Australian author Geraldine Brooks admits her latest book, with its drunken priest, gambling rabbi and Muslim librarian, is “rather like the set-up of a very bad joke.
But the Pulitzer prize-winning writer has tackled the decidedly unfunny subjects of war, genocide and religious intolerance in “People of the Book, a historical puzzle dedicated to librarians and likened to the “Da Vinci Code.
Like Dan Brown’s blockbuster, “People of the Book is a fictional story that fills in the blanks of a historical and religious mystery – in this case the story of a medieval Hebrew manuscript known as the “Sarajevo haggadah.
The centuries-old Jewish book has survived the Spanish Inquisition and twice been saved from destruction by courageous Muslim librarians in its namesake city – once from the Nazis and again during the bombing of the city in the 1990s.
But how the 600-year-old illuminated manuscript arrived in Sarajevo, and why it seemingly reflects a Christian influence and carries a drawing of what appears to be a Moorish, and thus Muslim, woman has long intrigued scholars.
Brooks, who turned to historical novel writing after a career as a war correspondent, used these few facts to build her own story of how the little book survived – and has dedicated it to librarians everywhere.
“I heard about the haggadah when it was missing and its fate was completely uncertain, she told AFP on the sidelines of Australia’s premier literary festival in Adelaide last month.
“And it kind of, I guess, was banging around in my head and then when it was revealed it had been saved from the bombing by a Muslim librarian it kind of meshed with something else I had been thinking about for a long time which was the place of illuminators in the medieval period.
“The illuminator of the Sarajevo haggadah was my starting point of telling the story. And it all just went from there.
But she says there’s no temptation to combine the real-life accuracy of the journalist with the imagination of the novelist and package it as non-fiction.
“I don’t like faction, she said.
“If it’s described as a work of non-fiction then everything in it bloody better well be true as far as I’m concerned.
“But unfortunately there’s been a lot of blurring in that genre where people think it’s OK to have composite characters and change time frames.
“I think maybe you could change a name, so long as you’re totally upfront with the reader that that’s what you’ve done, but you really shouldn’t be inventing conversations that didn’t happen.
“It’s just lazy to shape the truth and then call it the truth. So call it a novel and then you can do what you want.
Even so, she is prepared to suffer to make sure the details are right.
Towards the end of the writing “People of the Book she realized that a vibrant Jewish community as she was describing it would not have existed in Barcelona at the time, forcing her to move the action to another Spanish city.
Speaking at the Adelaide Writers’ Week, which this year included Australian Peter Carey, Briton Ian McEwan and American Paul Auster and boasted an advisory committee including Nobel laureate JM Coetzee, Brooks said her writing drew heavily on her experience as a war correspondent.
She told AFP: “Covering catastrophes you would see people drawn to their best self or their worst self and I don’t think anybody knows which way they will go until they’re tested.
“But I saw a lot of incredible kindness in the middle of some pretty astonishing cruelty.
Brooks began working as a war correspondent in 1987 when she was based in Cairo for the Wall Street Journal, and says: “For eight years war was the permanent center of my life.
Her byline appeared on stories which told the world of Palestinian uprisings against Israelis, of bulldozers moving over Iranian bodies on the Iraqi border and of war in Eritrea, Somalia and Bosnia.
Brooks, who won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2006 for her historical novel “March, said that part of the reason she writes about war in her novels is because she experienced so much of it as a journalist.
The petite brunette, described by fellow Australian writer Eva Kallis as “a birdlike figure in a flak jacket, eventually gave up the job when motherhood happily intervened.
“I was ready, she said. “The phone would ring and your heart would just sink in the end because, you know, you were thinking you would have to go to another heart-breaking country in the middle of some catastrophe.
While she thinks herself lucky – “nothing really too horrible happened to me – Brooks, who is 52, said the freedom of switching to writing novels was “quite wonderful.
“I recommend it highly. It stopped me getting tension headaches and eye twitches. I loved being a journalist, I really did. I loved every step I took as a journalist but I didn’t realize how much tension I was carrying around. -AFP