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People of the Book: The Journey of Sarajevo Haggadah

This is the story of a book, a rare illuminated manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The book was born in Northern Spain in the second half of the 14th century and survived the Inquisition, two world wars, and the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The novel takes readers on a journey through different periods and locations, unfolding the story of its survival through centuries of turmoil and persecution. Hanna Heath, a rare book conservationist from Australia is tasked with conserving it. As she delves into its intricate illustrations and faded script, she becomes haunted by its past and the stories it holds. She finds many artefacts in the ancient binding which she uses to unlock its deep mysteries. Hanna also plunges into the conspiratorial world of art forgers and fanatics.

Weaving together the narratives of a modern conservator, a Bosnian Muslim during World War II, and a medieval rabbi facing the Spanish Inquisition, Brooks crafts a tapestry of human resilience and shows how objects can connect us across time and circumstance. Each chapter presents a different episode in the Haggadah’s journey, transporting readers to places like 15th-century Spain, 17th-century Venice, and 20th-century Sarajevo.

Created as a wedding gift in the 1300s, the Sarajevo Haggadah was protected by many people until in 2002 it arrived at the Sarajevo National Museum. It has a unique identity in that it was rescued by a Muslim librarian implying that though a religious document, it is also a work of art and history and a treasure for people of all faiths.

The story is told by Hanna Heath, a rare book expert tasked with the analysis, conservation and restoration of the book, which has been rescued from the Bosnian war. Hanna Heath is an irreverent Aussie, an appealing character. Touching the book for the first time, she experiences a “strange and powerful” sensation. As she delves into her work, the novel unveils the fascinating history of the manuscript, tracing its origins and the people who have come into contact with it over the centuries. As she delves into its intricate illustrations and faded script, she becomes haunted by its past and the stories it holds.

To understand the craft which created the medieval text, Hanna learns to make gold leaf and white pigment. She learns of worm scarlet, an insect-derived intense red pigment and the intense blue prepared from lapis lazuli. Hanna believes that “damage and wear reflect the history” of the manuscript and that restoring it to its original condition is to lack respect for its history.

The stories of those who have protected the Haggadah throughout history are interwoven with Hannah’s journey. In 15th-century Spain, Rabbi Judah Aryeh risks his life to save the manuscript from the clutches of the Inquisition. Centuries later, during World War II, Bosnian Muslim librarian Pavo Djapic hid the Haggadah from Nazi looters. Each guardian’s narrative reveals the human cost of preserving culture and faith in the face of oppression.

An inscription in the book implies that a Catholic priest, an agent of the Inquisition saved it. He is a very learned person with “an innate reverence for books” who is moved by the fluid calligraphy. This priest wants to get drunk and wipe out the painful memories of all the books he had condemned to the fire in his 17 years as a censor. In Bosnia “in 1941, Dervis Korkut, a renowned Islamic scholar, smuggled the manuscript out of the museum under the very nose of a Nazi general”. The book is used as a piece in the struggle against Vienna’s anti-Semitic slide. The scribe who created the text is forced into exile and loses his family. In Seville in 1480, the reason for the illuminations that make the Haggadah unique is revealed. Hanna’s exploration of the provenance of the Haggadah leads her into the intrigues of forgers and fanatics. All these experiences will test her self-confidence and her faith in her paramour.

Brooks was employed by the Wall Street Journal during the war in Bosnia. Her research is brilliant. So is her storytelling skills. The characters are credible and motivated. The author skillfully interweaves the personal stories of these characters with the broader historical context, providing a rich and immersive reading experience.

The Sarajevo Haggadah inspires her. As she explains in an afterword, “People of the Book is a work of fiction inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah.” While Haggadah’s history provides substantive facts, the structure of the story and the characters are imaginary. Brooks has integrated facts and fiction that go back and forth in time and space. Events traverse 1940’s Sarajevo, late-19th-century Vienna, 15th-century Venice, and Catalonia under the Spanish Inquisition. Seville of 1480 is the last stop where we meet the artist responsible for creating the illustrations in the Haggadah.

Brooks has published two works of historical fiction, March, set during the Civil War, and Year of Wonders, set during the plague of the 1660s (1). She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for March (2).

Brooks brings each historical period to life with rich descriptions and meticulous research. Readers are transported to medieval Spain, war-torn Sarajevo, and modern-day Australia, Each character, from the introspective Hannah to the courageous Pavo, is vividly drawn and relatable. Their struggles and triumphs find resonance with readers and make the story deeply affecting.

People of the Book tackles complex themes of religious persecution, cultural identity, and the power of art. Brooks does so with sensitivity and intelligence, prompting readers to reflect on these issues from a new perspective. The mystery surrounding the Haggadah’s provenance and the danger it faces in each era make it highly readable.

The difficult relationship between Hannah and her mother leads to melodramatic situations and is left unresolved. Hannah’s unexplored relationship with the book’s caretaker also seems unnecessary and distracting. While one can argue that torture, rape, and violence were integral to the Spanish Inquisition or medieval Europe, the book has too much of it.

The narrative structure is very complex. A chapter that concludes with Hanna discovering a fragment of the wing of an insect is followed by another chapter about another time describing how this happened. The structure of the novel, travelling back and forth in time thus can be confusing for some readers. However, it can also be argued that this adds an element of suspense and discovery, keeping readers engaged as they unravel the mystery behind the Haggadah’s creation and survival. However, Brooks skillfully weaves the narratives together, eventually revealing the connections between them. The prose is elegant and evocative, capturing the essence of each historical period.

Brooks openly acknowledges that the novel is a work of historical fiction. This allows for creative storytelling while still rooted in a foundation of historical research.

In conclusion, “People of the Book” is a compelling and thought-provoking novel that blends history, art, and human stories. It should appeal to fans of historical fiction, cultural exploration, and the enduring power of literature. Geraldine Brooks has crafted a work that while entertaining also forces one to reflect on how humanity is connected across time and space. It enhances one’s faith in the power of stories and the endurance of the human spirit in the face of adversity. The novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

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