Sunday, 2 August 2009

Book of the Month: People of the Book (Geraldine Brooks)

In the afterword of her novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks mentions that the novel was inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks, who, for years, worked as a newspaper reporter, first heard of the Haggadah when she was in Bosnia, in the early 1990s, covering the Bosnian war. (In a talk given in a literary event to promote the novel, Brooks said that the Serbs were deliberately targeting the City’s library, the National Museum, and The Oriental Institute, intent as they were on the cultural annihilation of the Bosnians.) The fate of the Sarajevo Haggadah, which had resided in the city for over hundred years—it came to light in Sarajevo, the outermost post of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in 1894, the year in which Gavrilo Princip, the Yugoslav nationalist, who, twenty years later, would assassinate Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg empire, and his wife, an event that would trigger the First World War, was born—was not known at the time. After the Bosnian wars of the 1990s ended, it was revealed that a Muslim librarian, Enver Imamovich had rescued the codex at the height of the war when Sarajevo was being shelled every day, and hidden it in a bank vault. The librarian, Brooks recounted in a talk, requested the City’s police force to accompany him into the museum. The police, unsurprisingly, were not keen. Imamovich then announced that he would go into the museum on his own and the police force was shamed into giving him an escort of six police officers into the museum. However, this was not the first time in the twentieth century that the Haggadah was saved from destruction in nick of time. In 1941, Dervis Korkut, an Islamic scholar smuggled it out of the museum and saved it from falling into the hands of a Nazi General, Johan Hans Fortner (subsequently hanged for war crimes). The Haggadah, which is thought to have created in Spain sometime in the middle of the fifteenth century; which somehow survived the years of Jewish expulsion from Spain; which travelled across more than one European country—in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it had made its way to Venice, where it was saved from the book burnings of the Pope’s Inquisition by a Catholic priest called Vistrioni—before emerging, 250 years later, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where an indigenous and impoverished Jewish family, which had had the Haggadah in its possession for at least a century, offered it to the authorities for sale; which, after spending a few months in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire where it was sent for restoration (and where it was terribly mishandled) was returned to Sarajevo; and which has survived the turbulent twentieth century that saw the two Great Wars and a Civil war, now sits in the restored National Museum in Sarajevo.

Hannah Heath, an Australian rare-books expert, is offered the job of restoring the Sarajevo Haggadah, which, it has turned out, was not destroyed or lost, as feared by many, during the civil war that engulfed Bosnia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. She meets the man who has saved the Haggadah during the war. The man informs her that the book was saved half a century earlier by the then librarian from falling into the hands of the Nazis. This arouses Hannah’s interest in the book. While restoring the Haggadah she also discovers interesting artefacts such as an insect’s wing, wine and blood stains, traces of salt, and white hair probably of a cat. She is also intrigued by the imagery depicted in the Haggadah, which shows what appears to be a Moorish woman amongst a Jewish family. Hannah assumes that the woman was a family servant, and is puzzled by her presence in the imagery. Hannah decides to investigate further and her investigations take her to Europe and America. The chapters telling Hannah’s story are interlocked with a series of flashbacks, each a quasi-historical vignette, as the novel goes back in time and traces the crucial moments in the 600-year history of the Haggadah. Each artefact Hannah discovers serves as a springboard for Brooks to spin an engrossing yarn, each one different from the next. The ‘historical’ chapters, separate as they are, are still linked by the Haggadah; however, there is a very clear motif: the trials and tribulations of the Jewish race over the centuries. As the novel goes back in time, tracing the provenance of the Haggadah, there is, perforce, rather a lot about the treatment of the Jewish people over centuries at the hands of the Christians; the reader at times may feel a bit deluged by unpleasant images of cruelty and torture.

Brooks may not have the stylistic flair to her narrative, but her prose flows easily, and, coupled with the riveting storyline involving plausible, if imperfect, characters, the narrative sucks you in. However, Brooks also appears to have a hidden agenda. People of the Book is not just a literary mystery—the first one to be published since A.S. Byatt’s Possessions—it is also attempting—and not very subtly—a quasi-political message: Jews and Muslims can live in harmony, sharing as they do the same roots. This theme recurs so often that you might as well be getting hit over the head with it—very little is left to piece together. Those who prefer their authors’ messages to be subtle, may feel a tad disappointed. All the characters in the novel, especially the Muslims, behave with impeccable integrity, tolerance, and understanding. They are all saints—wise, gentle, self-sacrificing, and not blood but milk of human kindness flows through their veins. The reader is always conscious of the ventriloquistic presence of Brooks, the puppeteer, pulling strings, intent on conducting a lesson in religious tolerance—it seems a bit contrived at times, and makes for rather thin, one dimensional fictional universe. The female characters, through the ages, are all crypto-feminists, or at least think like contemporary feminists. Thus the Moorish woman, the one who is credited in the novel as the creator of the images in the Haggadah, animadverts the Emir for his religious intolerance, while a Bosnian woman in the middle of the twentieth century decides that the Nazis are evil because they are against diversity! That said the historical sections are the most satisfying part of the novel. Brooks, a former Wall Street correspondent, is in her elements here, doing what she probably loves the most—researching extensively to create for the reader a tableau vivant of a bygone world, be it seventeenth century Venice, or fifteenth century Spain. By contrast, the ‘modern’ section of the novel, the story of the main protagonist Hannah, her relationships with her friends and colleagues, and her overbearing Neurosurgeon mother, the mystery of her absent father, who—surprise! Surprise!—turns out to be Jewish (the extraneous plot-line merely distracts from the compelling mystery of the Haggadah), leading, eventually, to the melodramatic, implausible and unconvincing finale, fails to grip. Hannah, rather than coming across gutsy, intelligent, and resourceful, comes across as irritating, opinionated and hysterical.

People of the Book shows glimpses of what Geraldine Brooks, who won the Pulitzer for an earlier novel, March, is capable of. The novel has passages of great beauty and emotions, and tackles grand themes which have contemporary resonance, sometimes in predictable ways, sometimes in flights of fancy that demand suspension of credulity by the reader.