'People of the Book' offers lessons in tolerance

The new novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks features a book that becomes a witness to history.

People of the Book By Geraldine Brooks Viking 372 pp., $25.95

When the subject is genocide, readers tend to gravitate to the stories of survivors – from "Schindler's List" to "Hotel Rwanda." It may be, as charged, that people crave happy endings – even false ones, but I prefer to think that you need a little light when you're trying to understand so much darkness.

In her new novel, People of the Book, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Geraldine Brooks tackles a most unlikely survivor: The Sarajevo Haggadah, a 15th-century Jewish artifact that has managed to elude some of history's most notorious bad guys, from Inquisitors to Nazis. What is actually known about the book is enough to have Indiana Jones jamming on his fedora and heading off in hot pursuit. In this novel, Brooks bends her considerable imagination to uncovering the rest.

"People of the Book" opens right after the Bosnian war. It's 1996, and the Haggadah has just turned up in a bank vault, where it was hidden by a Muslim librarian who rescued the codex under heavy shelling. Australian rare-book expert Hanna Heath has been given the job of analyzing and conserving the book, "a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind."

Heath, a loner who prefers books to people, heads to Sarajevo, where she encounters both the book and the librarian. Ozren Karaman becomes Heath's (and a reader's) bitter docent through war-torn Sarajevo – pointing out ruined landmarks and the city's churches. Karaman mocks his city's faith that Sarajevo was too cosmopolitan to be the site of genocide. "We were too intelligent, too cynical for war. Of course, you don't have to be stupid and primitive to die a stupid and primitive death."

Idealists at war was actually the subject of Brooks's last novel, "March," for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. In that book, she plucked the father from "Little Women" and shipped him off to the Union Army, effectively proving that a battlefield is no place for a transcendentalist. Before she turned to fiction, Brooks was a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who covered the war in Bosnia. Her title obviously refers to the Koran, which calls Jews and Christians "people of the book." But Brooks is also literally referring to the people of this specific book – the ones who saved the Haggadah from destruction.

Heath traces the Sarajevo Haggadah back to its creation in 1480 Spain, giving Brooks the opportunity to write about the individuals who handled the book during fraught periods of its history. The sections of the novel that are most closely tied to fact resonate most strongly. A Muslim librarian really did rescue the book during the shelling of the city. And during the 1940s, an Islamic scholar actually smuggled the book out of a museum under the nose of a Nazi general. A number of the stories are wholly engrossing, such as the World War II tale of Lola, a young Jewish Partisan, who, along with the book, is saved from the Nazis by an Islamic museum director. While others, such as a papal Inquisitor in 17th-century Venice, don't satisfy as completely, they work as parts of the literary puzzle. And the mystery of the book's origin is suspenseful enough to keep a reader going even as historical improbabilities mount.

As the book goes further back in time, allowing for greater imaginative license, Brooks tries just a little too hard to build connections between religions. But that's not to take away from her abilities. In the hands of a lesser writer, it's easy to imagine the Haggadah having become a gilded Forrest Gump.

Brooks, unfortunately, does indulge in a little speechifying, even going so far as to have a character recite a summary paragraph. "Well, from what you've told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again ... this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other...,' " a friend of Heath's sums up for the benefit of the semiconscious reader.

The occasional heavy-handedness, as well as the fact that every single story is loaded with portent about the treatment of the Jewish people (and women) over the centuries, makes it impossible to shake off the knowledge that Brooks is always hovering over the pages, a benevolent professor conducting a history lesson in the importance of tolerance.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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