People of the Book
HarperCollins, $19.99 pb, 372 pp, 9780007177424
‘I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.’ So says Hanna Heath, protagonist of Geraldine Brooks’s latest novel, about her search through time and place for the history of ‘the Sarajevo Haggadah’, the ‘Book’ of the title. She is accustomed to writing scholarly essays that derive from her function as a rare books conservator, full of ‘riveting stuff like how many quires there are and how many leaves per quire… and so on’. She wants this one to be different.
Hanna’s search for the exact provenance of the Haggadah takes her from her home in Sydney, in 1996, to war-ravaged Sarajevo, and thence, having sighted the manuscript, which is ‘small … convenient for use at the Passover dinner table’, to Vienna to see her old mentor Werner Heinrich. She then travels to Boston where, by chance, her mother is also lecturing; then to London, back to Sarajevo; to Sydney via Arnhem Land; and then back to Sarajevo again. The peripatetic requirements of her esoteric profession are tracked through alternating chapters of the novel, which eventually bring her up to 2002.
While Hanna is engaged in travelling halfway round the world in pursuit of her intellectual goals, the alternate chapters chronicle the history of the precious book in reverse chronology. An expert in ancient manuscripts, Serif, and other Jews, including Lola who has lost all her family to the Nazis, join the partisans during World War II, having contrived to save ‘one of the museum’s greatest treasures’, the Haggadah. In successively interleaved chapters, the book’s ownership is traced to Vienna, rife with anti-Semitism in 1894; then to Venice, 1609, where a wealthy Jewess passes the book to a rabbi with a dangerous gambling compulsion and an uneasy friendship with a Catholic priest; to Tarragena, Spain, 1492, when a Jewish diaspora begins; and to Seville, 1480, where Muslim, Catholic and Jewish imprints make themselves felt on the book’s biography. As Hanna comments on this reverse history, we are invited to see the Haggadah at times when it ‘was still just some family’s book, a thing to be used, before it became an exhibit’.