Saturday, June 5, 2021

People of the Book

 People of the Book (2008) by Geraldine Brooks

Synopsis (from the back of the book): Hanna Heath, an Australian rare book expert, has been offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Priceless and beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images. When Hanna discovers a series of tiny artifacts in its ancient binding--an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair--she begins to unlock the book's mysteries, ushering in its exquisitie and atmospheric past, from its salvation back to its creation through centuries of exile and war.

Well, 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 difference, 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.

Brooks' novel was inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex which has been repeatedly rescued throughout history--most recently during the Bosnian war. Using research on the Haggadah's history from various sources as well as details gleaned from the actual conservation of the book in December 2001, Brooks seamlessly weaves her own fictional interpretation of the details to bring the book's history to life. It was fascinating to follow the book on its journey--both through time and across Europe, from 1480 to 2002, from Spain to Italy to Bosnia. The fictional stories of the artifacts found in the binding were fascinating, but it was also heartbreaking to watch the same prejudices resurface over and over again. And to know that have done so again recently here in the United States. The fear of the other--the need to demonize those who don't look like us and to use them as scapegoats when things aren't going as well as we'd like. It seems to be firmly ingrained--particularly in white "Christians." 

I found the story of the book's history to be much more compelling than the story of Hanna which is told alongside the historical sections. That's not to say that Hanna's story isn't interesting. It just pales in comparison to the narrative of the book's journey and the glimpses we are given of those who struggled with persecution and who risked their lives to save this rare volume. 

First line: I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn't my usual kind of job.

Last lines: He reached for me. This time, I didn't pull away.

No comments: