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A tale of tolerance

On the trail of a historic Jewish text, a powerful story unfolds.

By Colette Bancroft, Times book editor
Published January 6, 2008


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People of the Book

By Geraldine Brooks

Viking, 372 pages, $25.95

Author appearance

Geraldine Brooks will speak at 11:30 a.m. on Jan. 14, presented by the Palm Literary Society, at Michael's on East, 1212 S East Ave., Sarasota. Tickets are $75 per person or $130 per couple, and include lunch and one copy of People of the Book. Call (941) 329-2604.

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An insect's wing, a fine white hair, a few grains of salt, a silver clasp, a wine stain: In Geraldine Brooks' enthralling new novel People of the Book, these small objects open up five centuries of human experience.

The novel's title means many things, but it most obviously refers to a specific volume, an exquisitely beautiful illuminated manuscript created in Spain in the late 15th century. The book is a haggadah, a religious text used during the observation of Passover that tells the story of the Jews' liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Brooks based her haggadah and its story on a real book called the Sarajevo Haggadah, a priceless volume displayed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina of Sarajevo.

A journalist and novelist, Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006 for March, a novel whose title character is the absent father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. In that book, Brooks brought not only March himself but the Civil War to life. In People of the Book, her historical sweep is even wider.

She opens the haggadah's astonishing history to us by making her protagonist a rare book expert and conservator. As the novel begins in 1996, Hanna Heath is chosen to analyze the book because of her reputation in her field and because, as an Australian, she is an outsider to the political conflicts that have recently fractured Bosnia.

She finds herself intrigued by the book, and by the man who risked his life to save it during the 1992 siege of Sarajevo. As the official who hires her tells Hanna, the head of the museum library, Ozren Karaman, went in to retrieve the haggadah during intense shelling of the area. "Can you imagine, Channa? A Muslim, risking his neck to save a Jewish book."

But the haggadah's history teems with Muslims, and Christians, as well as Jews. The phrase "people of the book" is used by Muslims to describe the close relationship among Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which share roots in the Middle East and many sacred texts.

Of course, that has not prevented them from sometimes treating each other savagely over the centuries, and many of those conflicts are part of the haggadah's story.

Hanna's investigation of the book reveals the insect wing, salt, hair and wine in its binding and pages, and makes her curious about its missing clasp. She can trace the physical origins of those mysteries and place them in time, but for the reader they serve as portals into a series of fascinating stories about the individuals through whose hands the book has passed.

Moving backward in time, Brooks weaves vivid and moving tales around each object. A Jewish teenager in Sarajevo in 1940 loses her family to the Nazis and finds a surprising haven. In Vienna in 1894, where violent anti-Semitism is rising, a Jewish doctor treats a book restorer dying of syphilis. In Venice at the height of the Inquisition, a respected rabbi appeals to a powerful priest not to burn the haggadah. Not long before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th century, a father buys an extraordinary set of illustrations of the Passover story to create a wedding gift for his estranged son. And, 12 years before that, a most unlikely artist paints those images.

All of those wonderful tales are framed by Hanna's story, and although each story, old and new, pulses with its own richly imagined details, Brooks weaves them together with common themes: questions of identity; love and loss; the joys and sorrows of family relationships. Throughout the book's history, religious faith is both spiritual succor and a source of dangerous prejudice.

And the book itself, the haggadah, possesses a power and resonance that are more than the sum of its parts. Its ancient tale of courage and freedom echoes in all the history that follows.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

 

 

[Last modified January 2, 2008, 16:07:30]


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