A medieval doctor asks his employer and patron to describe “Thousand and One Nights.” “You’d have to read it, I suppose,” the vizier chuckles. “It spins into more and more stories, until you feel like you’re being drawn into a kind of vortex. The sensation of reading it resembles drowning.” The doctor is named Mosheh ben Maimon, better known today as Maimonides, and the vizier’s description sounds a great deal like the novel we hold in our hands, “A Guide for the Perplexed,” Dara Horn’s fourth, and best.
That it also echoes the traditional description of the Talmud — for which Maimonides wrote the definitive commentary — as a sea and our own sense of the infinite interconnectedness of the Internet, another favored subject in Horn’s book, affords us some sense of the multiple levels upon which “Guide” is operating.
The vortex of stories, which leap back and forth across time and place, sweeps over us in staggered fashion. Software mogul Josie Ashkenazi has invented a killer app called Genizah, which not only archives everything users create but also controls devices, like digital cameras, owned by users to maintain a comprehensive, permanent record of users’ lives — everything from their cats’ meals to their children’s most precious moments. On a trip to Egypt to assist at the Library of Alexandria, Josie is kidnapped and assumed dead, “a martyr for the grand cause of information technology.”
Meanwhile, a 19th-century Cambridge scholar of Jewish history named Solomon Schechter receives a tip from a pair of middle-age female British adventurers that leads him to the famous Cairo genizah, a trove of ancient documents from the city’s Jewish community. Schechter stumbles across letters that prove to have been written by the book’s third key figure, Maimonides, who sends his brother on an ill-fated expedition in search of asthma medication.
The material is typically dense, but Horn’s touch has grown lighter. “Guide” contains some of her funniest work yet, including a tense negotiation between Schechter and an Egyptian rabbi conducted entirely in quotes, both real and imaginary, from religious texts.
Horn hopscotches among three eras, three protagonists, three quests, but the resonances between past and present smooth the transitions. The past does not repeat itself, exactly, but certain themes — sibling rivalry, memory, and guilt — recur, forever present. “Nothing ever really disappears,” one character notes, “even when you want it to.” Scholarship and memory are two different methods of preserving the past, equally fallible, equally threatened by death and decomposition.
Echoes beget echoes. Josie’s plight, lost to her family and imprisoned in Egypt, begs comparison to the biblical story of Joseph, while her presumed fate may remind contemporary readers of Daniel Pearl. Schechter’s genizah, preserving the once-forgotten past for posterity, echoes Josie’s Genizah. History, whether personal or collective, haunts these characters, each wishing to undo and reassemble the past. “Are the years that already happened in a place a person can go?” Maimonides’s niece asks him, and each character seeks to answer the question differently. Can intellect, as Maimonides argues, serve as a bulwark against the world’s ugliness, or is suffering as inevitable as the rotting of old parchments? Horn frames a contest between predetermination and free will in which her characters are each humbled, a religious dialogue taking the form of this humane, erudite novel.
Sharing a title with Maimonides’s famously challenging philosophical work, which comforts Josie in prison, “Guide” is a historical novel about explorers, a chronicle of the past well aware of its own inevitable flaws and distortions. “Looking back at the past,” a character thinks to herself near the book’s melancholy end, “no matter how false that past might be, allows a person to become like God.” Like Schechter, like Josie, Horn plays God by reanimating the past, another Joseph alone with her, and our, memories: “She understood now why everyone wanted to save these things, the endless logs of what their pets ate and what their lovers wore and what their children said. They were ropes thrown down into the pit.”
Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Globe.