History, memory, and forgiveness
By Cindy Mindell
WESTPORT – There is a curious line in the Torah when Joseph is reunited in Egypt with his brothers, who had sold him into slavery years earlier: “Don’t be angry with yourselves. For after all, it was God’s plan to send me here to preserve our lives.”
Novelist Dara Horn is captivated by this early example of reframing the past. This fascination is at the heart of her latest book, A Guide for the Perplexed, which she will discuss on Thursday, Mar. 27 at The Conservative Synagogue’s “Books B’Yachad” community-wide read.
A recipient of national book awards by age 25 (and many since), Horn was named one of the Best Young American Novelists by Granta Magazine in 2007.
Professor, newspaper columnist, and mother of four, Horn bases Guide on the stranger-than-fiction story of the Cairo geniza, an archive of a millennium’s worth of letters, documents, and religious texts discovered in a Cairo synagogue in the late 19th century. A PhD in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Horn earned her master’s degree at Cambridge, where much of the geniza’s contents reside.
The book weaves together three stories and historical periods. Software prodigy Josie Ashkenazi has invented an application that records everything its users do. When an Egyptian library invites her to visit as a consultant, her jealous sister Judith persuades her to go. But in Egypt’s post-revolutionary chaos, Josie is abducted – leaving Judith free to take over Josie’s life at home.
A century earlier, another traveler arrives in Egypt: Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter, who is hunting for a medieval archive hidden in a Cairo synagogue. Both he and Josie are haunted by the work of the medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, a doctor and rationalist who sought to reconcile faith and science, destiny and free will. But what Schechter finds, as he tracks down the remnants of a thousand-year-old community’s once-vibrant life, will reveal the power and perils of what Josie’s ingenious work brings into being: a world where nothing is ever forgotten.
“I am thrilled to meet both readers and non-readers of the book, and I won’t give anything away about the story, so people shouldn’t feel that they have to read it in advance,” says Horn. “To me, it’s very exciting to interact with readers because I’ve written one book but every reader is reading a different version, and sometimes it’s better than what I wrote.”
At the heart of the novel is the complex relationship between sisters Josie and Judith, inspired by the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. Sibling relationships weave through the book, complicated by what Horn calls “the corrosive elements” that emerge when two people remember the same childhood differently and grapple with forgiveness.
In creating Josie’s app that records everything, Horn raises a central question of our time: how to control the past. “There is no forgiveness if you can remember everything,” she says. “It’s not by saving all our memories that we can reframe the past, but what gives us control is curating those memories.”
A Guide for the Perplexed with author Dara Horn: Thursday, Mar. 27, 7:30 p.m., The Conservative Synagogue, 30 Hillspoint Road, Westport. Free and open to the community. Info: (203) 454-4673.