Wednesday, June 22, 2011

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

This novel traces the roots of a remarkable book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, through several hundred years of history.  More importantly, it brings the creators of the book to novelistic life through the imagination of the author.  It also tells a taut, dramatic story about the restoration of the book in the modern era, centering around a young fictional Australian expert named Hanna Heath.  Hanna's story could stand alone as a novel all its own, and it provides quite a bit of drama in the end parts of the novel.  It also allows us to see the survival of the book through to contemporary times, and that it is always more complicated than we would expect for something like the Haggadah to survive.  The "people of the book" are Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, and the survival of the Sarajevo Haggadah tells of the complex interplay between these faiths.  First of all, the book is Jewish, but it is illustrated in a style influenced by Christian prayer books, or books of hours.  It ended up in the hands of Muslim caretakers, and the novel ultimately traces the art back to a Muslim source, although that supposition is not proven as it would be in a non-fiction work. The creators and preservers of the book come into the book through artifacts that are found in the binding or on the pages when Hanna restores the book -- she finds a butterfly wing, for example, that leads into a story of survival during the Nazi era. 
One of the most dramatic of these stories, about a Venetian censor and the gambling rabbi who hopes to save the book from destruction, centers around wine stains.  The book survives in this instance because the Christian censor has a secret, and there are many similar situations and almost melodramatic escapes for the Haggadah in the novel.  This interweaving of the faiths and the fate of the book bring the book's theme to light -- that people who love art and literature and faith are all connected in some ways, and without those connections, there could be no art or literature or faith.  This book aims to tell a story more than to teach a lesson, but the novel demonstrates the power of faiths that interplay in the way the story unfolds.  The cosmopolitan ideal of interfaith dialogue is symbolized by Sarajevo, as well as the failure of interfaith dialogue, because of the Christian-Muslim conflict that virtually destroyed the city in the 1990s.  At the end of the novel, Sarajevo has begun to recover from the ravages of war, but there is an unexpected twist that threatens the Haggadah's safety once again.  Brooks weaves a compelling story of survival in the novel, and while in some senses the story she weaves is a little too dramatic, that drama is necessary to capture how unlikely the Haggadah's survival really is, and for that matter, how unlikely its creation was.  In addition, the human stories behind that survival are told well, and the people of the book really do come to life through this dramatization of their story.
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