Mai­monides, mor­tal­ity and a mys­te­ri­ous death



W W Nor­ton, £8.99

PART HI-TECH thriller, part mys­ti­cal med­i­ta­tion, Dara Horn’s A Guide for the Per­plexed, takes Jewish fic­tion down a path far re­moved from what she calls “Shtetl­world” — that nostal­gic lit­er­ary genre evok­ing van­ished East­ern Europe. Not that Horn’s drama of kid­nap in con­tem­po­rary Egypt (Josie, the vic­tim, is a bril­liant, young, Jewish com­puter pro­gram­mer, wife and mother taken while up­dat­ing the great Li­brary of Alexan­dria) lacks links with our his­tory. Be­neath the pulse-quick­en­ing sur­face plot, other nar­ra­tive lay­ers flesh out what is, at heart, a re­flec­tion on mem­ory and how its mean­ing shifts over time.

While there’s a touch of Dan Brown der­ring-do to the novel there is also some­thing of Paulo Coelho’s spir­i­tual quest­ing. But Per­plexed is es­sen­tially its own su­per-smart and im­pres­sive cre­ation — the fourth book by this 36-yearold mother of four, He­brew scholar and Har­vard-ed­u­cated lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor.

Dara Horn has spo­ken of liv­ing two lives — fam­ily and fic­tion — and of the con­trast between the records we write and our in­evitable mor­tal­ity. “Ev­ery hu­man be­ing,” her book ob­serves, “be­comes the op­po­site of an ar­chive.”

Horn takes her ti­tle, of course, from Moses Mai­monides’s great, 12th cen­tury work. And it is apt be­cause his fa­mous oeu­vre is all that Josie has for dis­trac­tion while holed up in a filthy dun­geon per­fect­ing her unique com­puter app for name­less ab­duc­tors who will surely kill her when the job (a vir­tual ar­chive of hu­man mem­ory) is done.

For the first time in her golden life, Josie — the brighter, more beloved and beau­ti­ful of two sisters — is forced to be still, to con­tem­plate the ori­gins of good and evil, the ar­gu­ment for free will over divine pre­des­ti­na­tion.

What has brought her to this ter­ri­fy­ing brink? Had she de­cided against mak­ing the risky but pres­ti­gious trip to Egypt, Josie’s hus­band Ita­mar and strange lit­tle daugh­ter Tali might never have had to con­front the video of her hang­ing, life­less, from a rope… nor take du­bi­ous com­fort from her jeal­ous sis­ter Ju­dith.

Josie’s pro­gramme, code-named “Genizah”, is one, 21st-cen­tury, an­swer to the philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion: What hap­pens to days that dis­ap­pear?

SolomonSchechter,whoses­to­ry­in­ter­twines with Josie’s, pro­vides a dif­fer­ent an­swer. Schechter’s out­stand­ing, re­al­life gift to Jewish mem­ory was his dis­cov­ery of the Cairo Genizah — a sy­n­a­gogue ar­chive of 300,000 dusty doc­u­ments il­lu­mi­nat­ing the me­dieval world.

In a third story-line, Mai­monides pon­ders the loss of his brother David, despatched to In­dia in search of the mys­te­ri­ous plant or herb that might cure the great doc­tor’s most cel­e­brated pa­tient, Sal­adin.

In the an­guish of his be­reave­ment, Mai­monides asks if he, or at least his am­bi­tion, trig­gered David’s death, or if it was in­evitable.

The par­al­lels between th­ese tales of dif­fer­ent times in­vite the thought that maybe the same themes play out again and again down the sweep of the cen­turies.

As Dara Horn sug­gests, is­sues of parental love, favouritism and sib­ling ri­valry have echoed through our his­tory ever since Joseph’s broth­ers threw him in a pit. How many gen­er­a­tions have been per­plexed by ques­tion­ing divine mat­ters and plagued by fam­ily dys­func­tion?

Horn’s Guide also probes the heal­ing power of for­give­ness and con­cludes that it is con­tin­gent upon much more than sheer gen­eros­ity of spirit.

Madeleine Kings­ley is a free­lance writer

Dara Horn: schol­arly fam­ily woman

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