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.