Monday, July 22, 2013

Becoming Human: The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

       This is the only time I can remember finding a book I wanted to read (and one I ended up loving) on one of Amazon's bestseller email notices.  The title caught my attention for two reasons: my interest in Judaism and my interest in myth and legend as displayed in literature, which is one of the subjects of this blog.  The Golem and the Jinni is a perfect fit for that subject.

       Two creatures of legend, mysticism, and magic end up in New York City at the turn of the 20th century.  That in itself is an intriguing premise. 
       The jinn (sing. jinni), according to Wikipedia, are spiritual creatures mentioned in the Qur'an who inhabit a dimension beyond the visible universe and are made of fire.  They also have a physical nature and are able to interact with people and objects.  They can be good, evil, or neutrally benevolent and so, like human beings, have free will.  Fiendish types of jinn also exist, notably the ghul (our word ghoul) and the ifrit, among others.  The ifrit is a brutish and wicked sort that has a part to play in Wecker's book.
       A golem, on the other hand, is just about the most corporeal creature that one can imagine.  It comes from Jewish legends, tales of certain Rabbis of medieval and Renaissance times who created beings out of clay and brought them to life with incantations incorporating a shem, or Name of God.  The shem was placed on the forehead of the golem or written on a slip of paper and placed in the golem's mouth.  However, only God can give true life; a golem must be forever flawed and will ultimately turn violent and destroy its creator.  The Hebrew word means simply unshaped matter; interestingly, Adam was originally a golem formed by God out of earth.  In modern Hebrew the word means dumb or helpless, or is used for a "brainless lunk."  (Wikipedia)  The golem legend turns up in numerous literary sources, including Frankenstein's monster.
       In Helene Wecker's book, the golem has been taken up a notch.  Rotfeld, a lonely Polish furniture maker asks an old Jewish mystic, Yehudah Schaalman, to create a female golem to be his wife. He requests that she be given qualities of curiosity and intelligence.  Then Rotfeld emigrates to New York City, taking his unawakenened wife with him in a crate.  Partway through the voyage, Rotfeld animates her, using the words written on a slip of paper; one set of words will awaken her and another will destroy her.  But then Rotfeld suffers a burst appendix and dies immediately after animating her, leaving her on her own, possessed of Rotfeld's meager possessions, including the slip of paper that carries her life and death written on it.  She ends up wandering the streets of New York City, where she is befriended by the elderly Rabbi Meyer, who recognizes what she is.  The good Rabbi decides not to destroy her, but to try to educate her to live as a human.  He names her Chava, or Life.
       Meanwhile, a tinsmith in New York City's Little Syria is repairing a copper flask and when he obliterates some of the engraved design, out pops this tall, handsome male  figure -- a jinni who has been imprisoned in the flask but can't remember how he got there.  He wears an iron cuff that keeps him bound to a human form.  The tinsmith gives him the name Ahmad and ultimately, he and Chava meet.  Fire and Earth attract each other, it seems.
       The plot of The Golem and the Jinni is quite complex.  There are a lot of characters, each of whom has a story.  These stories are interwoven a piece at a time, each a plotline of its own.  The author makes this work beautifully.  Somehow the reader never quite forgets what has gone before in any given plotline.  It reminds me of a Middle Eastern carpet, each little piece of story knotted into the whole until gradually the entire pattern emerges.  How will the tales of Fadwa and Ice Cream Saleh and Sophia Winston and Anna Blumberg and the Rabbi's nephew Michael all ultimately come together?  It keeps the reader champing to learn what will happen next.
       Meanwhile, the main characters are learning how to be human, a process far more difficult for the jinni than for the golem.  Before a wizard imprisoned him in the flask, the jinni had been accustomed to flying above the desert, building himself beautiful glass palaces at will, indulging his casual curiosity about human beings.  Now tied to earth, he retains his qualities of arrogant free will, unencumbered by any moral sense, any sense of right and wrong.  These instincts lie dormant inside him, however, and he emerges as a character the reader can't help liking and empathizing with in spite of some of his questionable behaviors.  Gradually, as the plot proceeds, he learns that loving and caring are a large part of what makes human beings unique and important.
       Because the golem was created to serve a master, she already knows that giving is an important quality and so she possesses a natural empathy.  She is a tall woman with immense physical strength and she learns from the Rabbi that she is likely to turn violent and destroy any threat to whatever she cares about.  But she was also created with intelligence and she recognizes that she must overcome this tendency if she wishes to continue to live.  For her to  become human, she must control her primitive instincts.  Surely that is something we all must do if we wish to call ourselves human. Since all humans possess bodies created of elemental substances and will return to those substances sooner or later, we have more in common with golems than we could ever have with an incorporeal creature made of fire.
       At one point Chava, who can read thoughts and feelings, sorrows over the sight of homeless men shivering under thin blankets on park benches.  It's obvious in the following exchange that it's Chava who is closest to attaining humanity. 
       "They need so much," she murmured.  "And I just walk by."
       "Yes, but what would you do?  Feed them all, take them home with you?  You aren't responsible for them."
       "Easy to say, when you can't hear them."
       "It's still true.  You're generous to a fault, Chava.  I think you'd give your own self away, if only someone wished for it."
       A final word on the book's style.  I often read the 2- or 3-star reviews in Amazon to see if I agree or disagree.  One of these stated that the prose was "elemental and pedestrian, lacking the poetics such as lyricism, imagery, metaphor and simile, that I so favor in my prose."  Strangely, I don't find that to be true at all.   The narrative style is simple and straightforward and very readable, never getting in the way of comprehension.  But it is also interwoven with wonderful metaphors and similes, like the bits of colored class embedded in one of the jinni's intricate necklaces.  Here are a few examples:
       "Sophia's mother was in one of her states, careening about the house like a loose parakeet."
       "The rooftops lapped each other into the distance, like an illuminated spread of playing cards."
       "He clasped the necklace around [Fadwa's] throat, his arms almost embracing her.  He smelled warm, like a stone baking in the sun."
       "The more he rode the trolleys and trains of New York, the more they seemed to form a giant, malevolent bellows, inhaling defenseless passengers from platforms and blowing them out again elsewhere."
       "Night was falling in the desert. ...  It flattened the hills and stones, so that from its mouth, ibn Malik's cave seemed an endless abcess in the earth."
      "The skies had refused to deliver on their promise of rain; the thick clouds hung low and unmoving over the city like the pale underbelly of some gigantic worm."
       There is another character in the book: the 1890s city of New York.  This squalid concatenation of different ethnic groups, coping with a life that didn't turn out quite as well as they had hoped, becomes a place of enchantment, a lyrical metaphor all of its own -- a world of magic and mysticism quite as enthralling as if it existed on another planet.
       I could write a lot more about The Golem and the Jinni and some of the deeper meanings embedded in this narrative, but I won't.  What happens as the relationship of this mismatched pair of mythical beings develops is something you will have to find out for yourselves by reading the book. It's a fascinating journey and one I wouldn't spoil for the world.


  1. Lorinda, great review, the book sounds fascinating. I'm also into myth and legends. I've seen this book around, but didn't know much about it. You convinced me to read it. Thanks for the review.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Cora! This really is a terrific story! Have you run into any of my books yet? See the sidebar. I write about giant intelligent extraterrestrial termites, introduced first in The Termite Queen. The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head series retells Greek myth and certain medieval legends within the context of the termite culture. Vol. 1 is called The War of the Stolen Mother and reworks the Trojan War.