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Geraldine Brooks' thrilling yarn of biblical scholarship

Mass exodus



People of the Book
By Geraldine Brooks
Viking, 372 pp.

Author Geraldine Brooks - PHOTO BY RANDI BAIRD
  • Photo by Randi Baird
  • Author Geraldine Brooks

"Katrina Helps Spread Cajun Cooking," touted a recent Yahoo! News headline. The article reported on displaced cooks opening Louisiana-style restaurants far from home. Even some rural West Virginians now know a muffuletta from a muffin.

Disaster is good for a diaspora. Multiculturalism tends to proliferate neither by invitation nor goodwill, but by force majeure: warfare, pogrom, poverty, weather.

Such is the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah, the rare illuminated Jewish prayer book at the center of People of the Book, the lavish and hugely satisfying novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks. Her historical fiction, inspired by a recent real-life discovery, makes a speculative journey with the embattled Haggadah all the way back to its imagined creation in medieval Spain.

The plot and history are complex, but Brooks' method and prose are simple. The novel begins in 1996. A youngish book conservator named Hanna Heath gets called from her Australia home to Sarajevo, where the manuscript languishes between peril and neglect. Hanna's careful examination reveals tiny corruptions—an insect wing, a wine stain, a tiny hair—and each one sweeps us back to a momentous event in the Haggadah's long and persecuted life. Like the codex it follows, People of the Book is a series of historical illuminations, and Hanna herself will help catalyze another, uncovering a surprise in her own heritage along the way.

Brooks' heroine is a tough-minded Ozzie who thinks nothing of jetting across the globe on the trail of a lead or a person, and she's an invigorating travel companion. Impulsive, smart, articulate, capable, attractive and sexually liberated, barely 30 pages into the book she has already flown from Sydney to Sarajevo, made a thorough, top-secret inspection of the Haggadah in the museum library where it is sequestered, and slept with the museum's director. He is the man who rescued the manuscript from its latest brush with extinction, and whom Hanna has just met that day. Their encounter will have lasting consequences, both for Hanna and the Haggadah.

The Haggadah, read annually at the Jewish Passover seder ceremony, is an iteration of Exodus, which makes it an apt literary analog to Brooks' story of centuries of persecution and dramatic escape. Yet Brooks barely mentions the textual contents of the Haggadah, and People of the Book is no literary novel. This is a broad, popular entertainment: tactile, vivid, pungent, suspenseful, fast-paced and sweepingly cinematic. "That's exactly where they shot the final scene in Mission: Impossible II," notes an Australian government official, not long before the novel's action-movie climax. Hanna describes another scene as "like something in a Spielberg movie."

Such a movie would seize on Brooks' persistent but socialized sex and gore, and find a visual substitution for the leaden expository dialogue she often forces into the mouths of her fictional characters in order to give the reader necessary footing. But it wouldn't be much different from the novel, which openly invites a screen adaptation—it might even be better—and there will be pleasure in both.

That pleasure isn't exactly a guilty one, yet its juice is concocted from apocrypha, fantasy and spectacle—it doesn't feel hollow so much as synthetic. Last month in The New Yorker, Brooks published a nonfiction account of the Sarajevo Haggadah. That modest chronicle, which took Brooks back to her roots as a war journalist, had none of the novel's voluptuary indulgences. Though shorter and leaner than its fictional counterpart, it was perhaps more nourishing, and it was undraped in fanciful color—with one striking exception. Unlike the novel, the New Yorker article contains an arresting image from the real Sarajevo Haggadah: six people gathered at a seder table. One of them has the dark skin of an African.

What is she doing there among white Jewish company? Her robe signals affluence, and she is holding a piece of matzo (the traditional unleavened Passover bread), so she is clearly a participant in the ceremony. Is she a black Jew? A Muslim guest? A Moorish convert? The only clue to the mystery is the Sarajevo Haggadah's age: It probably dates to the Spanish convivencia, an era when Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in relative harmony.

Most convivencias, though, wherever they occur, are quickly broken by invasion or inquisition. The line between safety and disaster is surprisingly, dangerously thin. We are each removed by a single circumstance—a hurricane, or perhaps a drought—from being refugees. The Sarajevo Haggadah is safe for now, but as sure as the weather changes it will someday have to flee again with its rich illuminations of history and culture: a precious seed, tossed by the tempests of the earth.

Geraldine Brooks will make two Triangle appearances this weekend, complete with PowerPoint presentation. On Saturday, Jan. 12, at 7 p.m., she will be at Quail Ridge Books & Music, 3524 Wade Ave., Raleigh, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 13, she will visit Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham.

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