“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.” -From People of the Book, page 195-
Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. -From People of the Book, page 19-
Pulitzer prize-winning author, Geraldine Brooks, has written another stunning and impeccably researched book. People of the Book begins in 1996 when rare book expert (and conservator) Hanna Heath is summoned to post-war Bosnia to examine an ancient manuscript.
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 text to be rewritten. -From People of the Book, page 8-
Between the pages of this incredible book, Hanna discovers clues to its history: a fragile insect’s wing, a missing clasp, a small wine stain, a drip of salt water and a single white hair. In alternating chapters, the clues reveal themselves and uncover the people whose hands the manuscript passes through…and remarkably the author and illustrator of the Haggadah. The reader visits Sarajevo in 1904, Vienna in 1894, Venice in 1609, Tarragona in 1492, and Seville in 1480. At the same time, Hanna’s story is also gradually revealed as she moves forward from 1996 to 2002.
People of the Book is inspired by the true story of the of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks novel, however, is richly imagined – borrowing certain facts and then creating multi-layered characters and situations which immerse the reader in a fictional world of intrigue, emotion and wonder. Brooks did her homework – and People of the Book includes fascinating facts about early art history and the skill of book conservation, as well as the history of the Jewish people.
I turned a page. More dazzle. The illuminations were beautiful, but I didn’t allow myself to look at them as art. Not yet. First i had to understand them as chemicals. There was yellow, made of saffron. That beautiful autumn flower, Crocus sativus Linnaeus, each with just three tiny precious stigmas, had been a prized luxury then and remained one, still. Even if we now know that the rich color comes from a carotene, crocin, with a molecular structure of 44 carbon, 64 hydrogen, and 24 oxygen, we still haven’t synthesized a substitute as complex and as beautiful. There was malachite green, and red; the intense red known as worm scarlet – tola’at shani in Hebrew – extracted from tree-dwelling insects, crushed up and boiled in lye. Later, when alchemists learned how to make a similar red from sulfur and mercury, they still named the color “little worm” – vermiculum. Some things don’t change: we call it vermilion even today. -From People of the Book, page 15-
I found this novel immensely satisfying and one which I highly recommend for readers who enjoy world literature and have a fascination for books and art history, as well as for those who enjoy unraveling mysteries.