In this grand saga of history, war and memory, author Geraldine Brooks follows the path of the world-famous Sarajevo Haggadah. Unique because of its extraordinarily rich illuminations, the manuscript came to represent all of the suffering of the Bosnian Jews, particularly throughout the twentieth century. Believed to have been created in 14th century Spain, there lies deep within the book's beautiful pages the standard elements of prayers, poems and stories about the Jews exodus from Egypt that traditionally guided Passover.
It is in 1996 when Australian rare books expert Hanna Heath is offered the job to inspect and conserve the manuscript's condition in the hope that it can be exhibited as soon as possible to raise the morale of war-torn Sarajevo. Known throughout the academic world for her research and frequently applauded for her experiences in book restoration, Hanna is an extremely ambitious individual and is well aware that this job is a once in a lifetime career-maker.
Encouraged by the goodwill of the United Nations, Hanna travels to Sarajevo in the hope she can make a good documentation of the book so the authorities can at least print a beautiful facsimile to present to the world. Even before the plane lands, Hannah sees the destructive results of the Bosnian war, this devastated city, passing in a blur of "shrapnel-splashed buildings," as the book, now placed in a safe-deposit box in the vault of the central bank, is possibly in danger of disintegrating.
Assisted by the librarian Ozren Karaman, the young chief of the National University of Bosnia, Hanna begins her analysis of the work. She observes that the soiled and scuffed binding is of an ordinary nineteenth century style and that the parchments are now bound in simple cardboard covers. The dark brown calfskin spine and corners have begun flaking away and there are also no clasps on the binding. Also, the book is in real danger of being exposed to the wild swings of the Sarajevan temperature.
The burnished gold of the illuminations, so fresh and so blazing suddenly overwhelm Hanna, along with the numerous miniature paintings created at a time when most Jews considered figurative art a violation of the commandments. But what is most fascinating about the work is the discovery of three items buried deep within the codex: a small piece of a butterfly wing, a red stain that at first glance looks to be wine, samples of what appears to be sea salt, and a fine white hair.
It is the unearthing of these pieces that jump-start Hanna's spellbinding journey into the dark secrets of the Haggadah, a volume with a turbulent history that has survived war and exodus and the evils of the Catholic Inquisition. Made when the vast Islamic empire was the bright light of the dark ages, the book existed at a time where science and poetry still flourished even as the Jews, tortured and killed by Christians, were hoping to find a measure of peace somewhere in the world.
As the history of this manuscript steadily unfolds, Hanna finds herself gradually drawn to the battered and beaten down Ozren. His child, once a victim of the war, is now lying in a local hospital with brain damage, any hope of reviving him a dream at best. But as Hanna urges Ozren to seek the help of Western doctors, she must also contend with the constant resentment of her ambitious mother, an accomplished neurosurgeon who is of the mind that Hanna has squandered her opportunity to enter a "real profession," instead wasting her life as a "tradeswoman."
Obviously Hanna's exploration of the Haggadah, her affair with Ozren, and her troubled relationship with her mother form the core of the novel, but the scattered history of the manuscript and its journey down through the ages also plays a critical part. Moving from Spain in the 1500's, to Venice in 1609, to 1894 Vienna, and onto Sarajevo in the midst of the 2nd World War, Brooks embellishes cultures that once influenced and enriched one another, but paid the ultimate price for turning to prejudice, intolerance and fear.
Indeed, the entire story of the Haggadah from its survival until today is a series of miracles: The young Jewish girl, who together with a Muslim librarian, endeavour to keep the book safe from the Nazis; a Viennese doctor whom the so-respectable bourgeoisie entrust to him the care of their private parts and the confidences of their lives; an alchoholic priest who works as sensor for the office of the Inquisitor of Venice, reading and passing judgement on the works of alien faiths; and a Jewish painter whose family is unwittingly caught up in the Spanish Inquisition as the government tries fanatically to purify the Church.
The Haggadah travels down through the ages, surviving these same human disasters over and over again, and finally tumbling into the arms of Hanna, where it reminds us of the fragility of the human condition and the terrible burdens of repression and tyanny.
Certainly the book provides an ultimate test of its owners, its beauty seducing Christians, Moslems and Jews alike as it is battled and fought over and finally secreted away at the end of the 20th century. Central to this beautifully realized story is its startling vision of tolerance, the Haggah remaining a fascinating symbol of human unity in an age where religious and cultural divisions continue to run deep. Michael Leonard January 2008.