In “The Book of Exodus,” an article appearing in the December 3rd New Yorker, Geraldine Brooks detailed the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, an exquisitely illustrated piece of ancient Judaica. The Haggadah—the prayer book used during Passover—had journeyed from Spain to Venice to Sarajevo, where it resided in the Bosnian National Museum until 1942, when the Nazis, looting Judaica for Hitler’s Museum of the Lost Race, confronted Muslim head librarian Dervis Korkut. But Korkut, a brilliant humanitarian fluent in 10 languages, had already hidden the book. He also hid Jews and spoke out against the fascist regime, ultimately spending six years in solitary confinement. This remarkable man survived, eventually earning a Designation of the Righteous at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial.
Forty years later, Brooks, then a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, learned about the Haggadah, saved once again from war by another Muslim librarian, Enver Imamovic.
The true story—involving many more people, some Jewish, some Muslim, is a moving testament to the kindness of strangers, coincidence, religious tolerance, the atrocity of war, and the good fortune of one priceless book. Brooks, author of Year of Wonders and the Pulitzer-winning March, knew a great story when she saw one. Hence People of the Book, a fictionalized version of the Sarajevo Haggadah’s journey.
Book begins in the present day with Hanna Heath, a 30-year-old Australian book restorer called to Sarajevo to repair the Haggadah. Outwardly a brassy, no bullshit kinda gal, Hanna informs us she is cowardly and, thanks to her mother, emotionally stunted.
Mother is famed neurosurgeon Sarah Heath, a character so crudely drawn she’s a caricature. Sarah feels Hanna’s Ph.D’s in Chemistry and Art Conservation are “Kindergarten work”, her profession that of a “tradeswoman”. Hanna’ paternity is a mystery, a verboten topic.
Hanna’s work on the Haggadah in a Sarajevo bank vault offers a fascinating, detailed explanation of binding and preservation that will delight any bibliophile. What happens next may not: Hanna goes to bed with Ozren Karaman, the librarian who saved the book. Ozren, too, is only 30, widowed, with a gravely wounded child. Brooks’ use of this damaged child is unrealistic and ultimately adds nothing to the text, unless you needed a reminder that war is bad for children and other living things.
From Hanna’s present we move backward: to Sarajevo in 1940, Vienna in 1894, Venice in 1609, Spain in 1492, Seville in 1480. Each place and time serve as a set piece for a character, often female, alternately Jew or Muslim, living peacefully until religious persecution inexorably bears down, killing, maiming, wreaking havoc. The character then either flees or is taken into slavery, the Haggadah dragged along or appearing in the slaveholder’s home.
Only Lola, a Sarajevan Jewess Dervis Korkut hides, is drawn with any depth: she is the only character to emerge—from Sarajevo—as an old woman, now living in Israel. Yet even her reappearance is a Deux ex Machina, strictly serving the plot.
And the plot moves right along, zipping through centuries of bloodshed, glossing over terrible suffering in service to the Haggadah’s journey. Brooks attempts to compensate with repeated references to the Convivencia, a period when Jews, Catholics, and Muslims coexisted in relative peace until Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews.
Capital-D Diversity crops up all over Book. Each of the many marketplaces, from ancient to contemporary, teems with people of all colors selling all manner of merchandise, much of it yummy-sounding ethnic food. You practically begin expecting a walk-on from Rodney King. And though the point is certainly well taken, (I write this the day after Bhutto’s assassination) hammering the reader with messages of loving goodwill ultimately irritates. After all, anyone willing to read People of the Book—a novel about Jews and Muslims—is already voting Hillary/Obama.
The ending, involving Hanna’s paternity, Ozren, and an Israeli commando, turns this history-lite into a 007 whodunit, closing on a predictable love-conquers-all moment that left me disgusted.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted to like this book. I finished the New Yorker article longing to read it, hoping for a melding of Mendelsohn’s The Lost, Cooley’s The Archivist, and Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. And Brooks is an eminently capable writer with meticulous research skills and a commendable grasp of history. If only she’d turned her talents to writing a non-fiction account of the Sarajevo Haggadah instead.