book reviews , different studio guests each week. Join us every Thursday between 12 and 1pm on Radio Scilly 107.9fm or log on to

Missed any programmes? See below for list of guests, books and other details discussed.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Geraldine Brooks - The Book Reader

 review written and read live on the bookshow by Ro Bennett Aug 2016.
This is another book I listened to, but this time from the library Borrow Box Audio service. I bought this book as well. Sometimes the books are light and easy to listen to but sometimes, as in this case they are more meaty and I like the printed version to refer to at times. 

Mentioning listening, the only problem I frequently have with audio books are the dire accents and this book was no exception. The woman’s reading voice was fine but each time she attempted different accents for different characters it was so dire I found it intensely irritating and off putting. On more than one occasion I was tempted to abandon listening and just read the book, but I do like to listen to something as I do my chores. 

Having had my moan - despite this, it was a good book, the subject was interesting and it was very well researched. 
When Hanna Heath gets a call in the middle of the night in her Sydney home about a precious medieval manuscript which has been recovered from the smouldering ruins of war torn Sarajevo, she knows she is on the brink of the experience of a lifetime. A renowned book conservator, she must now make her way to Bosnia to start work on restoring The Sarajevo Haggadah to discover its secrets and piece together the story of its miraculous survival.

The Sarajevo Haggadah really exists. The Haggadah is the story of the escape of the Children of Israel from Egypt and is read at the Jewish Passover Seder every year. This actual illuminated manuscript was produced in Spain in the 14th century. It is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of illustrations of key scenes in the Bible, from Creation through to the death of Moses. 
There is much information about it, as well as reproductions of the pictures, on Google.
The Sarajevo Haggadah has survived many close calls with destruction. Historians believe that it was taken out of Spain by Spanish Jews who were all expelled by the Alhambra Decree in 1492. Notes in the margins of the Haggadah indicate that it surfaced in Italy in the 16th century. It was sold to the National Museum in Sarajevo in 1894 by a man named Joseph Kohen.
During World War II, the manuscript was hidden from the Nazis by the Museum's chief librarian, who at risk to his own life, smuggled the Haggadah out of Sarajevo. He gave it to a Muslim cleric who hid it under the floorboards of either a mosque or a Muslim home. In 1992 during the Bosnian War the Haggadah manuscript survived a museum break-in and it was discovered on the floor during the police investigation by a local Inspector, with many other items thieves believed were not valuable. Then it survived in an underground bank vault during the siege of Sarajevo by Serb forces. To quell rumours that the government had sold the Haggadah in order to buy weapons, the president of Bosnia presented the manuscript at a Jewish community Seder in 1995.

This is an amazing story in itself and obviously fired the imagination of the author. The history of Derviš Korkut, who saved the book from the Nazis, was told in an article by Geraldine Brooks in The New Yorker magazine. The article also sets out the story of the young Jewish girl, Mira Papo, whom Korkut and his wife hid from the Nazis as they were acting to save the Haggadah. In a twist of fate, as an elderly woman in Israel, Mira Papo secured the safety of Korkut's daughter during the Bosnian war in the 1990s. Altogether the whole thing is fascinating.  

Geraldine Brooks, was a newspaper correspondent in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war and was fortunate enough to have witnessed the uncovering of the book in Sarajevo. She has also done meticulous research on the art of book conservation, and on what can be deduced about a book's history from microscopic examination, not only of the parchment and the colours, but also from tiny foreign bodies that have been trapped in the book. 

In the story an insect’s wing, a white hair, wine and salt stains were discovered. Like a detective Hanna proceeds to try and trace the book's earlier history, moving backwards from the present. What was the significance of these clues? Which part of the world did the insect come from, and was the white hair human? Was it cut or plucked? what happened to the silver clasps which were missing, and why was the Haggadah so lavishly illuminated at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind?  
The chapters alternate between Hanna's present day life with all its current dramas, and historical fiction, taking us back through time and concentrating on each era’s affect on the Haggadah. So it explores the persecution of the Jews in recent times and back to the Spanish Inquisition, times of terrible turmoil and upheaval. I could have done without the gory details of the cruelty and barbarity, but I suppose that is an integral part of the history.  
At the front of the book there is a map which traces the imagined global journey of the Haggadah. At the back there is an afterword about the author. In Hebrew you would say ‘Kol haKavod’ - ‘all the honour’. She has written a magnificent book, a lot of hard work went into researching it and the result is excellent. A copy of the Sarajevo Haggadah was given to former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair by the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina Mustafa Ceric during the awards ceremony for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation's Faith Shorts competition in December 2011. The Grand Mufti presented it as a symbol of interfaith cooperation and respect, while recounting the protection of the Jewish book by Muslims on two occasions in history.

No comments: