Tuesday, April 10, 2012

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Before Passover passes me by, here's the perfect title to accompany all that matzah you might be eating.  

People of the Book is a remarkable novel whose main character is a book, the celebrated Sarajevo Haggadah.  The haggadah is read during the Passover seder that commemorates the exodus of the enslaved Jews in Egypt.  Think Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments. You know, "Let My People Go!", parting of the Red Sea, killing of the firstborn, Yul Brynner as Pharoah, the whole bit.  Throw in some songs, some wine and a reminder what a tremendous disappointment I was to my parents and it's like you're at the table with us. 

A magnificently and uncharacteristically illustrated version, the Sarajevo Haggadah is believed to have been created in Spain in the 1400's.  At some point in the 16th century, it turned up in Italy and then at the very end of the 1800s, it was sold to the National Museum of Sarajevo.  During World War II and the long, ugly Bosnian wars, the Haggadah was hidden and kept safe, in one instance by the museum director, himself a Muslim.  You can read Brooks' fascinating New Yorker piece about the Haggadah and the museum director here: http://goo.gl/74ykP

In broad strokes, those are the facts.  What Brooks does then is piece together a dazzling work of fiction by imagining who wrote it, who commissioned it, who illustrated it, and who kept it safe in a longer narrative broken up by period pieces and some contemporary conspiracy.  

Having never read her before, I can say Brooks is a gifted writer, given to clean prose, believable dialogue and a tremendous nose for research.  There are some contrivances along the way but they don't take away from this ambitious and satisfying book.  

Happy Passover.

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