Down all the dusty roads that lead toward home
Geraldine Brooks’ part modern part historical novel with a book within the book as the major ‘character’ is a fascinating if not completely successful read.
Brooks does historical, not to mention geographical, extremely well, as evidenced by this and previous works – Year Of Wonders, her first book, about the plague in England in 1666 was very fine. Brooks is an Aussie, now resident in The States, and researches her different periods, different cultures, extremely well, so that readers do feel satisfying and realistically transported to times and places not their own.
The springboard for this particular book, People of The Book, has a real identity in the book itself, and in its known provenance in terms of times, places, events, as far as can be yielded by academic research.
The ‘Book’ of the title is a famous (in ancient and rare book circles) tome called The Sarajevo Haggadah. Apologies to the cognoscenti, but for the benefit of those (like me) who had never heard of this book, a Haggadah is a Jewish text read at the Passover festival. The Sarajevo Haggadah, which dates from the fourteenth century, and is a beautifully illustrated manuscript, using hand ground paints, including colour from gems and minerals – lapis lazuli, copper, gold leaf, and hand written on specially prepared parchment from animal skins. It has a known, surprising history from the last century, being rescued from destruction twice by Muslims – once during the Second World War, by an Islamic scholar, who rescued it from certain destruction as a Jewish text, hiding it in a mosque. Then again, during the Bosnian war in the 90’s, when Sarajevo was under firebombing siege, it was rescued and hidden in a bank vault for safe-keeping by a Muslim librarian.
However, the much travelling Haggadah, which is thought to originate in Spain, during a period when Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted in peace, ‘the Convivencia’, can be traced along several journeys from the fourteenth century, mirroring the history of Jewry during various pogroms. The book had a home in Venice in the early seventeenth century, and surfaced in Bosnia at the latter part of the nineteenth century, when Bosnia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It got relocated to Vienna at this time.
Brooks tells the story of where the book was known to be at various times, and the writer’s imagination peoples the known history of the place and time, particularly around what is known about Jewish communities, and how Jews were allowed, or not, to be within the wider community of the time and place.
The historical sections, even though at some points she lectures rather on facts we need to know – how parchment was prepared, brushes and colours made, and who did these things, are in the main absolutely absorbing, and were the book merely presented unadorned as the history of the book, I would have loved it without reservation.
However what doesn’t work quite so well is the creation of a further story. The central person in the book is Hanna, an invented Australian rare book restorer, with her own troubled history – a difficult relationship with her neurosurgeon mother, the mystery of her own birth, and her trail past and present lovers. Even though Brooks is an Aussie, there is something almost too saltily overcharacterised in Hanna’s strine brashness, so she feels a little like an intelligent Aussie cipher with attitude, far less believable than the more distant inventions of the book within. Each time I came out of the past and into a Hanna section, my interest drifted, she seemed a bit of an authorial device, who had to be given credibility by her own back story, in order to achieve a particular narrative twist
The over arching story of the book, which almost acts as a real symbol of how humanity can transcend the divisions and enmities which the human race itself creates, is a testament to the importance of books, of knowledge and wisdom shared, of how much we can learn from other cultures from their book, and of the transcending power of books, their writers and their readers. And to the importance of a humanity prepared to accommodate each other in community. People, and their books, finding home.
As Brooks quotes, right at the start, from the nineteenth century German poet Heinrich Heine
There, where one burns books,
One in the end burns men
I was teased and steered towards this from another blogger, Carrie Rubin, making a comment about it on the inestimable Jilanne Hoffman’s blog. I went immediately a-buying. A good, immersive read, not to mention a ping ping in the direction of both Carrie’s and Jillane’s blogs