Fiction not a patch on his­tory

Geral­dine Brooks again mixes fact and imag­i­na­tion, but less suc­cess­fully this time, writes Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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