Intellectualism in Alexandria

After all the brouhaha about the stress of book reviews and the constant need to keep thinking about what to write, I am back doing exactly that! Talk about eating your words! But the Goodreads Historical Fiction reading week was not something I could give up without an effort – I mean its History and its Fiction and we all know that I am OBSESSED with that genre. Unfortunately I discovered the event a bit too late, so could not finish the book on time and hence the delayed celebration, if one could call this that!

After much deliberation, I chose to read Flow Down Like Silver: Hypatia of Alexandria : a Novel  by Ki Longfellow. I had never read her works and I knew very little about Hypatia beyond that she was a mathematician and a philosopher in Egypt and Goodreads had given the novel a rating of 4.43. It seemed like a good book to start with and read something new, which addressed a genre that I loved!

The book opens with the destruction of the great library of Alexandria by the orders of Bishop Theophilus, the newly crowned religious leader of the city, who brings with him the new religion of Christianity and is determined to destroy all that is “pagan” and “ungodly”. Hypatia and her family and friends make a desperate effort to save some of the most valuable books in the library and there she meets and saves Minkah, an low born Egyptian who is also there trying to salvage the precious books from the leaping flames that engulf the library. The destruction of the library brings about a change in Hypatia’s life; her father, the brilliant mathematician Theon aggrieved by the destruction caused by Theophilus hides in his bedroom, forcing Hypatia to take on the job as a teacher and in turn become the breadwinner of the family.  As she struggles to keep sanity in her household, with a mentally ill father, a dying sister and yet another sister, who hates everyone and everything; she is also tasked with the charge of preserving the books salvaged from the fire in some remote corner of Egypt, where the Bishops powers cannot reach out to them. The books follows the life of Hypatia over the next 30 years, as she becomes an acclaimed philosopher of her time and travels all over the Roman world, all the while continuing to believe in “pagan” rituals and teaching the forbidden texts of Aristotle and Plato, all the while holding on the knowledge of the secret library, until a betrayal that changes everything, consigning those precious texts to ignominy.

What is there not to like about this book? It based in Egypt, with an intellectual woman as a central character and books that need to be saved….the perfect ingredients for a perfect novel. Not quite. The politics of the then Roman world is described with great detail and accuracy as is the religious conflict between the old religions and new emerging Christianity. There is a magnificent overview of some of the best texts in philosophy, mathematics and prose from the ancient world. But that’s all there is to the book. The characters are not real – everybody loves Hypatia. Great! But why? Because she is an intellectual? There were many intellectuals in the city that time….we just know everybody loves Hypatia and she is extraordinary. As a woman and as an intellectual she is indeed extraordinary considering the time, but her brilliance never comes out in the book. She is perpetually the babe lost in woods, needing Minkah or an Isadore to rescue her. She continues her obsequious behavior towards her cowardly father, and lets him treat her youngest sister with disdain without any complain or protest. She needs Minkah to make all decisions related to her own household, including whether to take her sick elder sister out of the house for an outing. There is no strength or intellect or brilliance that shines out of this character and she seems to be the central protagonist, only because the original Hypatia was a figure of intellectual authority. The other charterers are  equally incomplete – Isadore , the much loved heir of Theophilus, falls out of grace with the Bishop because of his beliefs and does good work among the poor and sick. Then when the Cyril. nephew to Theophilus,  becomes the bishop, Isadore returns to power as a blood thirsty curling who is out to kill Hypatia whom he loved desperately! Eh! Did I lose something in the plot? Nope! It’s just the way it’s written!  The author fills the book with debates on philosophy about intellect, after life etc – I don’t mind it one bit, I quite like philosophical and abstract discussion, except within a few minutes, you know that it is extremely superficial and shallow.  The only redeeming factor is when Hyptia points out that Christianity is a male dominated religion because the founding fathers of the religion suppressed woman’s voice and not because God said so…but I do not think that this angle of feminist studies really happened in 351 AD. I do not expect a historical fiction author to be necessarily an expert on philosophy, but then don’t rush in where angels fear to tread! The plot is so linear that you can see the end right into page 5 and the language ordinary.

Overall it is not the most inspiring book I have read, and should you choose to give it a miss, you will not lose out on anything significant.


5 thoughts on “Intellectualism in Alexandria

  1. Bother – I live just around the corner from the Hypatia Trust, so I was really hoping you would say this was fabulous and it would be my route to finding out a little about the woman who inspired the organisation.

    1. Hypatia was a great woman and a great intellectual; just that this books shows her in a really meh light! Don’t let me convince you that she or a namesakes are any less worthy….its the book that deserves the disdain…not the actual woman!

  2. Oh my, this book illustrates why I have such an issue with historical fiction. Where do I start? Okay …….

    1. Christianity was going through an enormous growing phase at this time. There were a number of different sects believing a number of different things. To portray Theophilus as representing Christianity-proper is misleading and here is why:

    2. Theophilus was dead set against two men who are now considered some of the church fathers of Christianity, Origen (although he didn’t get the gold star of Church Father, he’s highly respected) and John of Chysostom. Since Theophilus flies in the face of two men who actually do represent Christianity as it evolved, he’s hardly a good representative to choose IF you want to give an accurate portrayal of the historical growth of Christianity. Although I tend to think this wasn’t the author’s intention. Theophilus also sounds like a complete nutcase (that’s my personal opinion 😉 )

    3. No one knows why, when or how the Library at Alexandria was destroyed. There are a number of different guesses and Theophilus is probably the weakest one. In any case, as far as I can tell, IF the deed was done under him, he only destroyed the Serapeum, which was only part of the Great Library. And based on historic accounts, there is no indication that there were any books there at all.

    4. when Hyptia points out that Christianity is a male dominated religion because the founding fathers of the religion suppressed woman’s voice and not because God said so Eh. I’m sure that there were cases, but to give a blanket generalization like this, completely ignores not only facts that prove the opposite, but all the nuances that are contained in every aspect of life. The Apostle Paul continually put women in high positions and had an extremely high respect for them and their abilities. Part of my readings of The Sayings of the Church Fathers, contained a number of sayings by women. And what is more surprising for us moderns, who seem to think that all women were continually oppressed, the reactions by men of these times are not negative at all and often express admiration. A Christian historian of the time, gives a glowing account of Hypatia and ends by saying: “… For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.” So to present her as the only woman who escaped from a misogynistic male social “prison”, I think is not only inaccurate, but does not do justice to the memory and life of Hypatia. I wonder how many other women did “extraordinary” things and we simply don’t know about them because we have no historical documentation.

    Okay, now that I’ve taken up an hour of your time to read my comment, I’ll stop. 😉 I really wish that the publishers would re-label historical fiction. Perhaps one group could be labelled historical fiction and the other historical speculation? I’m not sure. One of my favourite writers of historical fiction is Margaret George. She takes about 3-5 years to write her novels, visiting her settings and doing copious amounts of research. In her Memoirs of Cleopatra for instance, she tells the story and then at the end, in a separate section, says: “Here’s what we know, here’s what we can guess with accuracy, and here’s where I speculated.” Yet even in her speculation she sticks as closely as she can to facts and to the mentality of the times. I really respect her for that.

    P.S. I know that book reviews can sometimes be tedious, but look what wonderful conversation you start! 😉

    1. Ok Cleo! I am SNOWED….like REALLY SNOWED! No wonder you never read any light books, you are learning serious stuff and I am so inspired! And here I thought O was a moderately well read/aware person! I now know I miles to go before I sleep! To begin with and to be very fair,the author does touch upon Theopilus’s conflict with Origen and John of Chysostom but that is in passing and is passed! Furthermore and I am truly enlightened here thanks to you but in the book there is nothing about Paul or his teachings about women, rather the book harps and harps on how Christianity subjugates woman, which in some case it probably did, but like you said it is hardly a plausible generalization. The thing about Historical Fiction is one has to take a leap of faith…I have discovered some brilliant books by little known authors and then there are these!

      P.S. I know…books and intelligent conversation….that is good life epitomized!

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