Hazel McHaffie

People of the Book

I love discovering a new-to-me author who inspires me. This time it’s Geraldine Brooks. With nearly 400 pages of quite densely printed text, People of the Book needed time and mental space, so I waited for some downtime between assorted deadlines to open it. Once I did, I was hooked!

It’s a work of fiction but inspired by the true story of a Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. This, one of the earliest illustrated medieval Hebrew books, first came to the attention of scholars in Sarajevo in 1894, when it was offered for sale by an indigent Jewish family. All that could be ascertained was that it had been made in Spain, possibly in the mid-fourteenth century. By 1609 the haggadah had found its way to Venice where the signature of a Catholic priest saved it from the  book burnings of the Pope’s Inquisition. Not a lot to go on, you might think! But the clever juxtaposition of known facts and imagined back-stories makes the whole history come alive and feel authentic. Add to that the authority of the author – a foreign correspondent who covered the Bosnian war from Sarajevo for The Wall Street Journal; who witnessed the destruction of museums and libraries holding priceless manuscripts – and you have a winning combination.

At the time of the Bosnian conflict, the fate of the precious Sarajevo Haggadah, the jewel in the collection, was unknown, but the subject of much journalistic speculation. However, reporter Geraldine Brooks was granted permission to actually see the real thing being restored under heavy guard in 2001 at the European Union Bank. In tracing a fictional journey across countries, and centuries, through wars and persecutions, against different cultures and religions, it’s small wonder she became overwhelmed by the task she’d taken on, and needed to take a couple of years out. It would represent a life’s work for most people, I suspect! My precis here will be inadequate, but hopefully it will tempt you to read it for yourself, and be amazed in your turn.

Dr Hanna Heath is an extremely meticulous conservator of medieval manuscripts who lives in Sydney, Australia. She comes with a stream of qualifications: double honours in chemistry and ancient Near Eastern languages, masters in chemistry, PhD in fine art conservation … oh, and she’s passionate about her job.

When she’s invited to Bosnia to work with a very rare and beautiful object, the Sarajevo Haggadah, a lavishly and exquisitely illuminated Hebrew manuscript, she goes to the length of creating vellum herself by scouring the fat off a meter of calf intestine with a pumice stone, and making gold leaf from scratch, in order to understand how books were created 600 years ago, such is her need to be both accurate and true.

The precious manuscript needs some stabilisation work before it’s exhibited. No conservator has touched it for a hundred years, but it has been mishandled by non experts for years, and now the trick is to work so well that there’s no sign anyone has worked on it at all. But as well as conserving the parchment physically, it’s Hanna’s job to learn its history  Every shred of dust, every sliver, every fragment, every stain, offers a clue, tells a story. The veining on a piece of insect wing shows it comes from a particular species of butterfly only found high up in the Alps; a stain of kosher wine proves to be contaminated with someone’s blood; crystals indicate a splash by seawater; a hair from the throat area of a Persian long-haired cat tracks to a special kind of paintbrush … They throw up endless questions:
… why would an illuminator working in Spain, for a Jewish client, in the manner of a European Christian, have used an Iranian paintbrush?

With so much information, structure is vitally important. Dr Hanna Heath is at the centre – working on the manuscript in the 21st century, but uncovering clues to the past as she goes. Interspersed between each new discovery is the story of how these things came about; the lives entwined with the ancient parchment, unravelling backwards in time.

There’s Lola, a young Jewish laundress, who escapes from the round up of Jews in Sarajevo and flees to the mountains where she joins an order of resistance fighters until she’s abandoned, cold, hungry and despairing, and returns to the city. There she’s rescued by a wealthy and learned Muslim, Serif Kamal and his wife, Stela. Serif is the librarian at the museum who’s entrusted to take care of the haggadah to preserve it from the destruction and looting overtaking their city. But once he has this priceless artefact in his possession, none of them are safe. So Serif takes it high into the mountains to a devout Muslim who squirrels it away in the library of his mosque, between volumes of Islamic law – the last place anyone would go looking for an ancient Jewish manuscript!

Before this, a dying bookbinder, Florien Mittl, ravaged by end-stage syphilis, already suffering from paranoid delusions, is commissioned to rebind the haggadah in ‘Vienna, although these days he can hardly recall the sequence of steps in the process. However, he’s desperate for money for a cure for his disease, so he’s prepared to desecrate the priceless book in order to gain generous remuneration: he removes the exquisitely wrought silver clasps in exchange for experimental treatment.

Further back again, in Venice, a trembling alcoholic priest, Father Giovanni Domenico Vistorini, is living a double life in several directions. He’s a lover of books and language, and yet, as censor for the Inquisition, destined to consign beautiful works, ‘blasphemous’ texts, to the flames. His old acquaintance, the Jewish rabbi, Judah Aryeh, is in possession of the Sarajevo haggadah, and because of his addictions, the fate of this beautiful object comes to rest on a gamble. It’s Vistorini’s wine and blood that stains the ancient parchment.

Back we go to the actual formation of the book. A sofer, David Ben Shoushan, sees the potential of a set of glorious gold leaf paintings, and has the stamina to painstakingly inscribe the Hebrew text to go with them – we watch his hand trembling as he moves from ink bottle to parchment, crafting those precise letters, willing him not to blot the parchment. The pages and paintings are placed in the greasy hands of a double-dealing bookbinder, Micha, along with Shoushan’s wife’s silver which will be crafted into beautiful clasps to make the finished product a bridal gift fit for a king.  But before David Ben Shoushan can even see the end result, the Spanish Inquisition close their murderous claws around his family, and the precious haggadah is smuggled out and into new dangers. It’s when a Gentile baby is being ritually baptised in the sea to welcome him into the Jewish faith, that a few drops of saltwater splash on the manuscript leaving a residue of crystals that will last for hundreds of years.

The life of a black Jewess, Zahra bint Ibrahim al-Tarek, is abruptly changed each time she’s moved on … from her home in Infriqiya where she learned to illustrate her father’s medical texts … into captivity … from thence to living in an emir’s palace as a fine painter of his wife’s likeness … and then to work for a Jewish doctor who had admired her medical illustrations for years. One major loss after another deepens her awareness of herself and the dark side of life. Having been entranced by an exquisite Christian Book of Hours filled with luminous illustrations for each prayer which the emira Isabella used for her devotions, Zahra sets about creating a story of the world as the Jews understand it to have come to be, for the doctor’s deaf-mute son, Benjamin. With no higher motive than to make the boy want to look at each picture and understand what it conveys, she concentrates on making the pictures as vibrant and appealing as she can. Indeed, so determined is she to project the right sense that sometimes she’s profoundly disturbed by the representations herself. The fine paint brushes she uses are made of cat fur and it’s one such hair marked with saffron dye that Dr Heath finds hundreds of years later.

The beautiful and intricate story of the creation and preservation and survival of this amazing book, is well matched by the meticulous research of the author. Whether it’s history across the ages, ethnic cleansing, ancient language and literature, the geography of cities around the world, different religions and their customs, diseases and their treatments, gambling in the seventeenth century, music, art, architecture, food, laboratory techniques or the structure of hair, you feel to be in safe hands with Geraldine Brooks.

Rather like the Sarajevo haggadah, a book to savour and treasure indeed.

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