It sounds like the start of a joke: A golem and a jinni walk into New York City at the turn of the century.
Well, one walks — quite literally, across the bed of the Hudson River — while the other just sort of…manifests. These two supernatural beings are but slight blips in the wave of migrants making their way to New York at the turn of the century, a day and age when the words on the Statue of Liberty were more than just lip service to the idea of welcoming foreigners.
In the present-day, the Department of Homeland Security would probably have some sort of collective psychotic breakdown at the thought of these two creatures — one a golem, a woman made of clay, and brought to life by a megalomaniacal rabbi; the other a jinni, a shape-shifting elemental being made of fire and inadvertently released from — what else — his lamp prison by an Arab tinsmith — entering anywhere into the USA without some sort of highly intrusive full-body search. Given what the two of them get up to through the course of the events narrated in The Golem and the Jinni, one can hardly blame the US administration for being suspicious of characters with Middle Eastern origins.
Both Chava the golem and Ahmad the jinni are strangers in a strange land, trapped in the theological and metaphysical spaces between tradition and modernity. Helene Wecker’s novel is ambitious: a blend of myth, historical fiction and fantasy, seasoned with a soupçon of philosophic discourse. Oddly enough, all these elements come together well to create a discourse about faith and free will that Wecker somehow — although sometimes just barely — makes work.
The Golem and the Jinni begins in Poland where Otto Rotfeld approaches a dubious mystic with the request for a wife. Yehudah Schaalman, the occultist he goes to, is no match-maker though; rather, he is a practitioner of the darker arts of Kabbalah, and Rotfeld wants no ordinary woman. Instead, he wants Schaalman to make him a wife; a golem, formed of clay and animated by magic. Initially dismissive of such a request (golems are built for protection and brute force, he points out), Schaalman is unable to resist the challenge of creating a creature with the unique requirements that Rotfeld specifies: curiosity, propriety and intelligence. He is also unable to hold back from warning Rotfeld that golems, no matter the intent behind their creation, are inevitably bound to “eventually run amok,” and arms Rotfeld with the sorcerous words that can destroy the golem.
Fortunately for us, Rotfeld has no need to use those words. During the crossing from Poland to New York, he dies, leaving the golem on her own. For a creature designed to fulfil the needs of a single master, this is catastrophic; the golem is unable to focus on the needs of any one being, and left adrift in Manhattan, she finds herself almost torn apart by “a small city of strivings and lusts.” Unable to control her nature — to protect and serve — she steals food for a hungry child, and in the ensuing public hubbub, is discovered by a rabbi who sees her for what she truly is.
Propelled by an unusual blend of compassion and curiosity, Rabbi Meyer not only intervenes to save the golem from the crowd (equally, one could say he saves the crowd from the golem), he also gives Chava her name and tries to teach her how to be human. As part of this process, Chava takes up employment in a local bakery, where she fashions pretzels and challah bread with uncanny precision, all the while learning more and more about human beings from the behaviour of her co-workers and customers.
The jinni, on the other hand, makes a much more dramatic entrance into the narrative. Although it’s a slight cliché, he erupts from a copper flask that has been given over to a tinker for repairs. Arbeely, a Syrian Christian tinsmith, frees the jinni from his millennia-old prison quite by accident, but soon finds himself in the same general situation (if not on quite the same page) as Rabbi Meyer. The shape-shifting jinni, who is named Ahmad by Arbeely, is the victim of a Bedouin sorcerer now long-dead. Restrained in human form by an iron cuff that cannot be removed, the jinni is unable to access his full powers. He does however retain some abilities; possessed of innate artistry and able to mould metal with his bare hands, Ahmad soon becomes a master craftsman. Yet, all he can think of is escape, of leaving behind the fetid mass of humanity that is New York City, and returning to his fantastical home in the Syrian desert.
Chava is not only made of earth, she is earth-bound. Her existence is tied to the ground, to stability and clear direction. Horrified by freedom, her only function in life — such as it is — is to be of use. Careful and deliberate, she is a naïf whose greatest challenge is to reconcile her own knowledge of what people desire with what they actually want. “You must learn how to act according to what people say and do,” Rabbi Meyer tells Chava, “not what they wish or fear.” It is a lesson she takes to heart, doing her best to temper every impulse she either intuits or experiences with a limited understanding of the world. Restraint is Chava’s watchword; capable of devastation on a spectacular scale, she is fearful of her own potential and spends the course of the novel seeking a way to be restrained.
Ahmad on the other hand, is furious and frustrated at his servitude; he can imagine no worse fate than the indignity of the limitations imposed upon him by a dead wizard. Fiery in essence and in spirit, he is impetuous and dismissive of consequences. Ahmad is the ultimate bad boy: self-destructive and fairly amoral. He roams the city at night, plays in the rain at the risk of undoing his own elemental form, seduces a socialite, carelessly reveals the secret of his existence to people without really considering the repercussions of so doing, and is all around a bit of an artful dodger.
“Passing as human was a constant strain,” Wecker writes, and the statement is equally applicable to both of her main characters. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the golem and the jinni (finally) encounter each other. Wecker describes their meeting so evocatively that any inevitable movie adaptations will absolutely fail to re-enact it. Chava is wandering about a ghostly, desolate Manhattan when she sees the jinni, not as a person, but as “a strange light … seeming to float in midair … not a light, but a face; and the face belonged to a man … She had to know who he was. What he was.”
The jinni does his own spit-take upon coming across this curious creature, and it’s a mark of Wecker’s characterisation that you aren’t quite sure whether he’s intrigued or jealous of not being the only special thing around when he looks at the golem. “You’re made of earth,” he says. “And you’re made of fire,” she responds. It’s a simple exchange, but it summarises everything about the two: about how they behave, how they learn, how they live. One makes food for the body; the other creates sustenance for the soul. One only wants to settle down and be responsible for satisfying someone; the other cannot bear the idea of being beholden or attached.
Yet, despite these differences, the two creatures share many of the same traits: they are Other, in every sense of the word. Lacking the need to sleep or to eat, unconstrained by the prospect of death, the golem and the jinni have more in common with each other than they do with their neighbours in the Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods where they live.
These neighbourhoods and the individuals who populate them aren’t one-note characters though, or convenient literary mannequins placed into the text for the sake of filler. Wecker builds a mosaic using people whose lives, both in the present and the past, intersect with Chava and Ahmad. There is a possessed physician, and a psychotic sage; a disillusioned Jew turned atheist and a New World socialite who demonstrates quite clearly that as far as jinn are concerned, some lessons are only learned the hard way. Fortunately, Wecker refrains from moralising; rather, the allegorical schema she puts into place sets up the kind of intercultural conflict that would have Thomas Friedman scampering for his word-processor to hammer out — with irrational exuberance — a polemic on the meaning of life (illustrated by exactly two fabled beings, naturally).
“It was ludicrous,” thinks the surprised Arbeely, when confronted with the existence of a mythical being amidst the damaged pots and pans in his store. “Such things were only stories.” But there is power in such stories, and Wecker plays upon cultural and mythopoeic conceit like a virtuoso. The Golem and the Jinni is many things: a commentary on shared Judeo-Arab heritage; a look at the migrant experience; a cautionary tale and a bit of a love story. More than anything else, though, it is a story of metamorphosis and discovery, one that elegantly pulls together history, fable and faith into a narrative of quiet, compelling surprise.
The Golem and the Jinni
By Helene Wecker