Thursday, January 09, 2014
Dara Horn: "A Guide for the Perplexed"
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.
Posted by Mae Travels at 11:28 AM