Helene Wecker’s first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, places two beings from very different, and at first glance, opposing cultural origins, in a turn-of-the-century Lower Manhattan arena. How they meet and who they become to each other are both impossibilities that can only happen in New York City. Chava, the golem, was created for an Eastern European Jew migrating to the United States by an isolated and mystical rabbi with a mastery of dark arts. She is transported in a wooden box by her new master, who she never really knows, because he dies halfway across the ocean. Ahmed, the jinni, finds his way to America in a copper container with a stopper. After centuries of imprisonment, he is chagrined to find himself unleashed in an unimpressive New York City.
I have read several among many contemporary novels set in the late 1800s – early 1900s Manhattan: one, Caleb Carr’s, wonderful The Alienist, is a murder mystery solved by Dr. Lazlow and his loyal team of unexpected detectives. Then there is E.L. Docktorow’s The Waterworks where extending life beyond death seems possible for those with wealth from the Industrial Revolution but at the expense of other lives, in this case, children.
These two novels, along with The Golem and the Jinni, share a very important quality: they take place in a city with an emerging melting pot identity during a time of extraordinary technological advancement, including the introduction of electricity, public sanitation, communication, and transportation to name a few. And this particular point in history permits us just enough technology to see the story by the dim glow of early light bulbs, but not enough technology for the characters to perform Internet searches to reveal what they are and who they are. This, of course, adds to the fun of The Golem and the Jinni, because while the story progresses in the claustrophobic confines of the Lower East Side, occupied by a growing Jewish immigrant community, and Little Syria on the fringes of the now outrageously popular Tribeca neighborhood in what use to be the Egg and Dairy District; the backstories that fuel this unusual pairing of mythological persons unfold in ghettos across Eastern Europe and the deserts of pre-nation-state Arabia.
“What are you?” he asked.
She said nothing, gave no indication that she’d understood. He tried again: “You’re not human. You’re made of earth.”
At last she spoke. “And you’re made of fire,” she said.
The shock hit him square in the chest, and on its heels an intense fear. He took a step backward. “How,” he said, “did you know that?”
“Your face glows. As if lit from within. Can no one else see it?”
“No,” he said. “No one else.”
For those of you who do not know what a golem is — I did not, and I used my 21st century Internet to find out — it is a Biblical/Jewish folklore entity constructed of clay and maybe other things you do not want to know about, because apparently, to make it come alive, it requires some human components tied together with Kabbalah-like incantations. Once awakened, it can perform all sorts of useful tasks, and even tasks with questionable motives. You see, a golem is connected only to its master (and in the case of this story, the master goes missing), and it is bound to perform whatever is asked of it. However, how a golem interprets the commands of its master and how it carries them out is far from predictable, and a female golem without a master alone in New York City increases the unpredictable possibilities exponentially.
For those of you who think you know what a jinni is, Ms. Wecker has cracked the book to create one that diverges from the ideas we attain from Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons portrayed by the late commedians and voice talents, Mel Blanc and Robin Williams respectively. The jin are transparent or opaque, born of fire, and when unshackled, they can fly. They are seducers and manipulators, and they are capable of intruding on humans’ waking lives as well as their subconscious during sleep. To hear them talk, you would guess that they prefer to avoid humankind altogether, except for an occasional seduction here and there. The jin, as you know, are plentiful in Arabic literature, most notably One Thousand and One Nights, stories compiled from the Middle East and Southeast Asia during the Islamic Golden Age. And while unpredictable like their golem counterparts, they are not particularly famous for obedience and tend to be largely amoral, and it is thus ironic that they are born of a culture and time obsessed with defining community morals and appropriate behavior.
Ms. Wecker’s golem, Chava, is cold to the touch being made of clay, and reveals a warm soft spot for humanity around her. The jinni, Ahmed, is hot, born of fire, yet cold toward suspicious humans who, despite technological advancements, are largely barbaric and endanger themselves and everything around them. These differences do not overshadow the qualities that bring them together — an involuntary kind of supra-displacement, or more simply put, isolation in an over crowded city where two outcasts form a bond, and the qualities that isolate them from everyone ultimately compliment each other’s peculiarities.
In their efforts to blend into their respective homogeneous communities — Chava in the Jewish Lower East Side, and Ahmed in Lower Manhattan’s Little Syria — the two find themselves tangled in mortal lives that produce the book’s plot: a seniorly rabbi shelters the unattached unmastered golem, and a Syrian metalsmith who unbottles the incarcerated jinni. It is these mortals who introduce the non-mortals to New York, and the mortals take great effort to pass the golem and the jinni off as mortals too. But this, of course, does not last long, and soon the disguises falter, and the the super-human qualities come to light, little by little, creating a trail that leads to Chava to be found by the rabbi who created her and has traveled half-way across the world to own her again.
The Eastern European rabbi seeking Chava has some immortality issues of his own, and stopping him from reaching, controlling, or destroying Chava will be no small matter. But if it can be prevented, it will take the efforts of not only a golem and a jinni, but also the mortals who have become tangled and dependent on their new and exceptional community members. And this is the wonder of Wecker’s book: that the affection and dependencies that develop, even though colored with suspicion of otherliness, creates bonds, and thus successes that extend beyond cultural, religious, and racial boundaries.
I know that many great works of fiction have been ruined in their translations to motion pictures, and there are some iconic successes too. With that said, I hope Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni is optioned and directed by someone who understands the meaning displacement and the upside to when cultures are forced together to produce superhuman results.
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