In the hands of a great craftsperson, a humble volume of story and prayer may be re-conceived as a priceless illuminated masterpiece. Witness the Sarajevo Haggadah, a centuries-old volume now counted as one of the most valuable books in the world.
Similarly, in the hands of a fine writer, a slim set of facts about an unusual object can become a powerful and absorbing historical novel. Witness People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March.
The dramatic history of the Sarajevo Haggadah rivals the beauty of its illuminations. Produced in Spain in the 14th century by an unknown artisan, the Haggadah somehow survived the book-burnings of the Inquisition, and was eventually spirited to the thriving Jewish community of Venice. From there, it found its way to Vienna, where, in the 19th century, it was rebound.
Eventually it came to rest to Sarajevo, where (thanks to a brave librarian) it survived Nazi pillaging and now holds pride of place as one of the Bosnian capital's great treasures. But although careful study has revealed much about the Haggadah's provenance, it continues to hold many secrets. From these facts and these secrets, Brooks has woven a fascinating, richly imagined fiction.
Her new novel, People of the Book, works backwards in history. To carry the Haggadah through the centuries, she creates a series of plausibly imagined heroes and scenarios, starting with the horrors of the Holocaust and reaching, finally, all the way back to a beautifully imagined tale of the book's creation.
Framing and setting up the historical sections of the novel is the story of a modern-day book conservator who is pursuing a series of clues, each from a different episode in the Haggadah's odyssey. Hanna Heath's life is something of a soap opera itself. Her adventures in scholarship lead her to international intrigue, romance, and even a secret-princess revelation worthy of a fairy tale.
As Hanna turns into a modest and reluctant action hero, the book as a whole begins to resemble a cross between James Michener's The Source and an Indiana Jones adventure. And I mean both of those in the best possible way.
Hanna's globe-trotting pursuit of the Haggadah's secrets works well as a framing device, but it is in the historical sections that Brooks' storytelling ripens from merely good to transcendent. Each section evokes a colorful, thoroughly believable, emotionally convincing world peopled by complex human beings bathed in vices, diseases, and emotions – all in the space of a short story.
Brooks' writing transports us into these worlds almost as completely as her invented 15th century scribe, David Ben Shoushan, is transported by the marvelous pictures he is incorporating into the Haggadah.
It was in the still of the early hours, when the stars blazed in the black sky, that it happened. His fasting, the chill, the brilliant flare of the lamp: suddenly the letters lifted and swirled into a glorious wheel. His hand flew across the parchment. Every letter was afire. Each character raised itself and danced spinning in the void. And then the letters merged into one great fire, out of which emerged just four, blazing with the glory of the Almighty's holy name. The power and the sweetness of it were too much for Ben Shoushan, and he fainted.
Hanna's own revelations, the personal and the professional, aren't as mystical as that. But she's good company, as Brooks spirits us through the ages on this most excellent adventure.