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The Golem and the Jinni

October 16, 2013

I read The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker, because my former housemate, Miriam, sent it to me.  She says she has always had a fascination with golem. I have been pretty much the opposite; I thought the little I had read about golems wasn’t interesting–a figure of a person made out of clay who doesn’t have any will of its own—okay, so? But then I saw an episode of Supernatural in which it became clear to me that each golem is controlled by a phrase, and that made them slightly more interesting. (The episode is called “Everybody Hates Hitler,” and it features a Nazi necromancer who takes control of the golem; here’s a photo of him holding out his hand to the golem for a piece of paper with the controlling phrase written on it.)  I looked it up, and discovered that the phrase is usually called a “shem” and the story is that a golem can be immobilized if you pull it out.

Then I read Helene Wecker’s book, and the golem in it, although too frequently referred to as “the Golem,” rather than by name, actually has intelligence and curiosity and free will (the last because of an accident of her birth coinciding with her owner’s sudden death).  There’s a phrase which can destroy her.  She has a yearning to fulfill wishes. When she meets the Jinni, he has no such yearning, but he does have a deep appreciation for beauty in all its forms.

One of the things that unites the Jinni and the Golem, as it turns out, is that her creator is the reincarnated spirit of the mortal who imprisoned the Jinni for hundreds of years in a flask.  He has spent every lifetime digging into forbidden knowledge, making himself crazier and more evil. Without saying so explicitly, the author makes it clear that he is, among other things, a necromancer:
“This was the knowledge forbidden to all but the most pious and learned. His teachers had once hinted that wonders such as these would someday be his; but they’d denied him even the briefest glimpse, saying he was still far too young. To utter a charm or an exorcism or a Name of God without purity of heart and intention, they’d said, would be to risk one’s soul to the fires of Gehenna.
But for Schaalman, the fires of Gehenna had long been a foregone conclusion. If that was to be his end, then he would make the most of the meantime. Some influence, divine or demonic, had led him to this place, and had placed unutterable mysteries in his hands. He would take that power, and he would use it to his own ends.”

I saw a man dressed as a necromancer at the Ohio Renaissance Festival this past weekend, photo-206 and when I showed him my lapel button that says “Not a Necromancer” and shook my head warningly it seemed to slightly amuse him; here’s a photo of him, looking unperturbed by his encounter with me. I’ll bet he wasn’t so amused later, though, because I saw the Pope and mentioned to him that there was a necromancer wandering around.

The Jinni gives a speech against necromancy to a little boy whose mother has just died when the boy comes to him saying “bring her back!”
“Let me tell you,” he said, “about the souls that go on after death, or are brought back against their will….Have you ever seen a shadow that flies across the ground, like that of a cloud? Except that when you look up in the sky, there are no clouds to speak of?….That is a shade,” the Jinni said. “A lost soul. In the desert there are shades of every type of creature. They fly from here to there in perpetual anguish, searching and searching. Can you guess what they are searching for?….They’re searching for their bodies. And when they find them—if they find them, if their bones haven’t long turned to dust—they crouch over them, and weep, and make the most horrible noises….They find the nearest of their kin, and please with them, asking to help them find rest. But all their kin can hear is a kind of wailing, like a high wind. And all they feel is the cold chill of death.”

Since neither the Jinni nor the Golem need to sleep at night, they wander around New York City in what at first seems a romantic way. He shows her Madison Square Park one evening, and his delight in her enjoyment is punctuated by his puzzlement over why she knows so little about the world. “How is it that you’ve never been to a park,” he asks and she says “I suppose it’s because I haven’t been alive for very long.” The Jinni, who has lived “a few hundred years,” is surprised to find that she’s only six months old. They become friends because of the way they can talk to each other, about how they do and don’t fit into human society:  “He wanted to defend himself—but then, maybe she was right, maybe he was selfish and careless. And he was right as well, to think her prudish and overcautious. Both of them had their reasons, as well as their natures.”

The frequent passages of Golem angst are always amusing:
Each golem is built to serve a master. When I woke, I was already bound to mine. To his will. I heard his every thought, and I obeyed with no hesitation….To me it felt like the way things were meant to be. And when he died…I no longer had a clear purpose. Now I’m bound to everyone, if only a little. I have to fight against it, I can’t be solving everyone’s wishes. But sometimes, at the bakery where I work, I’ll give someone a loaf of bread—and it answers a need. For a moment, that person is my master. And in that moment, I’m content.”

As the novel progresses, the stories of how the Jinni and the Golem came to be together in New York City merge and become one story, a story of the dreams of humans, and what happens when their dreams come true, told by two outsiders, full of strength and fury.

To see ourselves as others see us–that’s one thing this novel offers, although in the end, there’s really no ambiguity about what kind of human dreams are permissible, and whether the two outsiders will end happily together.  And that’s kind of funny, don’t you think–to try to make a black-and-white statement about the mysterious? Like me declaring against necromancy and pretending that showing disapproval of the dressed-up guy is going to make a difference when we all know it’s fiction, it’s made up.  It’s fun while it lasts.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2013 12:02 pm

    Sounds like a wonderful story and very creative. I do find Golems and their history fascinating. I’ll have to keep my eye out for this book.

    • October 17, 2013 10:33 am

      It is a brand-new book; Miriam bought it for me in hardback.

  2. October 16, 2013 12:34 pm

    There is a series of children’s books by the UK author Jonathan Stroud, the Bartimaeus Books, the second of which is called ‘The Golem’s Eye’. If you don’t know the series I strongly recommend them. They’re great – once you get used to the footnotes.

    • October 17, 2013 10:32 am

      Oh yes, Walker and I read the first three of those books when he was the right age for them. The footnotes are the best part!

      • October 17, 2013 10:45 am

        Ironically, just after I posted that comment I heard that Stroud was coming to talk about his new book at one of the local schools. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get a ticket to go and hear him.

        • October 17, 2013 10:48 am

          That would be great–if you get to go, I’ll bet I’m not the only one who would want to hear about it!

  3. Carol Schumacher permalink
    October 16, 2013 1:40 pm

    I first heard about this book when it was recommended by Bob Milnikel. He knows the author… a college friend, maybe.

    • October 17, 2013 10:34 am

      Really? I’ll have to tell Bob I read it. You can borrow it.

  4. October 17, 2013 7:11 am

    Jeanne,, I just skimmed this review because I kind of want to read the book and did not want to know too much. I wasn’t sure from the bits I skimmed if you liked it, though? Did you? Do you recommend it? Is it a great story, or just a concept exercise?

    • October 17, 2013 10:31 am

      It’s fun while it lasts, is my conclusion. Not a deep story, but a good one. And I never give away the most important secrets of a novel.
      I’m still waiting for everyone else in the world to read The Gone-Away World, so we can talk about its secret.

      • October 17, 2013 7:28 pm

        I knew you wouldn’t tell the end, but as you know, the ending is something I read fairly early on. But I like to be surprised by the middle. 😛 This sounds like it’s my jam. On the Christmas list it goes!

  5. October 17, 2013 10:50 am

    I’ve read a lot of great reviews of this book but I’m not sure it’s my thing.

    • October 17, 2013 11:12 am

      The fun of it is in the meeting of two mythical beings from very different cultures.

  6. October 17, 2013 1:29 pm

    My TBR pile just got bigger…

    • October 17, 2013 10:14 pm

      I’ll look forward to reading your point of view on this one.

  7. Jenny permalink
    October 18, 2013 11:48 am

    My favorite Golem story is in Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers. In “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” one of those linked stories, Ruth Puttermesser makes a (female) golem from the earth of her own houseplants. It’s absolutely terrific.

    • October 18, 2013 11:55 am

      I read that story! My imaginary friend Maggie sent me the book. But I failed to appreciate it very much, and thought the golem from the houseplant dirt story was just another strange and kind-of-boring golem. I guess I want my supernatural beings to have super-powers, not feet of clay.

  8. aartichapati permalink
    October 18, 2013 2:37 pm

    I think I may try this one as an audiobook – it’s at the library and it SOUNDS like it would be good via audio, especially in the fall with the spookiness of a golem and a jinni 🙂

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