Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Wonder of Different Cultures and Religions -- People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Photo: from the book's Wikipedia page

This is a book of historical fiction about a real Jewish book, saved, during the real bombing of a real museum in World War II, by a real Muslim. The real Muslim was a real librarian in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and he really saved the Sarajevo Haggadah, twice, from the Nazis.

If you've read my blog before, you undoubtedly see where I'm going with this. I'm not very subtle when I'm angry. (Or, when I'm not.) 

People of the Book is a novel in many parts, in many POVs. Normally that irks me, but it's handled very well here, as you'd expect it to be, since Brooks wrote it. The story starts in 1996 Sarajevo and ends in 2002 Sarajevo, but it also jumps around to other countries and continents, in other times, as far back as 500 years ago. It's a book also of many cultures, including those of Sarajevo (Bosnia), Africa, Spain, Italy, Austria (Vienna) and Australia, to name a few. It's also a book of many religions, including Catholic and Muslim. In the end, an Aussie falls in love with a Bosnian. I don't know if Europeans move around a lot more in Europe than Americans do in America, or if I've just seen too many James Bond and Jason Bourne (notice the similar initials) movies and read too many books. But it sure seems that way. There seems to be less fear and more acceptance because of this.

You're probably seeing where I'm going with that. I apologize for my lack of subtlety.

Turns out, most people of most faiths and cultures are peace-loving people, running from wars and oppression and ignorance. That includes Catholics, Hebrews and Muslims. But people of most faiths also start wars of oppression and ignorance. In this book, those people are also Catholics, Hebrews and Muslims. These faiths have works that go back millennia. The Sarajevo Haggadah, the book of the title, is one of those. It was created with love and honor and faith by someone (actually at least two someones, as one drew and another wrote) who tried to create a masterpiece to honor the faith.

Brooks's book has one overall message: culture and books should prevail over wars and ignorance. And the first sign of oppression and evil is the suppression, and burning, of books. Keep a watchful eye out for that. Nazi Germany wasn't the first killing tyranny to burn books, but doing so is the first sign of an ignorance and an oppression. That, and shutting down the press and universities.

Keep your eyes open for that, no matter where you are.

Many hands have undoubtedly touched the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is a very real book, as many hands undoubtedly have created it. This is the case of all old books.

Yes, all of them. Many hands will create many errors, especially in print, especially if the words have been created and put together over many centuries. If you've read my blog, you probably know where I'm going with that. If not, read the book, and you may.

Of all the sections of Brooks's book, she is at her best in those of historical fiction. The most memorable to me is the section of the book's travels out of World War II. There's a scene on a frozen lake that you won't soon forget. The part about the writing of the Haggadah is also great. So is the section about the real signature and inscription, and the fictional wine and blood stains.

Less great are the parts of the main character, Hanna, necessary to set the outline of the novel. She is asked to restore the book, as it's many hundreds of years' old. While doing so, she notices missing silver clasps, a butterfly's wing, a white (cat's) hair, a drop of wine, and another drop of what turns out to be blood. There's also a signature and inscription by a censor of the Inquisition--a real guy named Giovanni Domenico Vistorini. All that is known about this real man is his signature and inscription; other books from the Inquisition also have his name and notice. He had surely not signed hundreds of other books, many of them old even by 1609, thereby fating them to the flames. This one he let live--a strange book for an Inquisitor to pass. You'll have to read Brooks's book to see why.

So this is a great, literate book, about a real book, and the message is that books and cultures are cool. It's got a Travelling Pants kind of frame--Remember the movie with different segments about characters who all come across the same pair of pants? (Well, I didn't read the book or see the two movies, either, but I'm aware of the writing frame.) If not, how about Cat's Eye?--that really works here, even if Brooks is obviously more at home with the historical fiction parts, and less proficient with Hanna's modern day. She tries to hard, IMHO, to portray a sassy and independent Aussie. I found what she did for a living more cool than her character. That's just me--though she does have a memorably Lady Macbeth-like surgeon mother, who admits a whopper at the end.

Ultimately I prefer Brooks's March and Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, but this--her third book--is also a wonder of a sort, and well worth your time. Though I think it's her third best at the time of its writing, it's still better than the best of most, including your humble reviewer. Actually, a piece of this gave me inspiration for a book I'm writing, that also takes place over many generations, with many characters, nations and problems. My book didn't have a MacGuffin--which is essentially what the Haggadah is here--nor did it have a Citizen Kane-type narrative frame, which is what Brooks's book is. The stains, the inscription and signature, the hair and the butterfly wing--they're all Rosebud, get it?

Knowing different cultures and religions makes you smart. They are not to be hated, oppressed or expelled. See where I'm going with this?!?

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