SEARCHING FOR HOPE IN HISTORY
The Australian- born former foreign correspondent and now Pulitzer prize- winning novelist celebrates an era of tolerance in her historical fiction, writes John Freeman
GERALDINE Brooks hung up her press pass a while back, but the foreign correspondentturned- novelist retains a journalist’s knack for blending in. Exhibit No 1: her decision about where to lunch on Martha’s Vineyard in late December. One hundred metres from the Atlantic Ocean, the wind is slicing and cold, the sky high, blue and bright, but the apple- cheeked, Volvo- driving, Australian- born author of March and other books seems to think this is the perfect place to nosh on a lobster roll.
Brooks, 52, settles in on a bench overlooking clay cliffs and begins eating her unwieldy sandwich with the ruminative silence that befalls New Englanders whenever they contemplate nature’s awesome cold shoulder. ‘‘ These are the days the tourists miss,’’ shouts out a local walking down toward the water. Brooks agrees the joke is on those outsiders. Later, in the car with her three dogs, driving back to the large, white Greek revival house she shares with writer Tony Horwitz, Brooks admits she doesn’t fool the trueblue locals. ‘‘ Some of them would say I have blown ashore recently.’’
For the past several years Brooks has been doing her best to reverse that impression. She has been buying her lamb from a family that has raised the animals for several hundred years. Winning a Pulitzer Prize for her novel about the father of the family in Louisa Alcott’s US Civil War- era classic Little Women — doesn’t hurt either on this island.
Pulitzer- winning historian David McCullough lives just one town away. And a few steps down the road is the home of novelist William Styron, who, like Brooks, won a Pulitzer for a potent meditation on civil war- era history ( The Confessions of Nat Turner ).
Brooks’s much anticipated new novel People of the Book might just ennoble the island with one more Pulitzer. It retells the story of what happened to the Sarajevo Haggadah — an illuminated 14th- century book used during Passover Seder dinner to tell of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt — which disappeared from the city’s library during the 1992- 96 siege.
Brooks follows it back through time, through close calls with Nazis and other occupiers, through all the hands that protected it and used it, all the way to its creators, who broke Jewish law in creating something so floridly decorated.
Simultaneously, in a near present- day thread, Brooks tells the story of Hanna, a brisk, cool, Australian book conservator, who is called to Sarajevo in 1996 and charged with bringing the damaged codex back to life. Bit by bit Hanna stumbles on clues about the book’s true origin.
Woven together, these two strands make for a kind of literary Da Vinci Code , a book less about the occult mysteries of faith than the power books have to bind people together.
‘‘ Let’s cut to the chase, which Geraldine Brooks certainly does — repeatedly — in her intense, gripping new novel,’’ wrote a critic in the San Francisco Chronicle on the book’s publication in the US. ‘‘ People of the Book is a tour de force that delivers a reverberating lesson gleaned from history.’’
‘‘ It seems like we have to learn over and over again,’’ Brooks says when asked what that lesson is, ‘‘ that our societies are at our best and strongest when they do appreciate difference.’’ Brooks learned this lesson first- hand. As a reporter for The Wall Street Journal , she became something of a firefighter sent into war and famine zones from Somalia to Iraq, often with Horwitz reporting alongside her, and watched societies suffer by not observing this lesson.
But she also saw people banding together. ‘‘ I saw people behaving with the most incredible selflessness and generosity and bravery, as well as diabolical cruelty.’’ After 9/ 11, however, Brooks found circumstances for optimism had shrunk.
‘‘ I left just in time, though,’’ she adds, ‘‘ because it got so much nastier. I couldn’t believe what happened to Danny Pearl,’’ she says, referring to the Wall Street Journal journalist killed in Pakistan on a routine reporting trip.
‘‘ That’s completely different now. When the woman who has my job now was covering the early parts of this war in Iraq, she wrote the most poignant memo about how she wasn’t working as a journalist: she spent so much time trying to keep people safe, she felt like the CEO of a security firm.’’
It was towards the end of this period that she crossed paths with the Sarajevo Haggadah, as a reporter. ‘‘ I was covering the UN,’’ she explains, sitting at a large round table in the kitchen at the back of her house, a million miles away from any war zone. The city’s library had burned and the Haggadah was missing. ‘‘ There were all kinds of rumours: that it had been sold and the money used to buy arms, or the Israelis had sent a commando team in to rescue it. ‘‘ And then it was disclosed it had been rescued by a Muslim librarian who had gone in during the first days of
the war to try and do what he could to save some of the things in the collection that he thought would just be destroyed if the Serbs managed to take the building. He had taken it to the bank and put it in a safe deposit box.’’
That’s where the Haggadah was after the war, when Brooks went and was allowed to sit in on the conservation of the book. ‘‘ It gave me a great insight into how a conservator actually works,’’ Brooks says, ‘‘ and her tools and her training.’’
Then she learned the book had been rescued in similar fashion from the Nazis in World War II, and she realised there was a novel there. Brooks went back to Sarajevo, where she learned by chance ‘‘ that the widow of the librarian who had saved the book from the Nazis’’ about 50 years earlier was still alive.
Brooks began People of the Book , but became stuck in World War II: ‘‘ How do you write about Nazis without using cliches?’’ she asks.
She was rescued by proximity. Brooks was living in Virginia and ‘‘ the idea for March just flew in the window, gift- wrapped one day’’, she says, adding: ‘‘ I also had a resident civil war expert’’ in Horwitz, who wrote Confederates in the Attic about the way the memory of the war between the states lives on in the modern south. March poured out in two years.
Brooks eventually pulled People of the Book out of the drawer, and it was much clearer how to proceed and what to research. In the course of writing the book, Brooks journeyed to Spain and Austria. One scene takes place in a Venice ghetto, so Brooks had to find out what Venetian Jews ate in the 17th century. ‘‘ I had an excuse to go to Venice, too’’, she adds, ‘‘ which was astounding.’’
But the book was more than an excuse for sleuthing and travelling. Like Brooks’s earlier nonfiction work The Nine Parts of Desire, a glimpse of the lives of Muslim women, it was a chance to see places where cultures that clash today once worked together. ‘‘ What attracted me to the story was that the Haggadah was created at a time when people managed to, if not love each other, at least live side by side, learn from each other and enrich each other’s cultures.’’
In many ways, Brooks is the perfect person to tell such a story. As she described in her first book, Foreign Correspondence , a memoir of growing up in suburban Sydney, she was drawn to human dramas regardless of where they occurred.
‘‘ My games were never of here,’’ she wrote of herself as a child and her habit of finding penpals in other parts of the world, from Israel to America, ‘‘ always of elsewhere.’’
She eventually converted to Judaism but is a non- believer today. ‘‘ I guess I would say I am an observant atheist,’’ she jokes. ‘‘ I love mass and scriptural music, and churches and cathedrals.’’
Her American father — a newspaper employee before her — was also a far- ranging man. Born Bob Cutter, he changed his name to Lawrie Brooks when he still had dreams of becoming a popular band singer.
He settled in Sydney, gave up singing at age 54, and came to love his adopted country fiercely. ‘‘ I wish I had been born here,’’ Brooks remembers him saying.
Although Brooks is fond of where she lives and has learned her father had roots in Massachusetts that went back to the 1630s, she retains a fondness for Australia that is beyond nostalgic.
‘‘ I grew up at a time when Australia was in incredible paroxysms of change, which in my opinion were vastly for the better, both in terms of opening up migration to people of difference, rather than the same old, same old, and the opening of the arts and finding voices among Australians.’’
As a young woman she became a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald , covering the environmental beat when she had never been on so much as a camping trip. In 1982 she won a fellowship at Columbia University and went to the US, where she met Horwitz. They married in 1984 and eventually came to Australia, where she opened The Wall Street Journal ’ s Australian bureau and cared for her ailing father. Too many close calls on the front line eventually pushed her out of foreign correspondence, and now her son’s education has plonked her in Massachusetts.
Her next book, she says, will be set much closer to home and involve another dip into the past. in the meantime, however, she is more concerned with present- day America.
She spent her anniversary wedding weekend with Horwitz ‘‘ tramping the snow in New Hampshire’’, getting signatures for presidential hopeful Barack Obama, instead of a ‘‘ getaway to a spa’’. Brooks doesn’t mind. ‘‘ I think he would be great for this country: it would mess with people’s heads all over the world. I think they would have to reconfigure what America is and undo some of the unbelievable damage the current idiot has done.’’
After this she will be on the road explaining why the significance of the Sarajevo Haggadah. She gives a little taste of that pitch when she takes me upstairs to show me two replica versions.
The book is smaller than one would expect and extraordinarily beautiful, not unlike the illuminated manuscripts of William Blake. A hush falls over Brooks and then she gives a little laugh, as if we’re looking at a treasure. It’s not something she was born to, nor is the deity it speaks of her own. But now, in her most heartening act of total immersion to date, she’s about to become one of its most powerful advocates.
Saved from the Nazis: Geraldine Brooks at home in Massachusetts, main; the restored Sarajevo Haggadah on display in 2002, above