In his novel “Remembering Hypatia: A Novel of Ancient Egypt,” Brian Trent recounts with a novelist’s license, the period of terror and insecurity ensuing from one of the most well-known book burnings of all time: that of the Serapeum of the Great Library of Alexandria. When the Christian Emperor Theodosius outlawed paganism, the academics and their books were looked upon as the ultimate threat to the glory of God and the spread of His word as interpreted by the Catholic Church. Trent focuses on the burning’s aftermath–a tumultuous era of fear mongering orchestrated by Church leaders–to illustrate a trend that has been repeated throughout history. An elite group in power subjugates many through fear and ignorance suggesting that it has the answers to questions relating to the everyday managing of quotidian life. Instead of promoting universal education that could result in humanity stretching forth to achieve a greater good that would benefit all, it forces one to `drink the Kool-Aid,’ forging a reliance on its wisdom and its inroads to some secret knowledge to produce only material benefits for itself.
Unfortunately subtitled “A Novel of Ancient Egypt,” Trent’s novel explores the period of time most associated with the beginning of the Roman Empire’s fall. Despite this error, Trent succeeds in immersing his reader not only within the library corridors of this great place of classical learning but inside the minds of his characters. Whether or not he is historically correct in terms of everyday custom, costume, language, political or religious sensibilities, this reviewer does not know. Nevertheless, he accomplishes his primary goal as a Cassandra foretelling of an unfortunate past repeating itself where men of power extinguished the greater light of knowledge and self-enlightenment to further along their political machines and achieve their own aspirations. He urges his readers to `remember’ the cosmologist, mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia as a symbol of the intellectual light who in dying a horrific martyr’s death in Alexandria in 415 AD presents a stirring example of a life’s work snuffed out by the ambitions of others with the intent to mask her very existence. Her story acts as a prelude to darker ages in far and recent history where freedom of the mind has no encouragement and is reined in by inquisition and death.
The voices of the novel craft a leitmotif complex with the yearnings of its individual players against the louder cacophony of a society in turmoil. The contest of wills between the Catholic Church as represented by the Archbishop Cyril (now ironically St. Cyril of Alexandria) and the Roman prefect Orestes hums in the background with the bleak frustration of a dirge. Appalled by Cyril’s expulsion of the Jews from a city renowned for its cultural tolerance, Orestes contemplates the fate of Alexandria with a fatalistic poignancy that jars with his enlightened mind. Young Thasos, an accomplished glass-blower, struggles to understand his deceased father’s wish for him to forego the material offerings of the world to spend a year studying in the Great Library. When he sees the beautiful Hypatia, he wants nothing but the chance to spend his every waking moment with her. Demetria, his mother, hates the Library, pinpointing her husband’s preoccupation with its intellectual contents as the cause of his early death. Hypatia’s brilliant mind cries out for equality, acceptance and recognition; her long-ago days as a student in the all-male Academy of Athens make it difficult for her to factor in love as a feasible part of her life as a teacher. Unhappy in his marriage, Orestes sees in Hypatia a fellow public servant with similar sensibilities and the wherewithal to promote the good of the people while basking in the hopeful joy of a future partnership that would include both love and similar societal goals. (Although Trent shows the reader both Orestes and Hypatia’s mindset as “if only” situations to be acted upon in the future, history suggests that Cyril felt Hypatia’s influence over Orestes halted their ability to reconcile their differences. Subsequently, Cyril incited his flock to such anger they eventually waylaid Hypatia’s chariot and brutally tortured and killed her.)
Bottom line? Brian Trent succeeds in giving his readers a glimpse at the machinations behind the religious turmoil between Christians and pagans in 415 AD Alexandria in his novel “Remembering Hypatia.” Perhaps, not the most historically accurate tale, Trent, nevertheless gets his point across by allowing us an inner glimpse of the mindset of his key players: Archbishop Cyril, prefect Orestes, his wife, Marina, the student Thasos, his mother, Demetria, the archbishop’s henchman, Peter (the Reader) and Hypatia herself, egalitarian thinker and relentless quester for knowledge. Like “V for Vendetta (Widescreen Edition),” “Fahrenheit 451” and “Brave New World,” “Remembering Hypatia” is a cautionary tale that warns of the selfish power of the mighty to subjugate the masses to do their bidding by instilling fear through ignorance. Trent reminds us that history does repeat itself and humanity must struggle to relearn its lessons without the ultimate fall into a darker age. Recommended at 3.5 stars for anyone who loves the crusade of knowledge and wants to read of it in a novel’s format. Also recommended for those who looked forward to seeing Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora” with Rachel Weisz as the ill-fated rationalist and because of limited engagement could not do so.
Diana Faillace Von Behren
This is the story of Hypatia, a librarian at that great library. I should clarify and say that the librarians were really more like today’s university professors-they taught and researched and wrote books. Hypatia was one of the more well known librarians, for one thing she was a beautiful woman who had apparently devoted her life to knowledge, also for her many books, some of which were highly controversial and for her habit of going among the common people in Egypt and giving lectures.
“Remembering Hypatia” takes place in the last month of this extraordinary woman’s life. It is a month in which religious passions are coming to a peak and the now dominate Christian church is becoming increasingly violent about Jews and Pagans living in the Roman Empire (which Alexandria was a part of) and having the same rights as those who followed the legal state religion. Unfortunately Hypatia is grasped upon a symbol of pagan idolatry and as a figure of pagan worship-which leads to her untimely death and the destruction of the great library. However as time has proven, it is not possible to kill off a love of knowledge, even new and scary knowledge which often goes against the “societal truths” in human beings.
I’d actually never heard of Hypatia before reading this book so I can’t attest to its authenticity. But I can say as to its writing that it is a vibrant book, which brings alive the age and conflicts between faith and exploration and truly gives one a picture of the awe inspiring library in Alexandria.
The story is told from many view points, Thasos, a glassblower and scholar’s son who is starting as a student under Hypatia at the library and falls in love with his older, unreachable teacher. Orestes, the governor of Egypt who shares an unspoken but powerful love with the librarian, Cyril the christen patriarch (an appointed title which meant leader not father) who has a vendetta against Pagans and Jews and chooses Hypatia as his scapegoat, and Hypatia’s friends, all in powerful positions in Alexandria. While some of the story lines and characters seem like they add nothing to the novel, it is a very complete book over all and even if it is very short it seems to tell the story of Hypatia’s last month completely.
I really enjoyed this book and found it to be quite inspiring about the nature of knowledge. It made me want to read more about this woman and about Egypt in general. I would definitely recommend it and I’ll also check out other novels by this author.