Sunday, 2 August 2009
Cricket lovers in England and other cricket-playing countries will have been saddened by the retirement of Michael Vaughn, last month. The former England captain finally accepted that he had lost the battle against the recurrent knee injury. Vaughn had hoped for one last hurrah against the Aussies this season, but continued concerns about his fitness and lack of form in the County championship meant that the man who led England to a historic Ashes win in 2005 was left out of the test squad. Vaughn, in a style characteristic of his batting, did not waste much time dithering, and announced his retirement from all forms of cricket with immediate effect.
Vaughn was England’s most successful cricket captain in recent years. The statistics speak for themselves. He won 26 out of 51 tests in which he captained England, a very impressive success rate of more than 50%. He led England to six successive test series victories in a row, which included, in addition to the Ashes win in 2005—the first time in twenty years England beat the old enemy—a first series-win in South Africa for more than forty years. He also became the first England captain not to lose a test series in India for more than 30 years when England belied pundits’ predictions of a ‘brownwash’ and squared the series. Andrew Flintoff had no hesitation in choosing the best moments of his career: ‘It was when Michael Vaughn took over as captain for the South Africa series and the years after that,’ said the all-rounder, whose own test career, riven by injuries, will sadly come to an end at the end of the current Ashes series. Most England test players of recent years, who played with or under Vaughn would agree. Vaughn’s relaxed style of captaincy was in sharp contrast to the dour, bum-cheeks-firmly-clenched style of his predecessor, Nasir Hussain. For Hussain, a test match was a war and losing it was a catastrophe; the players needed to be badgered and continuously exhorted to focus; he rarely smiled on the field—one would feel sore in muscles by just watching his intense, glowering countenance. For Vaughn, as the cliché goes, cricket was just a game; he treated people as grown-ups, allowed his players the freedom to do their own things—he knew that players like Flintoff and Pieterson needed to be given an attacking license even if that meant that sometimes they played injudicious shots when caution was required— and, counterintuitively, got the best out of his players. Matthew Hoggard, another seamer who flourished under Vaughn, put it even more bluntly than Flintoff. When asked whom he preferred playing for, Vaughn or Hussain, Hogaard answered without hesitation: ‘Vaughn. He does not shout at me as much as Naseer.’ Vaughn brought a sense of fun and enjoyment to the England dressing room. Boycott, who is known to suffer from tongue impediment when it comes to praising people, compared Vaughn to Mike Brearley. The comparison is apposite: both Brearley and Vaughn succeeded in blending harmoniously the talents of diverse groups of players to forge winning units. They were both unflappable, calm, collected and had excellent man-management skills.
Unlike Brearley, who even by his own estimation was a mediocre batsman (he was that rare entity in cricket; he held his place in the team because of his leadership skills and not playing abilities), Vaughn was a very gifted batsman, who, at his best ranked amongst the top players in the world. Blessed with oodles of natural talent, he had a kind of lazy grace, which made batting look easy and world-class bowlers club-class. At his peak Vaughn was one of the most majestic players to watch, who utterly dominated the opponents. Different batsmen have different styles of batting. Some, like Boycott and Gavaskar, systematically ground the opposition to dust by batting for hours. (I remember watching a test match between England and India when Sunny Gavaskar batted for almost three days—he scored 70 runs on the first day, added another 70 on the second, and batted for a few more hours on the third day; when he finally got out having scored 170 odd runs, the test match was dead and all except die-hard Gavaskar fans had lost the will to live. Boycott was once dropped from the side after he scored 246 because the selection committee felt he took too long to score the runs and put his personal milestones ahead of the interests of the team.) Others, like Vivian Richards, wanted to destroy the opposition from the first ball. Vaughn’s style can be best described as silken. He was temperamentally incapable of being a grinder; neither was he a destroyer. He was pure elegance and a treat to watch. Repeatedly the bowlers were left shaking their heads in wonder and admiration as Vaughn leaned into his trademark cover drive sending the ball to the boundary as if in a slow motion. Vaughn was probably at his best in the 2002 and 2003 season. He scored three big hundreds against India, which included 197 in the second test, his highest score in tests, and 195 in the last test. He continued his excellent form when England toured Australia and scored three big hundreds in an otherwise dire tour for England, which included a match-winning 183 in the final test. He became, briefly, during this period, the number one batsman in the world, according to ICC ranking, ahead of Tendulakar and Lara. It was inevitable that he would lead England when Nasir Hussain stepped down in 2003. At that time his test batting average was an impressive 50.98. Vaughn did not manage to maintain the same form and consistency over the next few years which could have been a result of knee problems and the pressure of captaincy; but he scored when it mattered, and when he got going, like he did when he scored a regal 166 in the epic 2005 Ashes series, he was a pleasure to watch. He had wanted to play for England again and had withdrawn from the lucrative IPL (Indian Premiere League) in order to concentrate on his return to the test squad. However, his form deserted him; playing for Yorkshire, he managed 159 runs in eight innings, and Newspapers began speculating whether he would retain his place in the Yorkshire team. In the press conference, announcing his retirement Vaughn was brutal in his own assessment. ‘I guess two weeks ago in the garden with my little lad Archie, he bowled a ball that hit a weed and it knocked my off-stump out of the ground. I think that was the time. If a three-year-old is bowling me out, it's time to move over.’ When asked how he would liked to be remembered, he replied, ‘As a nice player on the eye, and an intuitive captain with an attacking style.’ He certainly was that.
In the afterword of her novel, People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks mentions that the novel was inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks, who, for years, worked as a newspaper reporter, first heard of the Haggadah when she was in Bosnia, in the early 1990s, covering the Bosnian war. (In a talk given in a literary event to promote the novel, Brooks said that the Serbs were deliberately targeting the City’s library, the National Museum, and The Oriental Institute, intent as they were on the cultural annihilation of the Bosnians.) The fate of the Sarajevo Haggadah, which had resided in the city for over hundred years—it came to light in Sarajevo, the outermost post of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in 1894, the year in which Gavrilo Princip, the Yugoslav nationalist, who, twenty years later, would assassinate Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Hapsburg empire, and his wife, an event that would trigger the First World War, was born—was not known at the time. After the Bosnian wars of the 1990s ended, it was revealed that a Muslim librarian, Enver Imamovich had rescued the codex at the height of the war when Sarajevo was being shelled every day, and hidden it in a bank vault. The librarian, Brooks recounted in a talk, requested the City’s police force to accompany him into the museum. The police, unsurprisingly, were not keen. Imamovich then announced that he would go into the museum on his own and the police force was shamed into giving him an escort of six police officers into the museum. However, this was not the first time in the twentieth century that the Haggadah was saved from destruction in nick of time. In 1941, Dervis Korkut, an Islamic scholar smuggled it out of the museum and saved it from falling into the hands of a Nazi General, Johan Hans Fortner (subsequently hanged for war crimes). The Haggadah, which is thought to have created in Spain sometime in the middle of the fifteenth century; which somehow survived the years of Jewish expulsion from Spain; which travelled across more than one European country—in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it had made its way to Venice, where it was saved from the book burnings of the Pope’s Inquisition by a Catholic priest called Vistrioni—before emerging, 250 years later, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where an indigenous and impoverished Jewish family, which had had the Haggadah in its possession for at least a century, offered it to the authorities for sale; which, after spending a few months in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire where it was sent for restoration (and where it was terribly mishandled) was returned to Sarajevo; and which has survived the turbulent twentieth century that saw the two Great Wars and a Civil war, now sits in the restored National Museum in Sarajevo.
Hannah Heath, an Australian rare-books expert, is offered the job of restoring the Sarajevo Haggadah, which, it has turned out, was not destroyed or lost, as feared by many, during the civil war that engulfed Bosnia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. She meets the man who has saved the Haggadah during the war. The man informs her that the book was saved half a century earlier by the then librarian from falling into the hands of the Nazis. This arouses Hannah’s interest in the book. While restoring the Haggadah she also discovers interesting artefacts such as an insect’s wing, wine and blood stains, traces of salt, and white hair probably of a cat. She is also intrigued by the imagery depicted in the Haggadah, which shows what appears to be a Moorish woman amongst a Jewish family. Hannah assumes that the woman was a family servant, and is puzzled by her presence in the imagery. Hannah decides to investigate further and her investigations take her to Europe and America. The chapters telling Hannah’s story are interlocked with a series of flashbacks, each a quasi-historical vignette, as the novel goes back in time and traces the crucial moments in the 600-year history of the Haggadah. Each artefact Hannah discovers serves as a springboard for Brooks to spin an engrossing yarn, each one different from the next. The ‘historical’ chapters, separate as they are, are still linked by the Haggadah; however, there is a very clear motif: the trials and tribulations of the Jewish race over the centuries. As the novel goes back in time, tracing the provenance of the Haggadah, there is, perforce, rather a lot about the treatment of the Jewish people over centuries at the hands of the Christians; the reader at times may feel a bit deluged by unpleasant images of cruelty and torture.
Brooks may not have the stylistic flair to her narrative, but her prose flows easily, and, coupled with the riveting storyline involving plausible, if imperfect, characters, the narrative sucks you in. However, Brooks also appears to have a hidden agenda. People of the Book is not just a literary mystery—the first one to be published since A.S. Byatt’s Possessions—it is also attempting—and not very subtly—a quasi-political message: Jews and Muslims can live in harmony, sharing as they do the same roots. This theme recurs so often that you might as well be getting hit over the head with it—very little is left to piece together. Those who prefer their authors’ messages to be subtle, may feel a tad disappointed. All the characters in the novel, especially the Muslims, behave with impeccable integrity, tolerance, and understanding. They are all saints—wise, gentle, self-sacrificing, and not blood but milk of human kindness flows through their veins. The reader is always conscious of the ventriloquistic presence of Brooks, the puppeteer, pulling strings, intent on conducting a lesson in religious tolerance—it seems a bit contrived at times, and makes for rather thin, one dimensional fictional universe. The female characters, through the ages, are all crypto-feminists, or at least think like contemporary feminists. Thus the Moorish woman, the one who is credited in the novel as the creator of the images in the Haggadah, animadverts the Emir for his religious intolerance, while a Bosnian woman in the middle of the twentieth century decides that the Nazis are evil because they are against diversity! That said the historical sections are the most satisfying part of the novel. Brooks, a former Wall Street correspondent, is in her elements here, doing what she probably loves the most—researching extensively to create for the reader a tableau vivant of a bygone world, be it seventeenth century Venice, or fifteenth century Spain. By contrast, the ‘modern’ section of the novel, the story of the main protagonist Hannah, her relationships with her friends and colleagues, and her overbearing Neurosurgeon mother, the mystery of her absent father, who—surprise! Surprise!—turns out to be Jewish (the extraneous plot-line merely distracts from the compelling mystery of the Haggadah), leading, eventually, to the melodramatic, implausible and unconvincing finale, fails to grip. Hannah, rather than coming across gutsy, intelligent, and resourceful, comes across as irritating, opinionated and hysterical.
People of the Book shows glimpses of what Geraldine Brooks, who won the Pulitzer for an earlier novel, March, is capable of. The novel has passages of great beauty and emotions, and tackles grand themes which have contemporary resonance, sometimes in predictable ways, sometimes in flights of fancy that demand suspension of credulity by the reader.