People of the Book: A Novel
by Geraldine Brooks
People of the Book, a work of fiction which deals with a series of real and documented human tragedies, spanning a half-millennium across the Mediterranean, comes to us with a blurb from USA Today favorably equating it with The DaVinci Code of 2003, that despicable libel against the Catholic church that was based entirely on absurd speculation. What are we to make of this? Has the genre of the historical novel really declined so precipitately that any fantasy about the past, once committed to print, is considered respectable literature?
A less favorable parallel between the two books was drawn by the London Jewish Chronicle in its issue of February 22, 2008. There readers were warned of the possibility that the invented and nonsensical details in Geraldine Brooks' production would become accepted as veridical: "people remember things like this, like with The DaVinci Code," said Helen Walasek, a British art editor and expert on cultural heritage.
The Australian-born Brooks is best known as the author of the 1995 volume Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, a travelogue through the Middle East. People of the Book has been a success, if on a scale somewhat less massive than Dan Brown's DaVinci contrivance. The impact of People of the Book was of the sort that guarantees the inclusion of a clueless "Readers' Guide," with risible book club questions, bound at its end. (Sample: "There is an amazing array of 'people of the book' – both base and noble – whose lifetimes span some remarkable periods in human history. Who is your favorite and why?") Given the situation, a review of authentic events and scrutiny of Brooks's book seem necessary.
People of the Book is a declared work of imagination centered around the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Hebrew illuminated manuscript considered by many to be the most beautiful and valuable Jewish book in the world. The Sarajevo Haggadah is, like any haggadah (a Hebrew word meaning "the telling"), a relatively-short text to be read aloud during a Passover seder. Haggadot (the plural form), are understandably among the commonest Jewish books in the world, but the Sarajevo Haggadah stands alone. It was discovered in Habsburg-occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1894, rescued from the Nazis by a Muslim librarian in 1941, and saved a second time, by yet another Muslim librarian, in 1992, when Serbian rockets were fired into its home, the National Museum in Sarajevo .
That much is presented correctly in People of the Book, but much more is told in a deliberately errant fashion. Geraldine Brooks has done something worse than merely exploit the still vivid horrors of the late Bosnian war, the epic of Sephardic survival, and the jewel of all Jewish book art in concocting a tale about invented protagonists. Her use or, more accurately, misuse, of the Sarajevo Haggadah and its history places her book almost in the "counter-factual" category, alongside chronicles in which the Confederacy won the American civil war, but with a repellently factitious aspect. The untruths found in this book are willful misrepresentations of historical fact, presented in a work of fiction to achieve obscure ends of the author, beyond legitimate narrative invention. Brooks may appeal to poetic license, but a kind of vandalism against history remains visible. Given that she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her novel, March, this irresponsibility appears even more shameful.
The real Sarajevo Haggadah, on its appearance in the Balkans at the end of the 19th century, revolutionized the understanding of Jewish art, for it includes more than thirty lovely likenesses, in a notable palette of colors and gold leaf, of Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, and other biblical figures. Such portraiture was a violation of the ban embodied in the Mosaic commandments and long observed by Jews: "Thou shalt not make any image, whether in the form of that which is in heaven, or on the earth, or in the waters." The Sarajevo Haggadah does not, however, depict the Creator – represented only as emanations of light and, in one place, a hand extended from a cloud – and, since Islam also bars anthropomorphic conceptions of God, the Jewish scholar Cecil Roth detected a Spanish Muslim influence on it. But the book was most certainly not created either in the Balkans or in any other Muslim land. Rather, scholars agree that it was probably calligraphed and painted in Catalonia or Provence, under Christian rule, around 1350. Presumably, some time after the expulsion of believing Jews from Spain in 1492, it was taken to Italy, where a Catholic censor inserted a hand-inscribed guarantee that it was inoffensive to Christian order, in 1609. Its creators, original owners, and possessors are unknown.
Geraldine Brooks fictionalizes this slender corpus of knowledge, most notably by inventing an identity for the artist responsible for the manuscript's magnificent illustrations; a black female slave of a Jewish family – and a Muslim no less – based on a single depiction of an African female in the manuscript's image of a seder. It is not enough that in real life, virtuous Muslims preserved the book; they must also be credited with its creation!
That is not the sole item of bizarre invention to be found in People of the Book. The novel begins and ends with outrageous lies. At its outset, when we are introduced to the protagonist Hanna Heath, a tedious, narcissistic, and ethically-deficient Australian expert on manuscript restoration, Hanna is informed that the priceless Jewish book had "turned up" after "four years" of the Sarajevo siege. Brooks thus legitimizes wild wartime rumors that the manuscript had been destroyed, lost or sold.
In reality, the Jewish Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina and those in contact with them during the Bosnian war (myself included) were informed after the conflict began in 1992 that the Sarajevo Haggadah had been preserved and was protected in the vault of the country's National Bank. The exquisite volume was exhibited to the Bosnian and international public during a seder, at Sarajevo's working synagogue, in April 1995, three, not four years after war commenced in that country. (The chronological error is reminiscent of Hillary Clinton's ludicrous claim that she faced sniping in the Bosnian city of Tuzla in 1996, a year after the Bosnian war ended, but also four years from its outbreak.) The Muslim Bosnian leader, president Alija Izetbegović, was present at the 1995 wartime seder, as were Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian religious representatives. Izetbegović appealed to Sarajevo 's surviving Jews – numbering a thousand – to "Stay in this country, because this is your country."
Brooks skips over the historic showing of the manuscript by the city's Jewish community, and devotes little attention to today's Bosnian Jews, who figure prominently in the life of contemporary Sarajevo . She is far more eager to dwell on the double conservation of the Sarajevo Haggadah, in 1941 and 1992, by Muslims, as if that alone were something spectacularly unusual. To Western minds accustomed to Islamist defiance of the rest of the world, such acts might seem odd, but the Sephardic Jews transplanted to the Balkans by the Turkish sultans after their expulsion from Spain had been a small but significant element in the local landscape for centuries. The Sarajevo Haggadah was and remains prized as a symbol of Bosnia's past, in which a long, if occasionally resentful, coexistence has been maintained between Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats, and the Sephardic Jews, who are considered "the fourth Bosnian nation."
The manuscript, as an emblem of Bosnian pluralism, is now on permanent view in a special facility at the National Museum in Sarajevo, but on this point People of the Book concluded with another lie. Brooks got it in her head to describe an invented inscription in the Haggadah, claiming the manuscript as the handiwork of the black woman portrayed at the seder table. But much worse, she ascribes to Israelis, with the complicity of an ex-Nazi and a fictional, pathologically embittered Bosnian Muslim museum director, a theft of the original manuscript and its transportation to the Jewish state.
The Sarajevo Haggadah has indeed been the object of covetousness by others aside from the German Nazis. At one point after the Bosnian war concluded, Serbian politicians asserted that it is a tri-national Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian treasure. With no mention of Jewish wishes about its fate, they demanded that it be displayed in a museum in Bosnian's Serbian occupation zone a third of each year. But nobody had ever before Brooks suggested that the manuscript in Sarajevo today was counterfeited or spirited abroad. Such an eventuality would create a devastating scandal. As Helen Walasek told the Jewish Chronicle, with exceptional understatement, "Having the head of the national museum steal books is a bit offensive to Bosnians who are trying to keep their heritage… Bosnia is a country desperately trying to preserve itself, and to take this important, real object and make up a fictional account… I don't think it's a good thing." Brooks' novel, supposedly celebrating Muslims saving a Jewish artifact, becomes a smear against Muslims and Jews alike, as alleged looters of cultural patrimony. To emphasize, what the real Nazis and terrorist Serbs could not do, thanks to conscientious Muslims and Jews, is fictionally achieved by an avaricious Jew in league with a Nazi and a self-loathing Muslim – what is the message here?
People of the Book is a book that under the cover of being a work of fiction begins and ends with gross lies, includes many more falsehoods – really, too many to catalogue in a review – and also embodies other bad qualities ubiquitous in contemporary writing. Although she sets her narrative in three of the most picturesque and intact historic environments in Mediterranean Europe – Spain, Italy, and the Balkans – she appears incapable of evoking any of their compelling features. Further, Brooks perhaps imagines that even well-informed readers will have forgotten the real events of the Bosnian war and have no idea that Brooks's knowledge of Spanish Jewish, Muslim, and Christian cultures, as well as of Ottoman, Bosnian, and Italian history and society over the past 500 years, is superficial and askew.
Geraldine Brooks does not even bother to capably describe the illustrations and illuminated Hebrew letters that make the Sarajevo Haggadah the wonder that it is and that cause visitors in Bosnia to imagine a past of nearly-unknown, but great cultural achievements. Perhaps, to her, the horrors of the expulsions from Spain and the Bosnian war are significant only as backdrops for subcerebral meanderings by an Australian woman, mostly in an irritatingly impenetrable local slang, about herself and her professional ambitions. Perhaps, unfortunately, she was correct to imagine these things, given the depths to which the ways of study, reading, and the appreciation of art have fallen in today's world.