Archive for April, 2011


This book roams across 500 years of european history. The author is Australian, it covers 3 major religions, and its told in the voice of a middle-class sydneyite, not unlike the bookgroupers. All very promising ingredients one would think.

Despite this not all bookgroupers felt the result lived up to the promise. As outlined in this readers guide and this review the story is based on a true story about a very unusual ancient illuminated Jewish text known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. It is unusual for two reasons. Firstly, it was saved by muslim museum curators in Sarajevo not once but twice, first during the holocaust and then in the bosnian war. Secondly, it is illuminated like christian texts such as the book of kells, when both the jewish and islamic traditions include prohibitions on image making.

The author invents a detailed history of the book’s creation across the centuries, based on a few small artifacts found in the book during its conservation – a butterfly wing, a wine stain containing blood, evidence that some beautiful gold clasps that once held the book together had been stolen, a grain of salt, and a cat hair.

She creates a story that explains how each of these artifacts came to be associated with the book. Each story is set in a very distinctive period of european history: sarajevo in the second world war; venice during the inquisition; vienna in the 1890s; spain during the expulsion of the jews; and spain during the convivencia, before the expulsion. Its clear that the author intends these stories to collectively illustrate how the book embodies the interaction of judaism, christianity and islam, throughout history and throughout europe.

The bookgroup was completely split down the middle on the book. The core of the dispute seems to center on this structure – both in its use as a literary device and as a didactic call for religious tolerance.

At the literary level, those who strongly disliked the book were frustrated by this series of short stories, the lack of a narrative to connect them, and what they saw as their peopling with a series of fairly cliched characters and events. Similarly it seemed they were annoyed by the pretty transparent attempt to use this imagined history for somewhat saccharine ideological purposes, that is, as argument for religious tolerance.

On the other hand, those of us who liked the book, revelled in three key things: the very well researched, detailed accounts of life in some of the most fascinating places and times in european history; the cleverness of creating all this detail from tiny clues found in the real history of the book; and tying all this together with a grand theme of great relevance today, that is, religious tolerance.

Personally I really enjoyed it, partly i think because it was so plainly an australian reflection on european history, but also the specific times of history chosen. Vienna at the turn of the 20th century really was amazing with freud, einstein etc all there at the same time. Similarly, the convivencia sounds terrific. It is the reason that today we know about greek and roman history and philosophy because christian, jewish and muslim scholars all gathered together, and the islamic scholars brought with them greek and roman texts that had been lost from europe. also the influence of the time still lives on physically as well as philosophically, I remember being shocked when I went to southern spain, because it looked so arab rather than european.

if i was searching for negatives, i’d agree there are a few cliched or wooden characters. Its almost as if the author was trying to get a film contract, so she inserted a number unlikely, but interesting and visually striking characters, that would fit in well with a hollywood film script. Secondly, i was not convinced by the message. for me the blood soaked history of the book was not a convincing argument for religious tolerance. rather, it was a demonstration of how equally apalling all three religions are. To take it one step further, it made me question whether we should really celebrate beautiful religious artifacts such as this, when what they stand for is not peace and beauty, but violence and misogeny?


April 16, 2011 at 4:46 am 2 comments


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