Have you ever read a book and have it make a kind of crazy convergence with another book you just read? This just happened to me, and I’m finding the contrasts and the comparisons between the two books have made the reading experience richer, and more thought provoking.
Last week, I read/listened to Manuscript Found in Accra by the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho. I’ll be honest, my hopes were not high for this book. I had read The Alchemist a few years ago and it did not appeal to me at all. Modern allegorical tales like The Alchemist and Jonathan Livingston Seagull leave me cold and unmoved. But I have so many friends whose insight I value that have enjoyed Coelho’s writing , so I was willing to give him another try.
Sadly, Manuscript Found in Accra was not my kind of book. It was a sermonizing bore. The central figure of the book, the Copt, lectures and takes questions from his audience of citizens of Jerusalem, as they await the invasion of a crusader army. The audience is a group of Muslims, Jews, Christians, men and women, who ask vague questions about loneliness, beauty, and love, and the Copt answers in long, tedious philosophizing detail. Not my taste.
Geraldine Brooks’ novel People of the Book I read closely on the heels of Accra. People of the Book tells the fictional history of a real manuscript – the Sarajevo Haggadah – through the lives of the people that come in contact with the book. Brooks tells the history of the book both backwards and forwards, through the conservator that repairs the book in war torn Sarajevo, and the men and women who created the book, and protected the book through the countless pogroms and exoduses of modern Europe.
Here’s where the books collide. Manuscript Found in Accra waxes poetic about medieval Jerusalem, how it was a welcoming place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims were neighbors and lived together peaceably. The audience listening to the Copt is this mixed group of people, listening to the wise man together. I don’t know how accurate this picture of Jerusalem is, but I can tell you that it didn’t feel real when reading it.
People of the Book shows the reader religious conflict in abundance. Muslims, Christians, Jews are constantly on tenterhooks when dealing with each other, dancing around propriety and predjuce in a constantly shifting balance of power. But the book, this precious, beautifully illustrated book, gives the characters a common ground in their desire to preserve and protect it. Jews, Muslims, and Christians all conspire to save the book.
That felt true. People of different faiths – or no faith at all – coming together to preserve an object of beauty.
I think if I hadn’t read Accra just before People of the Book, I would not have appreciated the idealistic viewpoints of either book. Both books present the idealistic view that people of different faiths can live together and prosper through that life. However, People of the Book demonstrates this through the collective acts of compassion that the characters show to each other in order to save the book. Manuscript Found in Accra simply shows the nameless, multi-faithed audience, listening raptly to the Copt.
For me, the cliché – actions speak louder than words – held true.