I love the dedication of this book. It seems very fitting that it is “For all the librarians.” For this is all about the Sarajevo Haggadah. It is an illustrated manuscript that contains the traditional text of the Passover Haggadah to accompany the Passover sedar. The Sarajevo one is unique in that it is beautifully and sumptuously illustrated in gold and precious minerals. This is a remarkable fact given that at the time of its creation in the 14th century, Jewish theology o the times forbade graven images. It has survived all these long years and was saved at least twice from destruction by Muslim hands. It is one of the most beautiful and valuable books in the world. And yet, the facts surrounding its creation and survival remain a mystery.
From the bare yet known facts about the Sarajevo Haggadah, Geraldine Brooks has fashioned a richly imagined tale of its creation and travel till it comes to rest under the auspices of the Sarajevo National Museum. The story is told through Hanna Heath, a young Australian restorer of ancient manuscripts who is selected to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah. As Hanna works on the manuscript, she discovers several tiny artifacts embedded within ---a wing fragment, a strand of white hair, salt and wine. From here the narrative splits into two directions, with one strand unfolding the tale behind each ancient fragment while the other strand tells Hanna’s story.
While the story is told through Hanna, there is no doubt that the main protagonist of this book is the Sarajevo Haggadah. It is clear from the writing here that Brooks has done an enormous amount of research in order to imagine the tale of this important book. In vividly tracing the trajectory of the book from its creation in 14th Century Seville by a young African woman illustrator, to the time of the Jewish Expulsion, through its sojourn in Venice in the 17th century and 19th century Vienna and the harrowing years of WWII and the Saravejan war, Brooks has crafted a rich tapestry of stories that will beguile any reader. “Saltwater and White Hair” are especially moving. I had to pause after these chapters to recover my breath before I continued on.
Occasionally the device of using Hanna’s story as a jump of point for the more ancient tales is a bit jarring but the Haggadah narrative is so compelling that it more than makes up for it. And perhaps, because the stories behind the Haggadah are so compelling, it makes it difficult for Hanna’s story to be as compelling. Nevertheless she is a greatly likeable character and it is through her that we get a real insight into the work that goes into restoring precious old manuscripts. “Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, in the quiet, these people speak to me. They let me see what their intentions were, and it helps me to do my work.” It would be hard to resist such a heroine and you'll come to root for her as I did.