Books: People of the Book

I looked at this audiobook on at least two other occasions before finally deciding to check it out from the library. I’m not sure what made me hesitate – perhaps the phrase “intimate emotional intensity” on the back of the case.

There different kinds of intimacy and different kinds of emotional intensity, some much more pleasant to read about than others. Some books get too intimate, and even with those that are a level – and kind – of intimacy that I would want to read about, sometimes I shy away from because I want to enjoy my commute, not find myself drawn into the wrenching emotional upheavals of someone else’s life.

But I enjoy historical fiction, and I enjoy books about books. I liked the idea of a mystery surrounding a beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript, and the different places in Europe where the book had traveled during its long history. I decided People of the Book was worth checking out.

The affair between Hanna Heath, a rare book conservator, and Ozren Karaman, the widowed chief librarian of the National Museum in Sarajevo, is actually rather free of emotional intensity. In fact, the entire affair could easily have been left out of the book without detracting from the overall story arc. I suppose it helps establish Hanna’s character as one who avoids emotional involvement, devoting herself instead to her work. She’s an adequately interesting but not very sympathetic character, which doesn’t matter a whole lot because the novel is really not about Hanna.

It’s interesting to read reader reviews at Many readers find the present-time story about Hanna the weakest aspect of the book, and some suggest it could have been left out altogether. It ties together the various accounts of the Sarajevo Haggadah’s history, and as such it serves its purpose. But I agree that the best story-telling is in those smaller sections of historical fiction. And that’s where the emotional intensity is also.

Other readers don’t enjoy the history parts – one complained there is too much history. Obviously this book was a poor choice for that reader. Historical fiction is written for people who enjoy history, who like to see it come alive and who see the wealth of detail as enhancing the story rather than an impediment to enjoying it. I was so caught up in each of the historical segments that it was somewhat of a disappointment when each ended and the novel returned to the present time.

I was particularly fascinated by those parts of the story that took place in Spain, having lived there myself and studied its history and literature. I can’t say I enjoyed reading about the torture performed by the Inquisition. I had read similar stories before and they are always hard to read. It’s awful to think about the horrible things humans have done to one another, especially in the name of God, and it takes a while for a vividly drawn picture of the victim’s suffering to fade from the forefront of my mind.

But, like the other stories of suffering that show up in each section of history as well as in the present (actually most of the “present” part of the novel is in 1996, right after the Serb-Bosnian war), it is about what really happened. The characters are invented, along with the details of their lives, but their settings and circumstances are faithful to history.

The audiobook, unfortunately, does not include the Afterword explaining what parts of the book are actual history, so I had to check out the printed version of the book to read that part. There really is a Sarajevo Haggadah. I had wondered, listening, if its very existence were fictional, as the idea of a medieval Jewish book illustrated in the same manner as a medieval Christian book seemed rather far-fetched. And why would it have ended up belonging to Sarajevo, anyway?

But that part is history. The haggadah’s origins are unknown (though Geraldine Brooks has imagined a fascinating story of how it came to be), but it was made in Spain, sometimes prior to the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. It did pass through Venice and was saved from the Inquisition’s book burnings by a Catholic priest named Vistorini. It ended up, centuries later, in Sarajevo, where twice it was removed from the museum for safekeeping, first during WWII when Nazis were looting the museum, and later during the Serb-Bosnian war. Both times it was saved by Muslims.

Even aside from Brooks’ imagined history of the book, I as fascinated by her description of the work of a book conservator. Hanna describes her goal as not restoration of a book to its original condition (or at least approaching such condition), but rather doing just enough to keep it from further damage. I don’t know whether her view is typical of most book conservators, but she feels that the history of the book since it was first created – who had it and used it, where it has been and how it has been treated – becomes an integral part of the book, not to be removed in an effort to restore it to its original condition.

For this reason she does not want to remove wine stains or – as she learns when a minute sample of the stained parchment is examined in a microscope hooked up to a computer that analyzes light spectra – blood stains. It had been poorly rebound the last time that work was done, but Hanna only repairs rather than replace the binding, because the poor binding – and the reason behind it – is also a part of its history.

All this history tells us not only about the Sarajevo Haggadah but also about the lives of Jewish people at various points in history. Like their long-ago ancestors whose deliverance from slavery in Egypt is celebrated in the haggadah and in the Seder meal (at which the haggadah is used to help pass on the story to another generation), they suffer and long for freedom to live and worship according to the traditions of their people. Yet over and over again in history, they are persecuted, sometimes not even because of Whom and how they worship, but simply because they are Jews.

It seems that a number of books I have read recently deal with this theme. I don’t know how much it is because I gravitate toward such books, due to both my own Jewish ancestry on my mother’s side and their role in the history of my own Christian faith, and how much it is that this is appearing in a number of novels these days.

Daniel Silva’s spy thrillers all deal with these issues, from the atrocities of the Nazi regime to the more recent clashes with Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East. The Columbus Affair, the subject of my post for Columbus Day, is based on the hypothesis that Columbus was a secret Jew trying to find a land where Jews can live in freedom.

When I was growing up, I thought of antisemitism as belonging to history, not the present time. I knew a number of Jews besides those I was related to (and I never really got to know any of them well as my mother did not maintain close ties with her family), and it never occurred to me that anyone would treat them poorly because of their religion or their ethnic background. If anything, I might have expected them to be treated better, due to the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, and maybe the fact that the smartest kids at school seemed to be Jewish.

But as an adult I learned that antisemitism is, sadly, very much alive. I have not personally seen evidence of it, but I read about it in news articles. Rather than waning away as many people no doubt expected, it keeps returning. Not just in the Middle East, either, where contention over Israel’s right to exist continues. The Wall Street Journal just recently reported an alarming new wave of antisemitism in Europe.

One of the themes of this novel is how it is possible for people of very different religious and ethnic backgrounds to live together in harmony. Not only are they not hurt by the influence of those who are so “other,” but they benefit from the richness of their shared cultural traditions. Perhaps this novel will do some little bit to help further that ideal.

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