The act of saving the Sarajevo Haggadah as Australian soap opera

Author: Miljenko Jergovic
Uploaded: Monday, 07 December, 2009

Indignant review by a prominent Bosnian writer of an Australian popular novel, recently translated in Croatia, that is set in Sarajevo and purports to draw on real events in the city's wartime past

(Review of People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks [Fourth Estate, 2008], recently published in Croatian translation)


How much can an author make up, and how, when writing about a concrete historical event such as, for example, the kidnapping of Lindbergh’s baby or Kennedy’s journey to Dallas? If they are good narrators, and if their distance from the reality and the facts is aimed at forging a story more persuasive than the reality, then writers are free to invent practically everything. The only thing that they must respect is the spirit of the historical event and the integrity of the historical personalities.

It must be clear, for example, that the kidnapped child is the child of Charles Lindbergh, the daring pilot who flew across the Atlantic and was also a casual sympathiser of racism and Nazism, rather than of someone else, say a truck driver in Texas who in his spare time constructs model aircraft. On the other hand the characters of the kidnappers, Lindbergh’s friends and the nanny can be freely interpreted, because they are not historical personalities and their stories do not form part of history’s reflecting image, of the historical event.

In 1992 the well-known Sarajevo academic and historian Enver Imamović, who worked for the National Museum, risked his life in order to save, practically from the frontline, the seven- hundred-year-old Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish book of rites of the greatest cultural value. The Haggadah was then deposited in the vaults of the National Bank where, thanks to the Bosnian government and Alija Izetbegović, it remained until the end of the war.

Unpalatable restorers

It was then restored with the help of the international community and put on display in a specially designed room at the National Museum. During the war the Haggadah was the subject of assorted speculation and gossip, of patriotic as well as anti-Muslim constructions and fabrications. It was said, for instance, that the Israelis had offered Izetbegović weapons in exchange for the Haggadah, but that he had refused. Gossip in our parts provides a footnote to every historical event, and serves to differentiate true history from what in our perspective appears to be unhistorical and unimportant.

The Australian-born Geraldine Brooks, a writer who occasionally reported from wartime Bosnia for the Wall Street Journal, wished to write a novel, a detective story with historical, political and multicultural ingredients and admixtures, about the Sarajevo Haggadah. This in itself is praiseworthy. She researched many things along the way, including, for example, the methods used in book restoration, which also does her credit.

She begins her story with what made the Haggadah internationally famous - its wartime fate. In the spring of 1996 an Australian female book restorer comes to war-torn Sarajevo to refurbish the precious book and protect it from decay. This element of local identity is sufficient for Geraldine Brooks to tell the ignorant reader without further delay a story about the political situation in the country. Since the Bosniaks are in fact Muslims, heavily subsidized by Saudi Arabia, they did not at all wish the restorer to be - an Israeli. And since the Bosniaks, the author further expounds, ‘blame Germany for having started the war by recognising Slovenia and Croatia’, they found it unacceptable for the restorer to be a German national. Also, since ‘the US Congress is forever snapping at UNESCO’, the UN military in Sarajevo did not like the idea of having an American restore the Sarajevo Haggadah. Which explains, does it not, the decision that the restorer should be - a woman from Australia? Just like in the advertisement for Kosmodisk: it may sound ridiculous, but my back pain is gone.

Fear of Muslims

It is possible, who knows, that somewhere far away, in Sidney or Manila, or at Chicago airport, there are readers who will find this virtuoso riff convincing, and learn from it what the Bosnian Muslims, one and all, really think about German and Israeli book restorers. But Croatian readers know a bit more about Bosnian Muslims, so Geraldine Brooks’s political expertise will strike them as, at best, silly. (Though even here you can find a suppressed but panicky fear of Muslims, similar to that experienced by a Sidney housewife watching TV reports from Iraq as she pours milk over her cornflakes, and they all seem the same to her- fanatical and crazy.) For does it not strike you as rather unconvincing that the inhabitants of Sarajevo, or for that matter Izetbegović’s government, should make or should have made no distinction between Israeli state policy and Israeli book lovers? Not to speak of the alleged attitude of Bosnian Muslims to Germany’s recognition of Slovenia and Croatia, and the assertion that in their view it was this that caused the war.

Conflict of civilisations

But this is only the beginning! Real pandemonium breaks out when the lady restorer meets the young historian Ozren (name taken from a prewar English-language primer published by the Sarajevo firm Svjetlost: ‘My name is Ozren! What is your name?’), a slim man wearing ‘torn jeans’ and a ‘tattered leather jacket’ over a ‘crumpled white T-shirt’. The description is enough to tell any alarmed reader who has at least once in his life dipped into one of the romantic novels put out by Gloria that the restorer will end up in bed with the young Sarajevo curator. Naturally, to make it all the more vivid, the young man must already be married and have a dying child. The heroine, moved, offers medical care for his child, but he tells her that there is no hope, and raises the matter to the level of a civilisational clash: ‘It is you, not us, who are superstitious. You like to believe that you can cheat death, and are offended when you realise you can’t.’ Ah, the Sidney housewife thrills, what a fine example of Oriental fatalism!

All this takes place in his little room above a cake shop at Slatki Ugao [Sweet Corner]. But why not at Slatki Kutak, we might ask the book’s translator: doesn’t kutak sound more Croat? And if we wished to go for authenticity, wouldn’t it be Slatko Ćoše, which is what the actual place in Sarajevo is called. Unfortunately, as it happens, the cake shop in question is in a single-story wooden structure, making it impossible for Ozren’s room to be above it. Geraldine Brooks is free to invent an additional floor, of course; but why she should wish to do so we shall never learn, because it is not something that would bother her.

What does the real rescuer think?

This is only the beginning of a consistently and thoroughly nonsensical story, a thriller lacking suspense or any meaningful plot, one that would undoubtedly have provided the late Edward Said with a Bosnian version of his Orientalist nightmare. What interested me most by the end of the story was what the true rescuer of the Haggadah thought about it, and how he felt when Geraldine thrust her heroine into his bed, up there in the clouds above Slatko Ćoše? To Geraldine Brooks, however, he was just some illiterate tribesman whose story was anyway outside history, which is why the historical context of the Sarajevo Haggadah did not concern her. For this reason alone her book is beneath contempt.

Translated from Jutarnji list (Zagreb), 10 November 2009. One of the most successful and prolific younger Bosnian writers, Jergović now lives in Zagreb. He has published poetry, essays, short stories and novels, and is best known in the English-speaking world for his collection Sarajevo Marlboro (Penguin, 1997)

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