A Modern-day Tale of Love and Suspense: 1,000 Years of Jewish History in Cairo

Dara Horn audaciously combines a contemporary tale of love and suspense with a story spanning more than 1,000 years of Jewish history in Cairo.

"A Guide for the Perplexed," by Dara Horn. W.W. Norton, 352 pages, $25.95 (Hardcover)

For nearly a millennium, the genizah, or storeroom, of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo served as the final repository for discarded texts. Torah scrolls, prayer books, letters, receipts, amulets and other documents too worn to be of any use, but too precious - because of the Hebrew letters with which they were written - simply to be thrown away, piled up in the synagogue, preserved from rot by Egypt's dry climate.

This "sacred trash," as Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole aptly called it in their 2011 book of that name, has allowed scholars to rewrite the history of medieval Jewish society in the Mediterranean world.

But reading these bits of parchment is a notorious challenge. Over the centuries, the texts have crumbled and disintegrated. Poems break off midline, love spells have lost their magic words and letters are missing their signatures. Most difficult is piecing together the scattered fragments of a single page, a frustrating and painstaking task of sifting through reams of paper for the missing pieces.

The frustrations of genizah research came to mind when I read Dara Horn's newest novel, "A Guide for the Perplexed," in no small part because the Cairo Genizah features so prominently in her story. The genizah appears in all three of the interlocking narratives of this, Horn's fourth book. It serves as a potent symbol, recalling the pit into which the biblical Joseph was thrown by his brothers in the Genesis story that the novel's central plot reinterprets, as well as a metaphor for the transience of human memory.

Horn, who has a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, proposes that the narrative we give the fragments in memory's storehouse matters as much as the texts those fragments contain. As one of the characters explains, "we control the way we remember the past, and that's what matters in the present."

This is a big idea, touching on memory, fate and archetypical narratives, and much of the novel is spent mapping the idea's philosophical and hermeneutic trajectories. However, interesting as Horn's argument is, "A Guide for the Perplexed," like so many genizah manuscripts, is frustratingly incomplete. The missing piece is in Horn's storytelling. Particularly in the book's central narrative, characters are flat, their motivations improbable and crucial turns in the plot feel contrived. Overall, it seems that the author's desire to expound on her theory of memory, while remaining faithful to the book's biblical model, has superseded the imperative to craft a believable and character-driven story.

The main plot of "A Guide for the Perplexed" concerns Josephine Ashkenazi, a brilliant, rich and self-involved American Jewish software mogul, and her rivalry with her jealous, less successful, but no less self-involved, older sister, Judith. Josephine is invited by Egypt's newly constructed Library of Alexandria - based on the real Bibliotheca Alexandrina, opened in 2002 - to use her Genizah program to help develop the library's digital information systems. A kind of Facebook on steroids, Genizah automatically records and archives every moment of one's life. Although during her visit Josephine is mostly patronized and ignored by the library's male managers, who were expecting a Mr. Ashkenazi in her place, she is befriended by Nasreen, a stylish businesswoman with a mystical bent, who questions Josephine about the will of God and asks her to interpret her dreams.

A few days before she is due to leave Egypt, Josephine is kidnapped and held for ransom by Nasreen's sister's husband, Malek, a criminal who has learned of Josephine's visit accidentally. Savagely beaten, she is held for months in a tomb in Cairo's sprawling City of the Dead. When Malek realizes that Josephine does not have insurance to pay the ransom, he records a video in which he fakes her death, and forces her to construct a virus to attack the computers of the Egyptian police. In the meantime, back home in America, Judith, finally free of her sister's shadow, takes Josephine's place in her home, and in her Israeli husband Itamar's bed.

Interwoven with the story of Josephine and Judith are two historical plots. One tells the story of Solomon Schechter, the turn-of-the-century rabbinic scholar who was the first to fully explore the contents of the Cairo Genizah. In the novel's most entertaining and finely crafted chapters, based on Schechter's own life, Horn describes how the scholar, then a professor at Cambridge University, learns of ancient documents circulating on the antiquities market in Cairo, and travels to Egypt in search of their source. Armed with official letters and university funds, Schechter meets Cairo's Grand Rabbi and, through an amusing and learned exchange of biblical citations, real and fake, and not a little bribery, wins the secret of the genizah's location. Schechter buys up nearly 200,000 manuscripts, the bulk of the genizah, and ships them back to Cambridge.

The other historical plot concerns Moses Maimonides, known as the Rambam. The greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages and a physician, Maimonides spent most of his life in Cairo and his autograph texts were among the genizah's most important revelations. This story line, also based on the historical evidence, describes Maimonides' relationship with his brother David, a merchant who traveled to India around 1170 in search of a cure for the asthma from which Sultan Saladin, Maimonides' royal patient, suffers. However, on the journey, the ship sinks and David drowns. As Horn tells it, this loss is part of the inspiration for the rational parsing of free will and predestination in the philosopher's own "Guide for the Perplexed."

Reading Rambam in captivity

Horn is clearly a gifted storyteller, and the Schechter plot in particular is testimony to her ability to craft a light, funny and compelling narrative. In the main Josephine and Judith story, on the other hand, Horn's storytelling is often held hostage by her philosophical agenda. For instance, while wandering through the library with Nasreen, Josephine chances to pick up a copy of Maimonides' "Guide for the Perplexed" in Hebrew - a translation of the Arabic original - which she takes with her and ends up studying at night once she is taken into captivity. Josephine's desperate reading of the Rambam is a key narrative hook for the exposition of some of the novel's deeper ideas. However, the advanced knowledge of classical Hebrew needed to read and understand that text is difficult to reconcile with what we know of her character. There is no indication that Josephine received a Jewish education or is anything but adamantly secular, not surprising since her father abandoned the family after becoming ultra-Orthodox. So how and when did Josephine, as the narrator tells us, teach herself Hebrew? The reader is never told, and this crucial plot element seems suspiciously contrived.

In Judith's calculating seduction of Josephine's husband Itamar, Horn best demonstrates her playful reinterpretation of the Joseph story. In the Bible, Joseph - like his namesake, the novel's Josephine - goes down to Egypt, interprets dreams and languishes in prison. In Genesis 38, this story is interrupted by the seemingly unrelated tale of Joseph's brother Judah's unintentional incest with his daughter-in-law Tamar. In having Judith seduce Itamar in response to Josephine's capture, Horn is filling in the missing pieces in the biblical account. This twist is also a plausible move for Judith's character, a dramatic, but still credible, response to years of jealously and resentment.

But when Josephine's desperate text message, itself a rather incredible deus ex machina, reaches her sister from Egypt, Judith's inability to simply delete the text, and thereby preserve her newfound happiness, is at odds with the relentlessness with which she transgressed against her sister up until that point. The issue is not that Judith has a change of heart - after all, Joseph's brothers come to regret selling him into slavery in Egypt. The revelation that Josephine, supposedly murdered by her captors, is alive would certainly be enough to inspire that kind of transformation. Rather, it is the way that Horn describes this change that is the problem. Judith, a character who elsewhere is drawn as highly emotional, here acts too quickly and without inner reflection, quietly going back to sleep after reading the message as if nothing had happened. The narrator's explanation that "something pulled at her, some double-helixed string stretching across the universe," is far from satisfying.

Egypt in revolution

Most surprising, though, is the fact that the novel's Egyptian setting is put to so little good use. From clues in the text, we can understand that Josephine's work in Alexandria, before her kidnapping, is set in late September and early October of 2012. During this time, Egypt's Supreme Administrative court upheld an earlier ruling dissolving the lower house of parliament, the country's doctors went on a weeks-long strike and supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood clashed in Tahrir Square.

"A Guide for the Perplexed" is not a political novel, and it would be unreasonable to expect Horn to include a blow-by-blow of the revolution's unfolding twists and turns. That said, the fact that the story refers to none of these significant events and scarcely contains any political discussion at all - even the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak the previous year is mentioned only as an aside - is the plot's greatest weakness. It stretches credulity to imagine that in Josephine and Nasreen's many conversations, and even in those between Josephine and her captors, the larger political issues of the day - protests and elections, Tahrir Square and the Brotherhood, Mubarak and Morsi - simply did not come up.

This is the book's real missed opportunity. "A Guide for the Perplexed" is the first Jewish novel of the Arab Spring, and Horn unquestionably has the ability to tell the story of the Egyptian revolution from a perspective grounded in Jewish history there; the novel's chapters portraying the Egypt of Maimonides and Schechter are evidence of that. More discussion of the political background would have provided a better and more believable context for the kidnapping around which the plot turns. Here too, however, the novel is drowning in faithfulness to its biblical model. Instead of a raucous, dangerous and dynamic postrevolutionary political landscape, "A Guide for the Perplexed" presents a timeless and stagnant Egypt of inexorable poverty and oppression; in the novel's world, nothing has changed since Joseph worked in Potiphar's home.

Samuel Thrope is a Martin Buber postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Tablet and other publications.

Copyright University of Cambridge. Courtesy of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library