PEOPLE OF THE BOOK by Geraldine Brooks

Book Quote:

“Oh I don’t know, “Raz says. “The book is still doing what it was meant to do, or it will be, as soon as it goes into the museum. It was made to teach a lot more than just the Exodus story”…..”from what you’ve told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You’ve got a society where people tolerate differences, like Spain in the ‘Convivencia,’ and everything’s humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize ‘the other’ – it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists… same old, same old. It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that.”

Book Review:

Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie (MAY 10, 2009)

A book is the real protagonist of Geraldine Brooks’ latest novel, People of the Book. The author writes in the “Afterward” section that this is a work of fiction, inspired by the true story “of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. The haggadah is an illuminated manuscript which contains the traditional text of the Passover haggadah that accompanies the Passover Seder. It is one of the oldest Sephardic haggadahs in the world, originating in Spain in the 15th century. The author succeeds in creating a riveting account of the volume’s history, from its origins in Seville to a 21st century museum in Sarajevo.

What makes this book so precious, besides its age and great beauty, is that it is illustrated with numerous miniature paintings, much like the Christian illuminations of the Gospels. Jews, during this period, considered figurative art a violation of the Third Commandment, which prohibits the making of “any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth below.” Who was the talented artist who created this masterpiece and broke with tradition? And why?

When the mysterious book was discovered in Sarajevo in 1894 it was considered a miracle that it had survived, almost intact, for so many centuries – tumultuous centuries filled with violence. It was not destroyed during the expulsion of the Jews and Moors from Spain in 1492, nor was it burned during the Holy Inquisition, which began in 1498, when Tomas de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, targeted Marranos, Jews who had converted to Christianity. Large numbers of Jews then migrated to Venice, where they were expelled, once again, and their books burned, in the 17th century, but this Haggadah was kept safe. The treasure somehow survived and made its way, along with the “People of the Book,” to Sarajevo, where the Ottomans had initially welcomed them in 1565.

During the Dark Ages, the Muslim’s vast empire extended into Europe and southern Spain. Their culture was the “one bright light where science, art, and poetry still flourished.” Both Jews and Muslims were reviled, tortured and murdered by the Christians, and together, in places like Sarajevo, the two peoples could live in peace. Still, the book and its people were to experience much more brutality and bloodshed in WWI and WWII.

One of the most dangerous periods in the volume’s history was the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an international armed conflict that took place between March 1992 and November 1995. The city of Sarajevo was under constant siege.

In 1996, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare book expert, is offered a job by the UN to conserve the Sarajevo Haggadah, after it is discovered intact, even though many had feared it had been destroyed during the heavy shelling of the city. Dr. Ozren Karaman, (a fictitious character, based on a real person), is chief librarian of the Sarajevo National Museum and professor of “librarianship” at the National University of Bosnia. Dr. Karaman, a Muslim, risked his life to save a Jewish book.

Hanna’s task is to prepare the fragile volume for an exhibition at a newly built museum. As she works, she finds clues to the haggadah’s history – an insect’s wing, a fine white hair, stains of wine and blood on a few pages, missing clasps, and a few grains of salt. She is determined to solve the mystery of the extraordinary object’s provenance. She and Dr. Karaman begin a tentative romance at this point. Hanna, a most appealing person, and an irreverent Aussie, has problems with relationships, both with men and with her mother. This is due to past events which occurred in Hanna’s childhood and provide an interesting glimpse into her character.

There are frequent flashbacks to medieval Spain, 15th century Venice, 19th century Vienna, Jewish communities near the Adriatic Sea in the 1940s, and to Seville in 1480, where the reader finally meets the illuminator who created the haggadah. We are introduced to the people who came into contact with the book throughout its history and protected it.

Geraldine Brooks’ characters are rich, colorful and well developed. Her recounting of the history surrounding the book is extremely well researched, and her own imagination is very fertile. The narrative is well written and the pace is fast. Ms. Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, March, which I read and enjoyed very much. But I was enthralled reading People of the Book. It is definitely a 5 STAR novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 323 readers
PUBLISHER: Penguin; Reprint (December 30, 2008)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Geraldine Brooks
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and MAP

Of possible interest:

The Illuminator by Brenda Rickman Vanttrese

Fangland by John Marks



May 10, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Facing History, Literary, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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