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Tom Chaney: The People of the Book

Of Writers And Their Books: The People of the Book. Tom praises Geraldine Brooks for the timbre of her voice in her novels: the ability to hear and transmit to the reader the voices of characters who lived long ago. This column first appeared 30 November 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Telling Folks What Not to Read

By Tom Chaney

The People of the Book

When my sister and Bookstore partner Ann Matera says, "Tom, I just finished a book you need to read," I know there is a book I need to read pretty quick. It is not that, although born after me, she is older than I. She is. It's not that she can pack a pretty good wallop when roused up. She can. It's that she has, not only mighty good taste, but knows the nature and bounds of my own taste in reading.

So, when she said I ought to read The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks who won a Pulitzer Prize for her last novel March, I fell to with gusto and never looked back. Now, with the same earnestness, but without the same clout, I urge you: I just finished a book you need to read.

The novel recounts the journey of a rare, illuminated Hebrew manuscript from the time of its making in late 15th century Seville near the end of La Convivencia in Muslim-ruled Spain; through the era of the inquisition in Venice; 1894 Vienna; war-torn Sarajevo in 1940 and 1996; to its restoration in 2002. The author focuses on the stories of those who made the book and who saved and/or abused it over five centuries.

Brooks has been praised for the timbre of her voice in her earlier novels: the ability to hear and transmit to the reader the voice of a seventeenth-century maidservant from Derbyshire in Year of Wonders and that of a nineteenth-century abolitionist in March.

Here she outdoes herself.

In 1996 an Australian conservator of rare books is offered the project only dreamed of by rare book experts. Hanna Heath is selected to be the conservator for the 15th century Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah -- a small volume containing the readings for the Passover feast.

When she first touches the codex she feels a strange, powerful sensation somewhere "between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby's head."

The book is small and much abused but contains exquisite illuminations in golds and reds and azure from a time when most Jews considered figurative art to be a violation of the commandment forbidding graven images.

Hanna knows her material. She has made gold leaf. She has created white pigment by covering bars of lead with old wine and animal dung. The secrets of the tree-dwelling insects which provide "worm scarlet" are known to her.

She can tell that the parchment comes from the hide of "a now-extinct breed of thick-haired Spanish mountain sheep." She finds the white hair from the neck of a cat used to draw exquisite decoration in gold leaf. She traces the remnants of an insect wing embedded in the codex. She traces salt crystals and wine stains.

Searching out the expertise of scientists and other specialists, Hanna leads the reader into a finely detailed richness of the past which is the history of the codex.

Ultimately, the reader knows far more of the history of the volume than does Hanna. Her research leads us to the locked door of history with a key. Geraldine Brooks then escorts us within.

Back through the past we tumble. During World War II a Muslim museum employee risks his life protecting the Haggadah from the Nazis. In 1894 in Venice the book becomes a pawn between the cosmopolitan culture and the city's emerging anti-Semitism.

In 1609 a Catholic priest rescues it from the book burning of the Inquisition. In Seville of 1480 we learn the secret of the incredible art work. And twelve years later we learn of the fate of the scribe who wrote the text.

Finally, Brooks brings us back to the present. The book on display in Sarajevo is a fake. Hanna can tell by the parchment, but she is not believed. She works out her career with cave paintings in northern Australia.

To talk about the ending would be to tell too much about a finely wrought mystery. But Ann was correct. This was a "must-read" if ever there was one. None of the chasing about of The Da Vinci Code. Plenty of wolves in sheep's clothing over five centuries, though. And, above all, a mystery whose solution is far beyond the ability of the detective to unravel and through whose intricacies we are led most believably.

"You gotta read this!" says Ann. I second the motion.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-12-01 02:07:40
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