Possessed by History


By Geraldine Brooks
384 pages. Viking Adult. $25.95

Geraldine Brooks seems an unlikely candidate to be, as she puts it, “possessed” by Jewish history. It’s not reflected in her reportage of Somalia and Bosnia, it’s not in the pages of Nine Parts of Desire, her first book, about the lives of Islamic women, or in March, her 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel. Brooks grew up in Sydney, Australia, and she grew up “very traditionally Irish Catholic.”

Yet she spent her teens poring over Holocaust accounts “and bad Leon Uris novels. I wore a Star of David around my neck with my Catholic school uniform—that was fairly confounding for the nuns,” she says, laughing.

Her passion for Jewish history and her fascination with “human beings in times of catastrophe” converge in People of the Book, a novel as richly wrought as the book it refers to, the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Though Brooks’ work is fiction, the Sarajevo Haggadah is entirely real. Saved from Serb shelling during the Bosnian War, it dates back to medieval Spain and is, as Brooks writes in People of the Book, “a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind.”

Brooks was in Sarajevo writing for the Wall Street Journal when the Haggadah was recovered in the 1990s. She didn’t report on the Hagaddah, but she certainly knew about it. “It started to fascinate me,” she says. It wasn’t the book’s beauty that captivated her or its age, but its history.

“This was a book that survived so many catastrophes, yet that would always find its rescuer,” says Brooks, speaking from her home in Martha’s Vineyard. “Two of the ones we knew of were Muslim.”

Why would a Muslim risk his life for a Jewish text? That’s the story of People of the Book—or rather, one of the stories. The novel follows the Haggadah as it crisscrosses continents, spans centuries, and falls into the hands of a priest, a scribe, an illustrator, a syphilitic Viennese man at the turn of the century, and a Muslim librarian at the rise of World War II. Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all, literally, people of this book.

The volume also falls into the capable hands of Hanna Heath, the Australian conservationist hired in 1996 to analyze and restore the book. Brooks denies any similarities between herself and her prickly protagonist, but they both have a passion for Judaism instilled in them by their fathers.

The author might have been raised Catholic, but her father, she says, “was just his own thing. He had a different religion—leftist politics. He had served in Palestine during World War II. The socialist in him was lefty Zionist and he was very interested in Israel.”

So, in turn, was his daughter, who recalls, “The Six-Day War was the first time I ever read the paper. He brought it to life to me, describing a kibbutz he sang at underneath the Golan Heights and why the Golan Heights were important for Israeli security.”

Her father’s stories took root in Brooks’ head and heart and she converted to Judaism in her 20s. “I’m your typical atheist Jew,” she jokes.

Brooks, 53, is married to author and journalist Tony Horwitz (Baghdad Without a Map and an upcoming spring release A Voyage Long and Strange), who was raised Jewish but endured what Brooks calls “a sorry-ass Jewish education.”

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Brooks, her husband and their son Nathaniel are active in their local synagogue. “We go to a shul we actually enjoy,” she says. “I find a great richness in the ritual and ceremony. I don’t have any conviction about a deity, but Judaism makes you notice daily things. It makes you notice life and honor it.”

That desire to honor life makes Brooks a scrupulous writer. Like Hanna, her protagonist, she’s obsessed with ferreting out the truth. “I’m always trying to be clear where fact ends and the fiction begins. I feel a responsibility as writer to be true to the material, especially when you’re doing something as presumptuous as messing around with people’s real history.”

Brooks might not even have turned to fiction, had she not been arrested in Nigeria. “I was reporting about Shell Oil. They were in an unholy alliance with a brutal military dictator.” He did not take kindly to her allegations and arranged to have her arrested and thrown in a lock-up in Port Harcourt.

“Not a very scenic place,” Brooks recalls. “I didn’t know how long they were going to detain me. I thought, ‘I’m 39 years old and I forgot to get pregnant.’”

After Brooks was deported three days later, she made a point of remembering. Her son was born the following year, and her days as what she refers to as a "shit-hole correspondent" were over. She became a stay-at-home mom and a novelist. Yet all her novels, including her much-praised 2001 debut Year of Wonders have fact at their core, and take place at a pivotal moment in history. “I like to do research,” says Brooks. 

Researching People of the Book led her to the wife of the librarian who had saved the Haggadah over half a century ago. “I almost fainted—she was still alive,” says Brooks. “It was a wonderful gift to have her insights into that time.”

Facts, though, only take you so far in a novel. “When you can’t find out, you have to imagine. You reach that moment when you take the big dive off into the unknown.” Brooks has discovered a certain exhilaration in taking that dive. “Journalism shows us snapshots of ourselves—journalism is how we are today. With fiction, there is more delving into the emotional lives in an attempt to get at a human truth.”

The truth, though, is not always pretty. The author is outraged by the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in America, in Europe, and her own homeland. “It’s ignorant and disgusting,” she says. “The Muslim veil has taken the place the peis had in World War II. It’s become stigmata, the thing that brings some kind of pogrom down on people’s heads.”

That racism and intolerance makes the lessons of the Sarajevo Haggadah all the more valuable. “This book has been a test all through its existence about whether people are going to rise above what separates them. This book is bearing an incredible weight at this time, a survivor of a multicultural ideal.”

That ideal, she believes, is still possible. “If it’s not, then what’s the point?  We’ve come so close so many times, and when we do, the societies we create are so much richer and better.