MIAMI—Novelist Geraldine Brooks cannot forget her first glimpse of the “Sarajevo Haggadah.”
The book—a 14th century, illustrated Hebrew manuscript that miraculously survived religious purges, the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust and the Bosnian War—is housed at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It “comes into the room, and they put it on the table,” Brooks recalls. `It’s very small, maybe 12-by-6; maybe not even that big. It’s a ratty-looking thing. You wouldn’t look twice at it. The cover is old and worn out and discolored, ... and you think, `The fuss is about this?’ And then you open it, and boom! There’s just this explosion of color and richness and imagination.”
The mysterious history of the ancient codex, with its traditional text of the Passover Haggadah and gorgeously vivid illustrations of key scenes from the Bible, fired a Big Bang of creativity in Brooks. She turned her interest in the manuscript’s fascinating past into “People of the Book” (Viking, $25.95), in which she reimagines the Haggadah’s hazardous, centuries-long journey from Seville, Spain, to modern-day Bosnia. But even more important than the rare artifact are the novel’s remarkable characters—Muslim, Christian, Jewish, some based on real people—who preserved it against incredible odds.
The “Haggadah” is adorned with many startling images, including one illustration of a mysterious African woman sitting with a Jewish family at a Seder. Another image depicts the world as round, a concept guaranteed to incite burnings at the stake in 14th-century Europe.
Brooks first learned of the “Haggadah” when she covered the Bosnian war for The Wall Street Journal (she also worked in Somalia and the Middle East and no longer misses foreign reporting, she says). The manuscript had vanished, and rumors of its fate were often bleak.
“The Bosnian National Library was burned down, a shocking crime. ... They deliberately shelled the library. It was gutted, just like the Oriental Institute, a repository of ancient, rare manuscripts—Turkish, Persian, Slavic. ...”
But the “Haggadah” turned up after the war. It had been rescued by Muslim librarian Enver Imamovic and hidden in a bank vault. This wasn’t the first time a Muslim had saved the Jewish icon. During World War II, Islamic scholar Dervis Korkut had smuggled it out of the museum right under the nose of a Nazi general.
Brooks relates that story in a recent New Yorker article that also tells of a near-miraculous reunion of descendants of two of the real-life players in the Haggadah’s astonishing past.
“I got so many surprises,” says Brooks from Martha’s Vineyard where she lives with her journalist husband Tony Horwitz, son Nathaniel and a passel of dogs. “The fact that a Muslim librarian risked his life to save the book captured my imagination. But the other thing that made me think there was a subject here for me was imagining a character who was an illuminator and thinking about how artists and miniaturists have incredible access in the court. They’re the kind of people I like. They cross between two worlds. They’re artists in a position to see what the decision makers are up to. ... The idea made me look into this history to see what kind of scaffolding was there to build a story.”
Brooks, 55 and the author of the nonfiction “Nine Parts of Desire” and “Foreign Correspondence,” is an Australian native like her smart, prickly narrator, rare book expert Hanna Heath.
“I was inspired to become a novelist in Miami,” she says. “I was at my first book fair with `Foreign Correspondence,’ and I met Charles Frazier (author of `Cold Mountain’) and felt so inspired to try this. It was scary. It was a big jump, and I thought there was a good chance I’d end up a big, wet splat in the crevasse.”
There was no splattage. Brooks’ second novel, “March,” earned a Pulitzer.
“March” witnesses the Civil War through the eyes of the patriarch of the Little Women clan; Brooks’ first novel, “Year of Wonders,” is set during Europe’s plague years. Brooks isn’t sure why history’s intrigues and perspectives seem so alluring; she just knows that the past is where she likes to work.
“I liked history OK when I was at school, but I majored in political science,” Brooks says. “I was engaged with contemporary events in journalism. But I’m not drawn to writing contemporary fiction. I love reading it, but historical themes speak most ardently to me. I don’t know why, but they do. My next book is set in 1666, so I’m back in a comfy rut.”
Stretching, as it does, through the centuries, People of the Book required more research than Brooks’ other novels, which were largely completed on a Harvard fellowship. So Brooks relished the relative ease of writing the contemporary segments of People, in which Hanna discovers clues inside the “Haggadah”—grains of salt, an insect wing, a white hair—that lead the reader through each phase of its history. The forensic detail was fueled by the “immense privilege” of watching book conservationist Andrea Pataki work on the manuscript in Sarajevo.
“It was fun to use places I actually know,” Brooks says. “But I come back to the same themes: How are people changed by catastrophe? What is the role of faith in people’s lives? What does it do for you and to you? I guess the past is a fertile place for that.”
Above all, though, “People of the Book” is an impassioned plea for religious and cultural tolerance, which perhaps makes its factual aspects more relevant. Brooks writes eloquently about the Convivencia, a period during the Spanish Middle Ages when Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted. Purges and terror would come later, but for centuries, there was a sort of peace.
It’s vital to remind people of such times, says Lucette Lagnado, whose memoir “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” chronicles her Jewish family’s life in a multicultural Cairo until they were forced into exile.
“Once upon a time, these cultures coexisted in a way we cannot imagine in this post-9/11 universe,” Lagnado says. “I’ve had to explain the idea, which is central to Geraldine’s book, that Muslims and Jews and Christians could get along. There was this extraordinary harmony that typical Americans can’t even fathom. ... We have lost the possibility of believing that. It’s so important to have stories like this to remind people of another world and another possibility.”
Adds Brooks: “It’s just really tragic to me to see how we have to learn the same lesson over and over again. We’re all better off and richer and intellectually stimulated more if we work together. When we divide into our tribes, things go bleak. I guess we’re just slow learners.”