People of the Book

by Geraldine Brooks

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Last Updated on May 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1466

Sarajevo and Vienna, Spring 1996

At one time, Sarajevo had been a close-knit, modern enclave of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. But in 1996, the city is engulfed in civil war. Hanna Heath is a book conservator who arrives in Sarajevo during a ceasefire in the Bosnian Civil War. Every step she takes is watched over by designated United Nations and local army officials. She has never been in a war zone before and is a bit intimidated.

Her tensions are somewhat eased when she is presented with the ancient Jewish Haggadah. The Haggadah had recently been rediscovered and the Sarajevo community wanted to display the book as a symbol of the city’s own survival and its multicultural and multi-religious ideal. Hannah’s task is to restore the holy book to its original state. She carefully turns the pages of this illustrated text and is amazed by what she sees. The more she examines the book, the more fascinated she becomes by its history. She wonders why Amitai Yomtov, the greatest book conservator in the world, has offered her the chance to do this work. The reason is that Amitai is an Israeli. Because of the political environment in Bosnia and in the Middle East, Amitai thought it best not to become involved.

As she works, Hanna collects clues about the book’s history. It is not all work for Hannah, though. She has an affair with Ozren Karaman director of the Sarajevo Museum. Although the two of them sleep together on a number of occasions, by the time Hanna has completed the restoration of the Haggadah, Ozren has turned away from her. His ailing son, who remains in a coma after a bullet pierced his skull, distracts him. He refuses her help when Hanna suggests that her mother, a world-famous neurosurgeon, look into his son’s case. Hanna steals the boy’s medical files anyway before leaving Sarajevo for Vienna.

In Vienna, Hanna meets with Amalie Sutter, an entomologist. Hanna gives Amalie the insect wing that she found in the binding of the Haggadah. Amalie tells her that it is a wing from a butterfly that is found only in high elevations.

Sarajevo, 1940

The story is now told through the character Lola, a Jewish teenager living in Sarajevo at the time of the Nazi invasion of World War II. Lola’s family is taken away and Lola goes into the mountains to join the resistance movement. After spending the winter in the mountains, Lola returns to Sarajevo and is saved by a Muslim family, Stela and Serif Kamal. Serif is a scholar. He is concerned about the Sarajevo Haggadah when the Nazis threaten to burn all the books. Serif takes the book to a friend in the mountains.

Vienna, Spring 1996

Hanna meets with her old teacher, Werner Heinrich. He arranges for her to work with Frau Zweig, a department head at the National Museum. From Frau Zweig, Hanna gains information about the Haggadah’s missing silver binder clips.

Vienna, 1894

The story reverts to 1894. Dr. Franz Hirschfeldt and Herr Mittl come together to tell the story of the missing silver clips. Dr. Hirschfeldt is treating Mittl for syphilis. Mittl, a book binder, is working on the Haggadah. Hirschfeldt tells Mittl there is a cure for syphilis, but it costs a lot of money. Mittl gives the silver clips to Hirschfeldt to pay for the treatment.

Boston, 1996

Back in modern Boston, Hanna asks Razmus Kanaha to analyze the red stain on one of the pages of the Haggadah. Raz tells her that the stain is a mixture of wine and blood. Later, Raz tells Hanna that another stain on the Haggadah is sea salt.

Hanna learns that her mother has been injured in a car accident but will be all right. Delilah Sharansky was also in the car and was killed. Hanna’s mother tells her daughter that Delilah was Hanna’s paternal grandmother. Her mother has never told Hanna anything about her father until now. Hanna goes to the funeral and meets other members of her father’s family. Her father, Aaron Sharansky, had been a famous artist.

Venice, 1609

Going back almost four centuries, the story picks up in the year of the Catholic Inquisiton. Giovanni Domenico Vistorin is a Catholic priest in charge of either burning or approving books in Venice. Giovanni is friends with Judah Aryeh, a Jewish rabbi. Reyna de Serena is a rich Jewess pretending to be a Catholic, but she is tired of the charade and wants to leave Venice. She shows the rabbi a book given to her by her mother. It is the Haggadah. If she leaves Venice, the officials will go through all her things. She is afraid they will confiscate the Haggadah and burn it. She asks the rabbi to make sure that Father Giovanni will sign the book, thus giving his approval.

The rabbi takes the Haggadah to the priest, but the priest refuses to approve the book. After the rabbi leaves, Father Giovanni (after drinking a lot of wine) begins to read the Hebrew inscriptions. A memory flashes through his mind of his parents being arrested for being Jewish. The priest remembers his Jewish name and is filled with terror. He accidentally breaks his wine glass and cuts his hand, leaving blood and wine stains on a page of the Haggadah. He signs his name on the book so it will not be burned.

Tarragona, 1492

The novel plunges even further back in time, to Tarragona in 1492. David Ben Shoushan is a calligrapher. He is creating a Haggadah to give to his older brother. While walking through a village, David sees a mute boy holding several beautiful illustrations he is trying to sell. David buys them and inserts them into the Haggadah he is making.

Just as the Haggadah is finished, Spanish officials raid the village, forcing all Jews to leave. Ruti, David’s daughter, is separated from her family but manages to escape by hiding in a cave. She takes the Haggadah with her. Ruti is the one who adds the stain of saltwater.

London, 1996

In modern London, Hanna takes a hair she found in the Haggadah to Clarissa Montague-Morgan, a specialist at Scotland Yard. The hair turns out to be a cat’s.

Seville, 1480

In one more flashback, this time to Seville in 1480, Zahra, a Muslim youth, has been abducted and made a slave. She is sold to Hooman, a local artist. Believing Zahra to be a boy, Hooman refines Zahra’s artistic skills.

Later Zahra is sent to the local emir. The emir wants Zahra to paint a portrait of his wife, Mura. When the emir dies, Dr. Netanel ha-Levi, a Jewish man, saves Zahra by taking her into his home. Dr. ha-Levi has a deaf son, for whom Zahra draws the famous Haggadah illustrations, which tell Jewish stories through pictures. The brushes Zahra uses are made from cat hair.

Sarajevo, 1996

Hanna returns to Sarajevo to discover that the Haggadah that is on display in the museum is a fake. Werner Heinrich (Hanna’s teacher) and Ozren Karaman (Hanna’s lover) are there and claim they see no discrepancies. Hanna leaves, having lost all confidence in her skills.

Jerusalem, 2002

The story returns to Lola, the young girl who fought in the resistance during World War II in Bosnia. She is now an old woman and works at a Holocaust memorial center in Israel. While cleaning a shelf in the library, she discovers the Sarajevo Haggadah sitting in the middle of some old books.

Australia, 2002

Hanna has given up her profession and is working with an archaeologist saving old Aboriginal rock paintings in Australia. She receives a call from an official of the Foreign Affairs and Trade Office and flies into Sydney because she is told the meeting has something to do with the Haggadah. There she is surprised to see Amitai Yomtov, the Jewish book conservator. Hanna had believed that it was Amitai who had stolen the Haggadah six years ago. Now that she sees the Haggadah on the desk, her suspicions are confirmed.

However, Amitai tells her it was Werner and Ozren who made the fake copy. Werner was paranoid that the Muslims in Sarajevo would eventually destroy the Haggadah, so he made a copy and, with Ozren’s help, replaced the original. Werner then took the authentic copy and placed it in the Israeli library. Werner and Ozren ask Hanna to take the original Haggadah back to Sarajevo. They believe that she is the only one who will not raise any suspicion. Hanna has to smuggle the book into Bosnia. Then she and Ozren have to sneak the fake copy out of its secured display and replace it with the original without being caught.

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