The dedication in Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book reads, “For the librarians,” so it’s possible that yours truly was a bit biased before starting to read. Opinions were mixed on the latest BrownBaggers group read, but we enjoyed the discussion that followed.
While a work of fiction, the “Book” in question is a real Hebrew text known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Currently held by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, the Haggadah was created in mid 14th century Spain. At some point, it made its way to Italy and was saved from the Inquisition’s fires by a Venetian priest. It only made its first appearance in Bosnia in 1894. So how did this holy book make its way across Europe through the centuries? While mostly imagined, Brooks tells of the book’s journey and the story of all of those who protected it along the way. Interspersed with the historical tableaux is the story of the present day book conservator, Hanna Heath, assisting with the book and her own personal relationships.
While many of us enjoyed the more historical scenes, the modern characters often fell flat and didn’t engage. While probably a necessary framework to tie the historical narratives together, certain plot devices felt contrived and perhaps a bit too coincidental. On the other hand, we were disappointed when certain threads were not resolved neatly – perhaps indicating a larger flaw in the modern storyline.
The role of women in protecting the Haggadah was also noteworthy. While generally in a more domestic role, many of the female characters were able to take on huge responsibilities or step slightly outside of their sphere. Hanna’s mother served as the modern, professional counterpoint but lacked the compassion and connection to humanity that her daughter encompassed.
One theme we did notice and enjoy was the amount of cooperation and intermingling between multiple religions and cultures. The book, a Jewish text, was protected or saved by both Muslim and Christian characters. Even during the Inquisition in Italy, there was an unlikely sort-of friendship portrayed between a Catholic priest and Jewish rabbi. It was interesting to see these barriers crossed in what we perceive as much more restricted times. The spread and mix of cultural practices and traditions was also intriguing. Hanna illustrates (if you’ll excuse the pun) this well when she asks, “So why had an illuminator working in Spain, for a Jewish client, in the manner of a European Christian, have used an Iranian paintbrush?”Also, we’re used to a smaller, interconnected world now but it is stunning to think of how this book, itself a mixture of traditions from many peoples, also came to travel over the continent.
The BrownBaggers’ next read is “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Join us at the Central Library May 17 at Noon.