An historic book's story, and a story around it
"People of the Book: A Novel" by Geraldine Brooks. Viking Adult, 2008. 384 pgs. $24.95.
Geraldine Brooks opened the international book tour for "People of the Book," her newly released novel, on Thursday at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center. A resident of Vineyard Haven, Ms. Brooks is the author of two other acclaimed novels, "Year of Wonders" and "March." The latter won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. She has also written two fine nonfiction books, "Nine Parts of Desire" and "Foreign Correspondence," the story of her adult quest to find the pen pals that enriched her Australian childhood, including one in Menemsha.
Even though the weather was bitter cold, it was a marvelous evening, with a large, enthusiastic crowd turning out to hear Ms. Brooks talk and to celebrate with her. Co-hosted by the Bunch of Grapes and the Hebrew Center, the party was greatly enhanced by the generosity of Ms. Brooks's family, who provided a sumptuous spread of wines, champagnes, and delicious foods. The foods came from places where the Sarajevo Haggadah, the 600-year-old Jewish prayer book at the center of her fascinating novel, had been.
Ms. Brooks began her talk with a story of falling in love at the age of nine with "The Valley of Adventure" by Enid Blyton. She moved quickly from the passion for books in her own life to the importance of books to our humanity. "People of the Book" grew out of a story she heard in a bar in Sarajevo when she was reporting on the Bosnian War as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. The incredibly valuable Haggadah, the treasure of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, was missing. Had it been taken to Israel, stolen, exchanged for arms, burned?
The Haggadah tells the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Used at the Passover Seder, it is the story Jews are commanded to tell their children. The Sarajevo Haggadah, an extremely rare illuminated manuscript, was created in medieval Spain, during the Convivencia, a time of religious cooperation and tolerance among Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Somehow, against all odds, not unlike the Jewish community that used and protected it, it survived. When Ms, Brooks first heard of it, as in other times in its history, it had possibly been destroyed during a war. In the talk, as in the novel, Geraldine Brooks weaves an intelligent, compelling story with humor and humanity, which is completely absorbing.
Brooks takes the bones of the riveting and important story of the Haggadah and fleshes it out with actual characters and those of her imagining in "People of the Book." She traces the history of the book backwards in time starting, with the two Muslim librarians who managed to save the book against significant odds and at great personal risk - Dervis Korkut during World War II and Enver Imamovic during the Bosnian war - through Venice in the 1600s where a Catholic priest, Giovanni Domenico, protected it from being burned, all the way to its creation in Spain. It is an ambitious undertaking but Brooks makes it work. She brings these characters and times to life through vivid detail, compellingly weaving in the often-painful history of the Haggadah.
I was drawn into "People of the Book" before reading a single page. The cover was curious: what was an insect wing doing on the cover of a novel about a rare book? Opening it, I immediately became absorbed by the end papers. I love maps in books and here was a two-page map of Europe with arrows charting the journey of the Haggadah, a path that begins in Bosnia in 1996 then moves back in time all the way to Seville, Spain in 1480. I wanted to know more.
The action begins immediately. Enter Hanna, our first person narrator, whose sassy Australian voice never hits a wrong note. Hanna is a feisty book conservator who has been flown to Bosnia for the job of a lifetime, the examination and restoration of the Sarajevo Haggadah. Her examination uncovers some restoration surprises and an insect wing, a white hair, and wine and salt stains which she will have examined by various experts. With a journalist's eye for detail and a storyteller's understanding of nuance and pacing, Brooks launches the reader on a spellbinding journey. The chapters alternate between Hanna's story in the present to the story of the Haggadah's history following its path backwards through time as it changes hands, countries, and centuries.
Brooks knows how to build suspense and she sustains it throughout the novel. The novel is carefully constructed and no thread goes unexamined. Remember the insect wing on the cover? It matters. "People of the Book" is a beautifully constructed, well written, gripping page-turner. Brooks is a marvelous storyteller and she orchestrates surprising and convincing twists and turns of plot with precision and ease. There were many times I thought I had figured out where a path led only to be completely surprised by its eventual destination.
"People of the Book" is more than an absorbing story. Brooks raises profound questions about what it means to stand up for your beliefs, what it means to be persecuted, and what it means to be human in the face of inhuman behavior. The bravery of some individuals and the cruelty of others forced me to consider my own capacity for taking action. I am still haunted by the Heinrich Heine quotation at the frontispiece of this novel: "There, where one burns books, one in the end burns men." Would I dare to save such an important book and by extension the people of the book?
At the close of her talk, Ms Brooks shared her two guiding stars as a writer. First, she believes there is no apartheid of the imagination. Quoting James Baldwin, she talked about the importance of imagining being another sex, another race, another religion, and truly trying to walk in someone else's shoes. Secondly, she believes passionately in the importance of stories. "In People of the Book," she has honored these convictions. Towards the end of the novel Hanna writes: "I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful..." Geraldine Brooks has succeeded in doing just that and much more in this terrific novel.
When asked by a member of the audience what was next, she hinted that she was working on something very close to home. How close, I wondered... Vineyard Haven? Whatever it is, and I'm already curious, I am confident it will be equally riveting and complex. But for now, we are fortunate to have "People of the Book" to savor.
Laura Wainwright is a contributing writer to The Times.