Penguin Books, 2008
A fragment of an insect wing, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair – these tiny clues are trapped in the pages of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, giving us insights into the strange story of the historic codex in Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book.
Hanna Heath, an Australian book conservator, is hired – under tense political circumstances – to work on the Haggadah in the stricken city of Sarajevo, Bosnia. The book is extremely unusual in that it is a Jewish text illuminated in the Christian style – with gold leaf and crushed lapis, saffron, silver, and butterfly wings, painted on vellum from the skin of a now-extinct mountain sheep.
As Hanna examines the book, we touch on the lives of the people who created the Haggadah and protected it throughout centuries of Jewish exile and war. Geraldine Brooks has woven a beautiful work of faction from the known history of the real codex and a drop or two of imagination informed by her research.
The novel contains plenty of fascinating glimpses into manuscript conservation – the author was lucky enough to be present as the real Haggadah was repaired and stabilised by Austrian conservator Andrea Pataki at the European Union Bank in 2003.
Thought to have been lost in the Bosnian war of the 1990s, the Haggadah was actually safe and sound hidden in an underground bank vault, brought back into the public eye in 1995. Conservators, historians and diplomats alike were keen to see how well it had fared in the vault’s environment, and looked on as Pataki carried out the conservation work.
Although she had to repair the 19th century binding and end papers, Pataki didn’t need to touch the magnificent 14th century illustrations. “I checked under a 25X microscope and I didn’t see any flaking or powdering of the pigments,” she told journalists. “The overall condition is very good for its age.”
In the wake of Brooks’ other successful novels, Year of Wonders and March, People of the Book won the 2008 Australian Book of the Year award and the Literary Fiction Book of the Year award.
More images from the Sarajevo Haggadah: