People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Sarajevo's raiders of the lost archives
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The Independent Culture

In 1994, as the siege of Sarajevo ground on for another bloody year, rumours began to surface in ex-Yugoslav émigré communities about the fate of the object that had long symbolised the city's tolerant multiculturalism: the fabulous Jewish manuscript known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Created in 14th-century Catalonia, and called the world's most famous haggadah (a collection of prayer and ritual recited during the Passover seder), it held page after page of exquisitely glowing illuminations depicting Biblical scripture and Jewish life. Many believed the codex had been destroyed along with its home, Bosnia's national museum, which stood in a lethal position on "Sniper Alley". Other rumours were more sensational: the manuscript had been sold for arms by a desperate Bosnian government, it had been spirited out of Sarajevo by Mossad to safety in Israel...

Soon the international media challenged the Bosnian authorities to reveal the whereabouts of the manuscript. They made no comment and speculation increased. With Passover approaching, in April 1995 the city's remaining Jewish community invited President Izetbegovic to attend the ornate Ashkenazi synagogue. For the Bosnian government this was the obvious moment to quash the rumours, and at a ritual powerfully symbolic of deliverance and survival the dramatic reappearance of the intact Haggadah would focus the world's attention on Sarajevo. The media reacted as enthusiastically as the authorities had hoped: the Haggadah demonstrated its power as one of those charismatic artefacts that acquire a significance far transcending their artistic value.

The book was in Italy during the 16th and 17th centuries, but when did it come to Bosnia? After its appearance in 1894 at the museum, founded by the Austro-Hungarians during their 40-year occupation, the manuscript's history reads like a thriller: its disappearance in Vienna, its concealment from the Nazis by a Muslim librarian and a Catholic museum director, its theft in the 1950s, and its rescue during the Bosnian war, led by a Muslim professor of archaeology. The Austrians knew they had acquired something remarkable and marketing the Haggadah became an imperial project. Then, inexplicably, it lay forgotten at the finance ministry, prompting still-recurring rumours that the codex the Austrians returned to Sarajevo was a copy.

Geraldine Brooks's new novel draws on this extraordinary narrative (along with much invention) to construct an imaginary version of the Sarajevo Haggadah's history. Linking past and present is Hanna, an Australian conservator commissioned to treat the manuscript. As Hanna decodes the story of the book, we encounter a syphilitic bookbinder in fin-de-siècle Vienna, a 17th-century Venetian rabbi with a gambling problem, a black, female Muslim illuminator in 15th-century Seville and a mixed family of Jews and Conversos (converts to Christianity) on the eve of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

These are purely imaginary. Approaching the present, characters like Serif Kamal, the manuscript's Second World War rescuer, and Lola, the Jewish woman he risks his life to help, are based on real people.

Brooks's novel March wonderfully transmuted historical record into fiction, but here she fails to convince. The stories of Jews and Muslims, far more connected than divided by history and culture (the few Christians are nasty pieces of work), leave us with a sense of being steamrollered by the author's obvious message. Most grating are Hanna's self-righteousness and her caricaturishly Philistine mother-from-hell. Meanwhile, a clunky thrillerish sub-plot lumbers to an implausible dénouement. Fiction or not, should Brooks be contentiously rewriting the history of a real artefact so central to a struggling nation's identity?

Helen Walasek has worked on cultural-heritage issues in Bosnia since 1994
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