Like the film The Red Violin (1998), the plot of People of the Book (2008) follows hundreds of years in the life of an object–but rather than a violin, the focus is the famous Sarajevo Haggadah (a rare illustrated Jewish devotion book). This history, too, is a series of dramatic episodes (from 1480 to 2002) that keep returning to a modern present that is full of intrigue. So this is a historical fiction page-turner by Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who can’t stop writing about religion. Remarkably, the story of a religious book turns out to read like a spy novel.
It is more than a thriller, as the book wants to say something about inter-religious relations—thus the story is always returning to Sarajevo, a hot-bed of religious pluralism. The history of the Haggadah, too, takes the reader through Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds and their historical sub-cultures–including Spain, Austria, and Italy, with some modern moments in secular Boston and Australia for contrast.
On page 320 Brooks describes the Haggadah’s history as making the point “that diverse cultures influence and enrich one another.” That seems to be a mirror for her own book, which makes me think of religious studies scholar Catharine Albanese’s “contact” rather than “consensus” approach to religions, which focuses on the combinations that individuals and religions themselves make. In a different way, on page 141 the main character, an academic and rare book expert Hanna Heath meets a man named Raz who is part black and part Hawaiian and she adds, “one of those vanguard beings of indeterminate ethnicity, the magnificent mutts I hope we are all destined to become given another millennium of intermixing.”
There is something deeply true and beautiful about the multiplicities that form who we are—and likewise something dangerous about the quest for purity and singularity. Conversely, the delight in pluralism, even as it accurately reflects the messiness of reality, also functions to fragment, dissipate and confuse things. “Combinationism” (to coin an awkward term) both illuminates and obscures. The quest is no longer for a modern sense of universal truth, but for the aesthetic sense—and ethical harmony—of diverse cultures. I’ve got mixed feelings about that. If the centre of the story is a prayer book—what can we learn about the nature and call of God from it? That seemed to be missing. God, too, can be intriguing, and he may reflect a limited multiplicity worth seeking out!
If we take a “contact” approach rather than a “consensus” approach to religion, though, we do see that violence is a common practise, and this is a gut-wrenching travesty of our world today. Brooks summarizes her own take in the words of a museum curator right at the end (361), who speaks of the history of the Haggadah: “It was here to test us, to see if there were people who could see that what unites us was more than what divided us. That to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.” She is right—we don’t want to wreck the world with division and hate. But I wouldn’t set our particularities up against our universal humanity, for there is no humanity without our particularities. The quest seems to be for me more fully to live our particularities in a way that recognizes our common humanity—and our divine/earthy origins. In other words, appreciate and respect what divides us while celebrating and re-kindling what unites us.
For example, “People of the Book” is a term the Quran uses for Jews and Christians. But this misrepresents the heart of Christianity—which is not a book, but a person, the god/man Jesus Christ. We are more accurately “People of the God/Man” and that contrasts sharply with both Islam and Judaism, for whom such a thing is an anathema. If any religion could be called “People of the Book”, Muslims would be prime candidates (along with the Sikhs, to be sure). These distinctions are as important as the need to get along and enrich each other. Stephen Prothero makes this abundantly clear in his God is Not One: Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter (2011). He declares that the mushy 1960s generation “all gods are one” has passed and gone, and peaceful relations today require a deeper honesty.
I only give the book three stars out of five because while it is well-researched and exciting to read, I’m not warmed to it. Some compare the book to The Da Vinci Code with the religious conspiracy plot, and I see another reviewer sees it as cultural appropriation. I’m not sure of that, but I did find the book sensationalized. It seemed to be a succession of sex, murder, rape, alcoholism, lesbianism, torture, and child deaths. Its hard not to be stirred by such, but I find violence over-done in modern literature and it can suggest a weak imagination. I find torture scenes to be disturbing, and I don’t look for those kind of stories to adorn my life. The plot was “extreme” and loud when the subject matter—a prayer book—might suggest more subtlety.
In the language of Elijah’s experience in the cave, God more likely addresses us in whispers than in earthquakes, tornadoes and fire.
That said, as ED of Global Scholars Canada, stories about academics are few and far between, and to have a historical novel transform an academic’s life into something riveting as a spy novel is an accomplishment I can appreciate. Its a fantasy, of sorts, I suppose!
Moreover, who would think the life of a book could be so thrilling? For the bibliophile this is, and bookish it is not.