Fiction not a patch on history
Geraldine Brooks again mixes fact and imagination, but less successfully this time, writes Geordie Williamson
IN a New Yorker piece written to coincide with the publication of her new novel, Geraldine Brooks describes the act of reallife bravery that provided the germ for People of the Book . In early 1942 the Nazi boss of the Balkan puppet- state of Croatia, Johann Fortner, turned up at the Bosnian National Museum in Sarajevo. Given that the commander had in previous months overseen the sacking of the city’s synagogues and the confiscation of the Sarajevo Pinkas — records of the capital’s Jewish community from its earliest days — the museum’s chief librarian was right to be concerned by the German’s arrival.
This scholarly custodian, or kustos , of 200,000 volumes could hardly protect every Hebrew text in the library, but he could do something about its crown jewel: a magnificent work of medieval Judaica known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated account of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. When the multilingual librarian was called by the museum’s director to act as translator, he begged his superior to let him spirit the book to safety. The director reluctantly agreed, and the librarian tucked the codex into the waistband of his trousers, where it stayed throughout the interview.
What gives this tale its exemplary moral twist is the identity of the book’s protector: the man who risked his life to preserve the singular artefact of a minority people who were in the midst of being erased from the historical record was a Muslim scholar named Dervis Korkut.
While his quick thinking ensured the Haggadah’s survival ( it spent the rest of the war in the shelves of a mosque in the mountains outside the city), another of his good deeds saved the life of a person of the book’’.
For a time he and his family hid Mira Pipo, a Jewish woman whose family had been deported to the camps, in their home. After the war Pipo emigrated to Israel. Decades later, on learning of Korkut’s death, she wrote a statement outlining his actions.
So it is that Korkut’s name is recorded in the garden of remembrance at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and study centre.
The Australian- born, US- based Brooks happened across this story during her time as foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal , covering the final days of the Balkan conflict. And as with her two earlier novels, Years of Wonder and March , People of the Book proceeds by grafting fictional flesh on to factual bones. Here, Brooks starts with the verifiable elements of the Sarajevo Haggadah’s story and invents a plausibly exotic history for it.
The book’s chapters fan out in time, moving back to the Convivencia — the centuries preceding the expulsion of the Spanish Jews in 1492 — and forward to the 20th century. Hanna Heath, an Australian manuscript conservator, is invited to Sarajevo as it emerges from civil war. Her task is to restore the Haggadah, newly recovered after once again being hidden during the 1990s conflict, its protector once again a kustos of the museum.
Unfortunately, the weaknesses of People of the Book as a fiction emerge from the richness of the material on which it is based. It’s a case study in the risks of fictionalising true stories: reality is always weirder, at once duller and more histrionic, its instances of happenstance and coincidence outrageous in their unlikeliness.
The history of the Sarajevo Haggadah mocks the creative imagination. You couldn’t make it up, we say; and Brooks can’t. The more impeccable her research, the more misshapen her invention becomes.
In order to squeeze huge chunks of information into limited space, Brooks relies on inelegant expository shorthand. When she writes of the two World War II- era custodians at the Sarajevo museum that the two men shared the same fierce commitment to Bosnian history and a love for the diversity that had shaped that history’’, the statement may well be true, but it is hasty: it tells rather than shows.
As the narrative moves farther from the present, such instances increase. Domenico Vistorini, a priest- censor of the Inquisition whose signature in the final page of the Haggadah saves it from being burned as a heretical text in 1609
— who ‘‘ as a scholar ( has) an innate reverence for books’’ — is granted interior monologues that make him sound half- man, half- textbook (‘‘ He supposed that the proliferation of printing houses in Venice was to blame’’).
Each member of the fictional cast is obliged to display their particular social or religious characteristics in this manner. Too often, Brooks’s research leads her characters by their noses, like the grand parade at an agricultural show. So little space is left for them to function as independent agents that the author resorts to crude ontological branding: one man is a drunkard, another a gambler, a third a deaf- mute, and so on.
As for the thriller elements contained in those sections of the novel set in the recent past, the less said the better. Hanna, the rebellious private school- educated daughter of a Bellevue Hill neurosurgeon ( and single mum), is a lexical throwback: she has ‘‘ tinnies’’, goes ‘‘ spare’’, and calls the police ‘‘ rozzers’’. Brooks has surely not been out of the country so long that she needs to lift her slang from Puberty Blues . The more likely answer is that Hanna’s mock ocker is designed to appeal to an American readership. Meanwhile, the climax of the contemporary narrative is so patently ready- made for a film version that the reader feels like the dowdy at a cocktail party, stared through by a hostess already anticipating the next arrival.
But these are cliches of the pen, as Martin Amis has it; more flagrant are the book’s cliches of the heart. The source material for this novel displays laudable humanist credentials: the historical agents of the Haggadah’s survival impress us because they are flawed creatures, surprising themselves with their capacity for decency, bravery or kindness. But the politics — sexual, racial, religious — of People of the Book grows unctuous. It is giving too much away to disclose the identity of the artist of the book’s exquisite illuminations, but they represent a bundle of right- minded platitudes.
This is a shame, because Brooks’s journalistic talents — her nose for the story, her assiduous marshalling of enlivening detail — are also bent towards a nobler end. At one point Hanna reminds the reader that ‘‘ a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artefact of the human mind and hand.’’ At its best, People of the Book suggests that the beauty of the Sarajevo Haggadah is not only aesthetic, nor are its virtues purely historical, those of an artefact that takes us back to a specific moment of harmonious coexistence between Jew, Christian and Muslim.
Rather, Brooks points beyond the book- asobject towards its platonic ideal: the book as container of consciousness.
In this larger sense, works such as the Haggadah are the clear vessels of our culture: the site where the differently angled lights of our various traditions may meet and congregate.