A Guide for the Perplexed

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED is the title of a novel in the form of a traveler’s guide in the form of letters to a mysterious, seemingly ubiquitous travel agent named Benjamin from two stranded but eventually satisfied customers. It is also the title of a book by the twelfth century Spanish-born Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, ancestor of one of Ben’s clients/correspondents and, if this perplexing guide is to be believed, the true discoverer of America: Esau, a Jew, not Christopher Columbus (though in this telling Columbus himself is also Jewish). In fact, which is to say in Levi’s witty fiction, the discovery itself was part of a Jewish plot to establish a Jewish homeland once Spain decided to expel the Jews, no longer needed to extort money from wealthy Jews to finance the war against the Moors whom the Spanish had just defeated.

Levi’s subjects may be serious, but his approach is far from polemical in a novel that bears comparison with Italo Calvino’s IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER (narrative gamesmanship), Umberto Eco’s FOUCAULT’S PENDULUM (playful philosophizing and historicizing), and Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW (paranoid plots). Exuberantly excessive, A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED defies summary but focuses on two women, Hanni Halevy, a Miami widow trying to recover the Esau letter that she claims proves her lineage, and Holland, an English documentary filmmaker in Mariposa to interview Sandor, the famous but reclusive violinist who may be Zoltan, the father of the child that, like Zoltan, Hanni has not seen since his birth at the very end of World War II. Levi juggles narrative lines even better than he does bloodlines in a novel that manages to be clever, fun, increasingly suspenseful, and, for all its intelligence and playful erudition, strangely and deeply affecting.