, the mountains of Yugoslavia — as it passes from hand to hand over the period of 500 years,
As each clue is discovered, Geraldine Brooks jumps us back to how the bits and pieces actually got into the book, with chapters explaining each incident, and the characters (the people of the book) involved in it. Through these inserted chapters, we come to understand a lot more than Hanna, who can never, of course, get much farther than locating a few of the places the Haggadah traveled. She is, however, able to confirm that the book was made in the mid 15 th century, during that period known as Convivencia, when, as Ms. Brooks explains, “Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted in relative peace.” That period ended with the Inquisition, and in 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain. (That’s a date often given short shrift in American history books, since they tend to dwell only on Columbus and his voyage).
Ultimately, Hanna also uncovers the artist’s identity, a discovery that will lead to new paths of inquiry. That discovery is a gratuitous and improbable but extremely satisfying invention of the novelist, and a fine end to a Very Good Book.