Balkan Beauty

By Jo-Ann Mort

Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
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People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks
Viking, 372 pages, $25.95.

In her new novel, “People of the Book,” Geraldine Brooks compresses six centuries of history and transforms them into a fast-moving mystery novel. Brooks’s engaging, intensely researched historic tale is based on the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a book that originated in pre-Inquisition Spain and lives today under lock and key in Sarajevo, Bosnia.

In real life, the Sarajevo Haggadah is a book unlike any other, not simply because of its exalted place in that embattled city but also for simple aesthetic reasons: A large book with illuminated biblical drawings painted on parchment with handwritten Hebrew lettering, the Sarajevo Haggadah was made in the manner of a handcrafted, expensive journal. Moreover, the book’s history is more than a dramatic one; it mirrors the story of a segment of a population that isn’t often highlighted: Jews who trace their roots from Spain, North Africa and the Mediterranean region who had lived among a friendly Islamic community, even ruled by benign Islamic leaders, for centuries.

The novel’s protagonist is Hannah Heath, a hard-working expert in rare books. In 1996, Hannah flies to Sarajevo from her native Australia, at the completion of the Balkan War, to analyze and restore the Sarajevo Haggadah. It’s a journey that unleashes h er imagination, as she wonders where this book might have been through the ages. It also sets off her own soul-searching, sparking a love interest with a Bosnian Muslim who is the chief curator of Bosnia’s National Museum, and it forces a cataclysmic break with her mother, a world-renowned surgeon who considers Hannah’s art-restoration work a waste of time. But Hannah is intrigued and keeps going, finding clues in the book’s pages — a piece of an insect wing, a white hair, salt crystals and wine stains — that weave a tale of centuries.

Historians believe that the Sarajevo Haggadah first surfaced in Spain’s medieval Jewish community and exited that country along with the Jews who were expelled in 1492. The book, like the wandering and dispersed Jewry who sought to keep their faith and communities intact, found its way around the globe, from Italy in the 1500s to Sarajevo in the 1800s. A Bosnian Islamic scholar hid it from the Nazis, and more recently a Bosnian Muslim — a librarian who hid it in a bank vault — rescued it for a second time during the 1990s Balkan War, which Brooks covered as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

Though “People of the Book” is a terrifically good read, one can’t help but sense a moral lurking beneath the plot: the need to highlight the historic precedent of Jews and Muslims getting along, allowing each community to thrive in tolerance and understanding. In fact, the moral feels a bit heavy-handed, and sometimes the storyline seems to fit too neatly into this feel-good set-up.

“I had to remind myself that Islam had once swept north as far as the gates of Vienna; that when the haggadah had been made, the Muslims’ vast empire was the bright light of the Dark Ages, the one place where science and poetry still flourished, where Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, could find a measure of peace,” Hannah reflects as she engages in the restoration. Indeed, the mystery of Bosnia’s conflict is that ethnic and religious warfare broke out in a country where religion was always downplayed, with its cities, like Sarajevo and Mostar, known more for their bars than for their mosques. Though today’s Sarajevo has been rebuilt in the manner of its tolerant past, the kind of enlightened Islam and religious diversity that the region once exemplified is of little consequence in the overall scheme of things as religious fundamentalism heats up the globe.

Yet while this novel is a tome to rationality, it’s also about discovering one’s own Jewish identity. From the Marranos in Portugal and Venice, who publicly hid their Jewishness as a response to the Inquisition but privately kept up Jewish ritual and connection, to a key character in the novel who makes a personal discovery about Jewish identity, “People of the Book” chronicles the diversity of Jewishness as much as it celebrates the multi-ethnicity of a lost Ottoman world.

Jo-Ann Mort is a co-author of “Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel?” (Cornell University Press, 2003).

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