Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Case Study No. 1355: Dr. Ozren Karaman

People of the Book
Trailer for 'People of the Book', Geraldine Brooks's epic story of an ancient Jewish book and the lives it touched.
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How many stories does one book tell?

The story of the people who wrote it?

The story of those who kept it?

The story of men who bought and sold it ...

Those that hunted it ...

And those who died to protect it ...

But the biggest story ...

Is the one that remains untold ...

From Geraldine Brooks
Bestselling author of March and Year of Wonders

Comes a tale of courage, love, tragedy and overcoming the impossible ...

Five centures in the making ...

People of the Book
Out Now



"People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks (New York : Viking Press, 2008)

In her dazzling new novel, Geraldine Brooks allows both her native land and current events to play a larger role while still continuing to mine the historical material that speaks so ardently to her imagination. Late one night in the city of Sydney, Hanna Heath, a rare book conservator, gets a phone call. The Sarajevo Haggadah, which disappeared during the siege in 1992, has been found, and Hanna has been invited by the U.N. to report on its condition. Missing documents and art works (as Dan Brown and Lev Grossman, among others, have demonstrated) are endlessly appealing, and from this inviting premise Brooks spins her story in two directions. In the present, we follow the resolutely independent Hanna through her thrilling first encounter with the beautifully illustrated codex and her discovery of the tiny signs-a white hair, an insect wing, missing clasps, a drop of salt, a wine stain-that will help her to discover its provenance. Along with the book she also meets its savior, a Muslim librarian named Karaman. Their romance offers both predictable pleasures and genuine surprises, as does the other main relationship in Hanna's life: her fraught connection with her mother. In the other strand of the narrative we learn, moving backward through time, how the codex came to be lost and found, and made. From the opening section, set in Sarajevo in 1940, to the final section, set in Seville in 1480, these narratives show Brooks writing at her very best. With equal authority she depicts the struggles of a young girl to escape the Nazis, a duel of wits between an inquisitor and a rabbi living in the Venice ghetto, and a girl's passionate relationship with her mistress in a harem. Like the illustrations in the Haggadah, each of these sections transports the reader to a fully realized, vividly peopled world. And each gives a glimpse of both the long history of anti-Semitism and of the struggle of women toward the independence that Hanna, despite her mother's lectures, tends to take for granted. Brooks is too good a novelist to belabor her political messages, but her depiction of the Haggadah bringing together Jews, Christians and Muslims could not be more timely. Her gift for storytelling, happily, is timeless.



People of the Book is a 2008 historical fiction novel by Geraldine Brooks. The story focuses on an imagined past of the still extant Sarajevo Haggadah, one of the oldest surviving Jewish illuminated texts.

Plot Summary

In 1996, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare book expert, is offered a job by the UN to conserve the Sarajevo Haggadah, after it is discovered intact, even though many had feared it had been destroyed during the heavy shelling of the city. Dr. Ozren Karaman, (a fictitious character, based on a real person), is chief librarian of the Sarajevo National Museum and professor of "librarianship" at the National University of Bosnia. Dr. Karaman, a Muslim, risked his life to save a Jewish book.

Hanna's task is to prepare the fragile volume for an exhibition at a newly built museum. As she works, she finds clues to the haggadah's history - an insect's wing, a fine white hair, stains of wine and blood on a few pages, missing clasps, and a few grains of salt. She is determined to solve the mystery of the extraordinary object's provenance. She and Dr. Karaman begin a tentative romance at this point. Hanna, a most appealing person, and an irreverent Aussie, has problems with relationships, both with men and with her mother. This is due to past events which occurred in Hanna's childhood and provide an interesting glimpse into her character.

There are frequent flashbacks to medieval Spain, 15th century Venice, 19th century Vienna, Jewish communities near the the Adriatic Sea in the 1940s, and to Seville in 1480, where the reader finally meets the illuminator who created the haggadah. We are introduced to the people who came into contact with the book throughout its history and protected it.



Hanna Heath has cultivated a life of exquisite detachment. Raised by an aloof and often absent mother, she has eschewed any kind of deep emotional involvement. But—as an expert on rare books and an Australian whose nationality makes her the least controversial political choice to inspect a priceless Hebrew codex—Hanna is about to be plunged into a dangerous drama that will force her to confront both her past and the passions she has worked so hard to conceal.

It is 1996 when Hanna first flies to Sarajevo. The city's peace is new and still tenuous but the opportunity to inspect the famous Sarajevo Haggadah is a career-maker that she cannot pass up. A lavishly illuminated medieval Hebrew text, this Haggadah is an anomaly that has fascinated scholars for generations and its survival in war-torn Bosnia is hailed as "a symbol of the survival of Sarajevo's multiethnic ideal."

Initially put off by her armed U.N. escort and the intense scrutiny of the National Museum where she is forced to perform her delicate work, Hanna is nonetheless mesmerized by the book's astonishing beauty. She studies its inks and parchment and recovers a fragment of an insect wing, salt crystals, wine stains, and a single white hair from between the delicate pages. She also notes that the clumsily rebound book is missing its original clasps. Each discovery is a clue that offers to unlock a chapter of the Haggadah's mysterious history.

But Hanna becomes involved with more than the book during her time in Sarajevo. After she completes her initial documentation and repair work and leaves the city, she remains haunted by the few nights of intimacy she shared with Ozren Karaman, the Muslim librarian who braved enemy shelling to rescue the Hagaddah. As she travels from Vienna to Boston and then to London in the hope of deciphering her scant evidence, Hanna fleshes out shadows of the book's past. Simultaneously, Brooks reveals the gripping tale of survival behind each miniscule artifact.

During World War II, a young partisan is saved by the same Muslim who risks his life to protect the Haggadah from the Nazis. In fin-de-si├Ęcle Vienna, a Jewish doctor unwittingly plays a role in the theft of the book's clasps. In Inquisition-era Venice, a Catholic priest's most damning secret spares the book from burning. In Tarragona in 1492, a poor scribe completes the text just days before the expulsion of Spain's entire Jewish community. And in Seville in 1480, the unlikely artist paints a self-portrait into the Seder illustration.

Hanna is thrilled by her discoveries, little suspecting that her professional and personal worlds are about to come crashing down around her. When she returns to Sarajevo under very different circumstances, Hanna can no longer remain a dispassionate observer and finds that she has become one of the "people of the book" whose passions and sufferings, nobility and frailty contribute to the Hagaddah's continuing history.

The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning March and Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks has made a name for herself as one of the foremost novelists of our era. In People of the Book—inspired by the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah—she brilliantly interweaves an epic historical saga of persecution and survival with a powerful modern-day tale of private betrayals and international intrigue.



People of the Book

By Geraldine Brooks

Viking, 372 pages, $25.95

In "Year of Wonders" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "March," journalist-turned-novelist Geraldine Brooks took imaginative flight from a firm basis in fact, confronting her characters with the meticulously researched horrors of the bubonic plague and the Civil War. Catastrophic historical events also propel the action in her new novel, "People of the Book," which follows the peregrinations of the Sarajevo Haggadah across six centuries.

"Created in medieval Spain, [the Haggadah] was a famous rarity, a lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscript made at a time when Jewish belief was firmly against illustrations of any kind," explains Brooks' narrator, 30-year-old rare-book conservator Hanna Heath. In April 1996, when a phone call to her home in Sydney wakes her in the middle of the night, the Haggadah has been missing from the National Museum of Bosnia for four years, ever since the museum came under fire during the siege of Sarajevo.

It was hidden, Hanna is told, by the museum's chief librarian, Ozren Karaman, who spirited it away during heavy shelling to a safe-deposit box in the city's central bank. Now, with an uneasy cease-fire in place, Hanna is hired to report on its condition and perform any necessary conservation so it can be exhibited as "a symbol of the survival of Sarajevo's multiethnic ideal."

That ideal has been badly battered, the librarian tells Hanna over dinner following her first day's work at the bank. In the beginning, Ozren recalls, cosmopolitan Sarajevans scoffed, "How could you possibly have an ethnic war here, in this city, when every second person is the product of a mixed marriage?" He's a non-observant Muslim, his best friend an uncircumcised Jew:

"[O]ur parents were all leftists, they thought such things were primitive. . . .

"Of course, you don't have to be stupid and primitive to die a stupid, primitive death. We know that now."

Just a few days after embarking on what she thought would be a lighthearted affair with Ozren, Hanna learns that in 1994 his wife was killed by a Serbian sniper while standing in a UN water line with their infant son. His skull pierced by a fragment of the bullet, the boy remains hospitalized in a coma.

Brooks skillfully sets the stage for everything that follows her information-packed yet highly readable opening chapter. Hanna's initial examination of the Haggadah unobtrusively educates readers in the technical details of her craft, while her catalog of the various stains and foreign objects she finds in it lays out the clues she will pursue to unravel its history. Her warm appreciation of the manuscript's physical beauty reveals a woman who tenderly values books for what they reveal about their makers' learning and artistry, who loves her work because it gives her the opportunity to "add my few grains to the sandbox of human knowledge."

Her guiltily inadequate response to Ozren's personal tragedy suggests she's so committed to her work because she can't commit herself to another human being; bitter asides about her mother, a hard-driving surgeon, hint at childhood roots for that skittishness. Hanna's sharp-tongued Aussie humor, directed at herself as often as at others, ensures readers' affection for this conflicted hero. As the Haggadah's story unfolds in reverse chronological order, becoming grimmer with each step backward in time, it's a relief to return at intervals to Brooks' flawed but appealing contemporary narrator, who makes mistakes but is trying to do the right thing.

Hanna leaves Sarajevo (and her unresolved relationship with Ozren) carrying a batch of glassine envelopes containing samples of what she found in the Haggadah: an insect wing, a wine stain, a splash of salt water, and a white hair. She heads for Vienna, where the Haggadah had been offered for sale by a poor Jewish family in 1894. Hanna studied book conservation there in the '80s with Werner Heinrich, an elderly German who atoned for his teenage service in the Nazi army by becoming a specialist in Hebrew manuscripts. She hopes he will help her get access to hundred-year-old records documenting the manuscript's condition in 1894; they might explain why the clasps that once bound it are missing.

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