A Guide for the Perplexed
By Dara Horn
W. W. Norton &Co, 2013, 342 pages
People who read this well-written novel will enjoy the plots in this story and learn much about the history and love of literature, ancient and modern; rational philosophy, such as do people have free will and why do people suffer; and the conditions in late twelfth and late nineteenth century Egypt, as well as the complex horrifying conditions in Egypt today. They will also find themselves thinking about the question do we remember what occurred in our past, and is history documenting what actually occurred.
The novel contains four interweaving plots: (1) A modern tale about two sister, Josie and Judith, and the creation of a computer system that records, saves, and organizes life events so that viewers can see words spoken in the past and photo. (2) The story of Moses Maimonides and his brother David during the twelfth century, with a clear and correct explanation of parts of his philosophical masterpiece The Guide for the Perplexed. (3) The bizarre and cumbersome manner in which Solomon Schechter retrieved significant and mundane ancient documents from a synagogue storing room called Genizah in the nineteenth century, and his interactions with his brother. And (4) the tale of two sisters who aided Solomon Schechter, women who had previously discovered the oldest version of the Gospel Mark, the first book of the New Testament, which clearly ended without any mention of Jesus’ resurrection. Each tale shows some conflict between the siblings and each subtly explores the subject of forgetting and remembering, and how what one recalls after events is usually not what actually occurred.
The plots, briefly stated, focus on Josie developing a computer program that Egyptian criminals want and kidnap her to secure it; Josie’s sister hating the esteem and handsome husband her brighter sister acquired; Maimonides attempting to help his people who are generally living under dismal conditions physically and mentally; Solomon Schechter trying to retrieve documents composed in the past from people who have no appreciation for science; and the help that two sisters give him.
In the first three tales one of the siblings is smarter than the other, and the other knew it and this caused the strife. The conflict is also in the fourth plot, but somewhat different and humorous. The details in the novel are based on facts although, as must occur in novels, the author takes some liberties, in this case with her invention of why Maimonides’s brother undertook his fatal sea voyage (as the author states in her afterword).