Thursday, January 09, 2014

Dara Horn: "A Guide for the Perplexed"

In her recent novel A Guide for the Perplexed, Dara Horn successfully attempts a very difficult combination of historical fiction in two different eras with contemporary genre fiction about the makers of a software product for capturing human experience. The scope of this fictional software goes beyond what I think is currently possible, so I call it genre fiction.

The unifying theme of the three parallel stories is memory. The unifying location is the Cairo Genizah, a storehouse of documents from the medieval era that was discovered in the late 19th century. The unifying philosophy comes from Maimonides' book A Guide for the Perplexed. Another unifying theme is the relationship of pairs of brothers or sisters; each of the three plotlines includes at least one and sometimes more than one set of siblings. I was aware of the historical characters in this novel, so I found the historical fiction about the events absolutely absorbing.

Somehow Horn works all of these themes together into a fascinating tale of suspense involving a remarkably talented woman, Josie, creator of the software I mentioned before: a memory aide called genizah. The central plot is Josie's kidnapping by Egyptian fanatics while representing her corporation and its product. During her captivity she has a copy of Maimonides' Guide as her only reading matter and only consolation.

The earlier of the two historical parts of the story takes place in Fustat, near Cairo, in the 12th century; it reconstructs the life of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides. Horn envisions the events that lead up to his depositing a number of documents in the Genizah, a storage room in the synagogue of Fustat. In particular she places his relationship with his brother in the center of the events: a letter concerning the loss of his brother at sea is one of the treasures found in the Genizah when its contents were examined in the 19th century.

The 19th century part of the history concerns Solomon Schecter, a Jewish scholar at Cambridge University in England. At the suggestion of two women, twins -- Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson -- who had purchased medieval manuscripts in Cairo, he traveled to Cairo and obtained the majority of the Genizah manuscripts for Cambridge, including those from Maimonides. I learned from this story of Shecter's origins in Romania and of his twin brother, who immigrated to Israel. (I checked -- the facts in the historical portions of the novel appear to be fully based on the historical reality: source.)

I won't include any spoilers about the detailed story of Josie's relationship with her family (including her sister) and with the people she meets in Egypt, including her kidnappers. It's completely engrossing and unlike many such stories, remarkably believable.


Jeanie said...

This sounds pretty fascinating. Wonder if I can talk the book club into this one sometime over the course of the year. Thanks for the overview!

Olga said...

I read the book this week. Somehow I couldn't get into the story. I felt like the author was using a difficult family relationship to give us a historical review of the life of Moses Maimonides, Solomon Schechter and the "Ladies of Sinai", and the contemporary Middle Eastern conflict. Frankly I didn'tthink the idea of a computer-based genizah was even useful.
Still the book inspired me to read more about the British ladies who helped find the Cairo genizah - and definitely to find a good translation of the Maimonides.

Mae Travels said...

Interesting that your reaction was so different than mine, Olga. Of course the two modern families (the family of the kidnapped woman and that of the kidnappers) were both difficult, but for me it made a good story!