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Hidden pictures

Emily Barton is the author of the novels "Brookland" and "The Testament of Yves Gundron" and is the distinguished visiting writer at Bard College.

Geraldine BROOKS has based her new novel, “People of the Book,” on the real-life adventures of a 14th century Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, a richly illuminated version of the narrative Jews around the world use at their Passover tables each spring to tell the story of the Exodus. The manuscript surfaced in 1894 and caused an uproar among art historians, who had long believed that the Third Commandment, which prohibits the making of “any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth,” had precluded the use of figurative art by medieval Jews.

The Sarajevo Haggadah embodies the miracle of Jewish survival in Europe: Created in Spain during the convivencia, a period when Jews, Christians and Muslims engaged in free cultural exchange, it somehow survived the 1492 Spanish expulsion of the Jews and a later destruction of heretical books in 17th century Venice. It made its way to cosmopolitan Sarajevo and was saved from destruction during World War II by the Muslim chief librarian of the Bosnian National Museum, who stashed the book under his coat when a Nazi came to claim it and hid it until war’s end in a remote mountain mosque.

During the Bosnian war, it was once again saved by a Muslim librarian, who locked it in a bank vault to protect it from the bombings. Brooks weaves a vivid fiction through this already colorful history, beginning with Hanna Heath, a young Australian manuscript conservator, being called to Sarajevo in 1996 to prepare the Haggadah for an exhibition celebrating the war’s end and the hoped-for restoration of religious tolerance. As Hanna works on the manuscript, she finds tantalizing clues to its history -- stains of wine and saltwater on some of the pages, an insect’s wing and a fine white hair caught up in the binding. She also begins a fraught romantic involvement with the librarian who last rescued the book; and once her conservation work is complete, sets out to visit expert colleagues around the world to study the provenance of the tiny samples she’s taken from its pages.

Hanna hopes to solve some of the codex’s mysteries for the essay she’ll write for the exhibition catalog. She recognizes that "[g]enerally, these kind of essays are dry as Lake Eyre. . . . Full of riveting stuff like how many quires there are and how many leaves per quire, the state of the binding threads, the number of sewing holes and so on. . . . I wanted this one to be different. I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it.” For though she loves the technical aspects of her work, “there is something else, too. It has to do with an intuition about the past. By linking research and imagination, sometimes I can think myself into the heads of the people who made the book. I can figure out who they were, or how they worked.”

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Thus, interspersed with Hanna’s chapters, are others in which Brooks brings the people of the book (a play on one of the kinder epithets applied to Jews) to life, as Hanna would do if she had a novelist’s free rein. These characters include the syphilitic bookbinder who bungles the 1894 rebinding, a papal censor in 1609 -- dimly aware that before being taken in by an orphanage he himself was a crypto Jew -- and the scribe who penned the manuscript’s text.

As in her previous two novels -- “Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “March” -- Brooks demonstrates a gift for balancing research with a command of pacing and plot. The historical chapters are ripe with arcane detail, such as when a master illuminator picks up a Persian cat and “stroked under her chin until she rolled over and stretched her neck. He pinched no more than five or six of the long throat hairs and slid the knife under them” to make bristles for a fine brush. Even the most minor of characters -- an archivist who incongruously dresses “like a rainbow lorikeet” -- is imbued with radiant life. As Jews and other outcasts in a hostile Europe, the characters face real hardship. I will not soon forget the last thing a young partisan, freezing and starving in the woods after the Nazis have seized Sarajevo, sees of two companions: “Embracing his little sister, he stepped off the bank, onto the ice. He walked out into the center, where the ice was thin. His sister’s head lay on his shoulder. They stood there for a moment, as the ice groaned and cracked. Then it gave way.”

A subtle kind of suspense derives from Brooks’ method of beginning with the most recent historical chapter and moving back in time toward the manuscript’s ultimate mystery: the identity of the illuminator who provided the images that the Third Commandment expressly forbids. (Brooks sketches the answers to some of the codex’s other conundrums with such a light hand that even a careful reader may have the pleasure of digging for them.)

More troublesome is the way in which she introduces each historical interlude: Hanna ponders the fate of the missing manuscript clasps that a 19th century art historian described as “extraordinarily beautiful"; the next chapter crisply details what happened to them. Hanna learns that one of her wine stains is mixed with blood, and before she can even wonder about it, poof!, the drunken papal censor tightens his hand on his glass, which “shattered, and a shard pierced the fleshy part of his thumb. He barely felt it, though the blood dripped and mingled with the wine stain already blooming on the parchment.” Hanna, who has only bare facts and speculation at her disposal, is not privy to these revelations, so there’s some frisson in having knowledge you wish you might convey to her. On the other hand, it’s disappointing to realize that whenever Hanna asks a burning question, you’re just pages away from having it answered. It’s like having your partner schedule an appointment for sex: not bad, but less thrilling than being beguiled.

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Hanna’s story, however, is full of suspense -- in her research, in a plot involving the Haggadah’s disappearance mere hours before the exhibit is to open and in a well-developed exploration of her difficulties with her mother. Dr. Sarah Heath, a second-generation feminist, had to fight to become a neurosurgeon; she resents her daughter, who takes equality for granted, pursuing what Sarah dismisses as “Kindergarten work.” In a good mystery, the protagonist often pieces together clues about herself while investigating her chosen subject; Brooks ties the two quests together with unusual grace. The plot developments that emerge from Dr. Heath’s emotional stinginess and reticence about her past flesh out the human dimension of Hanna’s story of the life of the mind.

A.S. Byatt published her literary mystery “Possession” almost 18 years ago, and it’s been a long dry season for the genre since -- perhaps because books about books don’t naturally present many occasions for derring-do. Geraldine Brooks has, however, half-found and half-invented a swashbuckling book and, despite occasional quirks, woven a tale that’s haunting and satisfying. Her Sarajevo Haggadah embodies both the story of the survival of the Jews against terrible odds and the story of all thinking people’s relationship to the past.


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