Geraldine Brooks wasn’t born Jewish, but by age 14, she was obsessed with the religion, its people and plight.
In fact, it was during the Six-Day War in 1967 that Brooks, who would go on to become a renowned foreign correspondent, first paid attention to the news. In high school, the Australian started wearing a Star of David on her Catholic school uniform. She schlepped around dog-eared copies of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” She penned a play about the Warsaw ghetto.
“I think I was the only kid at Sydney High School studying the Suez Crisis,” says Brooks, laughing, during a recent interview in San Francisco.
The Jewish bug, which she caught from her father, who also became a “passionate lefty Zionist” by choice, is illuminated in the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s latest novel, “People of the Book,” a vivid work of historical fiction spanning five centuries and four cultures.
The novel, Brooks’ follow-up to “March,” which won her the Pulitzer in 2006, invents a history for the Sarajevo Haggadah, a medieval Hebrew codex that was discovered in a Bosnian museum in the early 1990s, at a time when ethnic cleansing was ravaging a city long known for its multicultural tolerance.
While restoring the ancient text, Brooks’ heroine, Hanna Heath, a young and ambitious manuscript conservator, discovers clues in its pages—an insect wing, wine stain, salt crystals and a white hair—that unlock the mystery of the Haggadah’s life, and more important, why Jews and non-Jews alike risked their lives to protect the book. It is the thinker’s “Da Vinci Code,” and ultimately, a celebration of Sarajevo’s multicultural ideal.
Brooks first learned of the real codex while covering the United Nations beat for the Wall Street Journal. Turns out a Muslim librarian in the first days of World War II had braved shelling to go into the museum, crack a safe and return the book to safety. Brooks was eager to learn more.
So in 2001, with the help of Kofi Annan’s assistant, she was able to spend two days observing real book expert Andrea Pataki as she restored the Haggadah in a high-security room full of Bosnian police and Secret Service agents. Her analysis and minute findings inspired the structure for “People of the Book,” Brooks says, recalling those two transformative days.
The Haggadah had been in a box for centuries, so they broke the seals and removed it. “I kept thinking, `All this fuss over that? With this dirty old scuffed binding?’” Brooks recalls. “And then you open it. And you see the pictures. And the colors are just as vibrant as ever. And it just knocks your socks off. It’s beautiful.”
In the novel, the Haggadah travels from Tarragona, its birthplace circa 1480, to 1600s Venice, where a Catholic priest saves the book from the Inquisition’s fires. From there, the manuscript goes to Vienna, where it becomes a pawn in the struggle against the city’s rising anti-Semitism. True to reality, the book ends up in Bosnia during World War II, where a Muslim risks his life to protect it from the Nazis.
Brooks’ copious research involved trips to Venice and Sarajevo and interviews with renowned scientists and book conservators from around the world, learning about how manuscripts were bound and pigments and brushes were made in various periods.
But the book is fiction, she says, not a technical treatise, so experts of ancient manuscripts will be able to spot a few places where she took small liberties. Still, as a trained journalist, Brooks is steadfast in remaining factual.
“I don’t like faction, supposed nonfiction where they change time sequences and use composite characters,” she says. “I think it’s a real betrayal of what a fiction narrative should be.”
The reader can’t help but try to compare Brooks to her heroine, Heath, who is a feisty and ambitious Australian, but sexually reckless and estranged from family. Save for nationality and passion for their work, however, the women have nothing in common, Brooks says.
The author struggled with the character’s cultural identity, and originally wanted the conservator to be Bosnian, because she loves the way Sarajevans express themselves—with a kind of “world-weary, mordant wit.” But the Aussie in Heath eventually spoke to Brooks.
“It was a voice that I was completely confident with,” she says. “She immediately turned up in my imagination and compelled the story. Her character told me how she would act, and that was much more take-charge than perhaps my Bosnian conservator would have been.”
Ultimately, Heath becomes a person of the book, guarding it and protecting it and risking her professional reputation for its survival. As for the real Sarajevo Haggadah, the mystery remains: Why did this book survive when so many others did not?
“I think partly its own beauty must have spoken to people,” Brooks says. “And then, after a point it became this symbol of what Sarajevo stood for, this multicultural ideal. One (Bosnian) family told me that when they didn’t have any money left for food, they saw a used copy of the book in a market and they spent their last money to get it because it means that much to them.”
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