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Jonathan Yardley
A rare manuscript illuminates lives from medieval Spain to modern-day Sarajevo.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, January 6, 2008

PEOPLE OF THE BOOK

By Geraldine Brooks

Viking. 372 pp. $25.95

Why is it, in this day of rampant technological change, that readers continue to be fascinated by stories of dusty manuscripts moldering on rickety shelves? Think of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, in which a monk investigates charges of heresy by prowling through documents in a medieval library. Or The Rule of Four, by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, in which four Princeton students find puzzles aplenty in a 15th-century manuscript. Or even those big blockbuster bestsellers -- Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (ancient arcana of numerous varieties) and James Redfield's The Celestine Prophecy (ancient Peruvian manuscript).

Now, in a similar vein, we have Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book. The good news is that this new novel by the author of March, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2006, is intelligent, thoughtful, gracefully written and original. Brooks has built upon her experience as a correspondent in Bosnia for the Wall Street Journal to construct a story around a book -- small, rare and very old -- and the people into whose hands it had fallen over five centuries, people who "had known unbearable stress: pogrom, Inquisition, exile, genocide, war."

The people are inventions, but the book itself is very real: "The Sarajevo Haggadah, created in medieval Spain, was a famous rarity, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind. It was thought that the commandment in Exodus 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of any thing' had suppressed figurative art by medieval Jews. When the book came to light in Sarajevo in 1894, its pages of painted miniatures had turned this idea on its head and caused art history texts to be rewritten." Now it is 1996. The book has survived the wartime violence in Bosnia because the head of the library at the National Museum in Sarajevo, a Muslim, saved it from almost certain destruction by hiding it "in a safe-deposit box in the vault of the central bank." Hanna Heath, a 30-year-old Australian book conservator, has been called in by the United Nations to inspect its conditions and repair it as necessary.

The novel alternates between chapters narrated by Hanna and flashbacks to various points in the book's history -- Sarajevo 1940, Vienna 1894, Venice 1609, Tarragona 1492, Seville 1480 -- at which crucial details about its making and subsequent long passage are revealed. Hanna, in whom it's not difficult to detect a hint of the author's own past as a determined, hard-digging reporter, is a quirky, no-nonsense woman whom I find exceptionally easy to like. Mostly she's totally honest with herself. She's "a complete pessimist. If there's a sniper somewhere in the country I'm visiting, I fully expect to be the one in his crosshairs," and a "world-class coward." She's "not ambitious in the traditional sense," but "I just love to move the ball forward, even if it's only a millimeter, in the great human quest to figure it all out." Her work is an obscure specialty practiced by only a few people around the world, but she loves it:

"My work has to do with objects, not people. I like matter, fiber, the nature of the varied stuffs that go to make a book. I know the flesh and fabrics of pages, the bright earths and lethal toxins of ancient pigments. Wheat paste -- I can bore the pants off anyone about wheat paste. . . . Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, in the quiet, these people speak to me. They let me see what their intentions were, and it helps me do my work."

The book on the table before her at the museum in Sarajevo may be small, but it contains many large mysteries, or "a series of miracles." It is small, "convenient for use at the Passover dinner table" in a Jewish family's residence, yet it is "gorgeously illustrated" in bright, vivid, startling colors. Such contents ordinarily would call for "an elaborate binding," but "this book had probably been rebound many times in its long life" and a century before, in Vienna, had been rebound "in simple cardboard covers with an inappropriate Turkish printed floral decoration, now faded and discolored."

Hanna works on the book for a week, at the end of which "there probably weren't ten people in the world who could have told for sure that I'd taken this book apart and put it back together." Her work does not involve "chemical cleanups or heavy restorations," as she tells Ozren Karaman, the librarian who had rescued the book: "I've written too many papers knocking that approach. To restore a book to the way it was when it was made is to lack respect for its history. I think you have to accept a book as you receive it from past generations, and to a certain extent damage and wear reflect that history. The way I see it, my job is to make it stable enough to allow safe handling and study, repairing only where absolutely necessary."

So she does her job and leaves, but she isn't finished. For one thing, this resolutely independent woman has taken something of a tumble for Karaman, who is "clearly a spectacular human being, brave and intelligent and all the rest of it," and handsome into the bargain. But of more immediate concern, the U.N. plans to put the restored book on public display in the library and wants her to write an essay for the accompanying catalogue. She has extracted a few minuscule samples from the book -- the wing of an insect, feathers and a rose, a wine-stained fragment, a grain of salt, a white hair -- and considers them sufficiently mysterious to warrant investigation.

Hanna herself doesn't travel backward in time to discover where these bits and pieces came from. She consults with other experts -- in her own field and others -- and travels to Vienna, Boston and London in hopes of tracking down the meaning of her tiny clues. But Brooks seizes on these fragments to create five brief narratives in which they are meticulously explained, allowing the people of the book to emerge from the past to tell their stories. In Boston, Hanna talks about all this with an old friend and former lover, an organic chemist, who listens and then says:

"Well, from what you've told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything's humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other' -- it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists . . . same old, same old. It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that."

Exactly. People of the Book is about the appalling capacity we humans share for turning against people who aren't the same as we are -- or at least don't seem to be -- and doing them inexcusable, incomprehensible violence. The survival of the Haggadah, Karaman says in a speech to the Jewish community in Sarajevo, is "a symbol of the survival of Sarajevo's multiethnic ideal," but it goes without saying that the extreme violence in Bosnia and much of the rest of the Balkans in the 1990s was a mockery of that ideal and was far closer to the reality of human history than the hopes and dreams of those who had handled the book along the way to the library.

The stories of all those people as invented by Brooks are interesting and revealing, but the core of the book is Hanna's story. There's a lot more to it than fixing the book and getting involved with Karaman. She is the only child of a brilliant, driven and egotistical neurosurgeon who never married -- in the 1960s in Australia, to have a child out of wedlock simply was not done, but she did it -- and who was an inattentive mother who left the rearing to the housekeeper. She was infuriated that Hanna chose to become a book conservator rather than a high-powered medico like herself, and her scorn for Hanna's work is palpable: "How is your latest tatty little book, anyway? Fixed all the dog-eared pages?" Though a crisis temporarily brings the two women together, the era of good feelings doesn't last, and Brooks is too honest a student of human nature to portray it otherwise. After all, as Hanna remembers Karaman saying, "some stories just don't have happy endings."

As to the ending of People of the Book, well, that's for you to find out. Suffice it to say that it's a book that resides comfortably in a place we too often imagine to be a no-man's land between popular fiction and literature. Brooks tells a believable and engaging story about sympathetic but imperfect characters -- "popular" fiction demands all of that -- but she also does the business of literature, exploring serious themes and writing about them in handsome prose. She appears to be finding readers and admirers in growing numbers, and People of the Book no doubt will increase those numbers. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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