With the title People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks' latest novel was a must read for me. When it turned out to be one detective story after another involving the Sarajevo Haggadah, I was hooked.
A journalist by training, a lustful lover of books, libraries and research by nature, Brooks says she makes her move from nonfiction to fiction when she sees a great story and then hears a compelling voice. "The idea for this book came out of the ashes of a burning library in Sarajevo,” Brooks says. In 1994 she was reporting for the Wall Street Journal in Sarajevo when she heard a rumor in a bar that the famous Haggadah was missing. Later it emerged that a librarian (was it a Muslim librarian? I can’t remember) had risked his life to save the book from the fire, and as Brooks puts it, “When facts run out, fiction begins.”
The facts include that the Haggadah has been lost and found several times over the centuries since its creation in Spain where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together peacefully in the 1300s. Brooks’ fiction traces the story backwards from 1996, as she continually brings together representatives from all three of those cultures (religions?) as major players in saving the book.
Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, serves as Brooks’ protagonist. Called to Sarajevo in 1996, Heath’s examination of the manuscript yields the bits and pieces of the story about how the book was saved. A cat hair caught in the binding comes from the single hair brush of the original artist. A wine stain is traced to a Jewish rabbi who saved the book during the inquisition. When describing these items and the process of rare book analysis, the story feels like a script for CSI, microscopes and all. For Brooks, it isn’t the devil in the details, but the story itself. Each item blossoms into an explanation of another time that the book was saved. Her characters from each period all have major character flaws or tragedies that bind them closely to someone of another culture, and the saving of the book always takes place at that intersection of cultures. The point, she states very clearly, is that “diverse cultures enrich each other.”
When I was halfway through the audio version of the story, Brooks came to town to lecture. I was more charmed by her Australian accent in person than I was with the reader of the book on the CD, although they sounded remarkably similar. She gave a lively presentation with good quotes and slides of the manuscript and Sarajevo. I scribbled notes in the dark: “Drawn by the allure of alien worlds, each of us helplessly contains the other. . .” Checking the reference for the quote today, I find it is a mystery for me where she found it. Perhaps if I pursue it long enough a great story will emerge.
You can buy People of the Book through our Amazon affiliate store and give Spectrum a few bucks in the process.
Bonnie Dwyer writes from Roseville, California where she is the editor of Spectrum.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/368