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people of the book

10 january 2008

When I opened Geraldine Brooks's new novel People of the Book on an airplane, I was informed by my seat-neighbor that it was a kind of Jewish Da Vinci Code. He had not read the book (though when has that stopped anyone from opining?), but his remark pointed to a dynamic that may help sell People of the Book without gravely disappointing any of its buyers. While reading it, I was not much reminded of Dan Brown's crypto-Grailfest. Instead, I found People of the Book to be a little like The Red Violin, with touches of Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red and a soupçon of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's Shadow of the Wind (though the latter is itself an olla podrida of so many other books that it's hard not to detect it everywhere). Like all the texts mentioned, People of the Book involves an art object that people will risk their lives, and often the lives of others, to obtain, preserve, or destroy. But it's also a subtle novel about the impossibility of knowing the past, while at the same time it's a kind of formulaic suspenser where the central object becomes almost a MacGuffin. An odd mix, and like all of Geraldine Brooks's novels, well worth reading.

During an uneasy period of truce in 1996, Hanna Heath, Brooks's central character, arrives in still-war-torn Sarajevo to practice her profession of book conservator on an irreplaceable document: the Sarajevo Haggadah. (The Sarajevo Haggadah is quite real, unlike Dan Brown's various collectibles; but Brooks's use of it is only tangentially related to its known history and provenance.) While examining the manuscript, Hanna finds various fragments of objects and windows into the book's history: a hair, an insect's wing, a salt stain, a wine stain. She also finds traces of things that aren't there anymore, in particular a missing pair of clasps that once held the pages of the book open.

In alternating chapters, Hanna lives a late-20th / early 20th-century life, and the ghosts she has stirred by working on the haggadah come to life in their own vignettes. Staying just this side of laying it on too thick, Brooks creates little Maupassantian dramas of how the haggadah comes to be in the shape it's in. She traces it from its origins in 15th-century Spain, to 17th-century Europe, to its rediscovery in Bosnia and its subsequent journey to 1890s Vienna for rebinding.

The stories are largely independent, hung on the central object of the novel, but they share with Hanna's own narrative a theme of cryptic coloration. Again and again, the people who encounter the Sarajevo Haggadah must hide their identity: sometimes their sex, sometimes their ethnicity, often their Jewishness. Not all of the books possessors are Jews, by any means. Its richly illustrated pages in fact point to an artistic tradition quite alien to medieval Judaism, having more in common with the conventions of Persian illustration that link People of the Book to Pamuk's My Name is Red. But in their reverence for the artifact, the book's people share the insistence of Jews on an identity that can be disgused but never fully disavowed, and that is expressed most beautifully in cultural objects that will endure long past the lifetimes of their owners.

This is heady and deeply thoughtful material for fiction. It therefore pains me slightly to report that Brooks develops a bit too much intrigue in the final episode, making the Haggadah less into an emblem of cultural survival than a trinket in a James Bond film. But hey, I like James Bond films too. Like its central Haggadah, People of the Book is a syncretic mix of different artistic traditions. Not flawless or imperishable like its inspiration, but intelligent and moving – and that's all one can really expect from a novel.

Brooks, Geraldine. People of the Book. New York: Viking, 2008.