By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Helene Wecker
Narrated by: George Guidell
Helene Wecker’s first novel opens a new world of imagination. As in all stories built on myth or legend, “The Golem and the Jinni” draws on universal human interest. Wecker explores differences between men and women, faith and religion, caring and not caring, love and friendship. The choice of George Guidell as narrator makes a good story even better.
A golem is a legendary Jewish’ figure made of clay and mud that lives and dies by the magic of Hebraic’ spells.
A golem is a robotic slave designed by a Jewish magician to serve and protect one person. It is stronger than five men and, when provoked, acquires a blood-lust that destroys all in its path. At the beginning of Wecker’s story, the golem and its master are crossing the Atlantic, bound for America. The golem’s master dies just before arriving at Ellis Island. The golem arrives in New York alone.
A jinni is a legendary Muslim’ spirit; it flies like the wind and is born of other jinn who have lived for generations. The Muslim’ spirit has many different personalities; ranging from the impish; to the lustful; to the terrifying. Wecker’s tale chooses a jinni that carries the heat of hell but is more like an impish playboy than a demon. However, this jinni is enslaved by an evil alchemist. The jinni is constrained in an iron bracelet, placed by the alchemist on the wrist of its human form, that denies many of its powers. The jinni may be called upon from a metal lamp (a prison designed by the alchemist) to do as told by his enslaver. In a jinni’s normal state it can take the form of an ephemeral spirit, a human, or an animal while possessing its consciousness. But this jinni cannot change forms and is at the beck and call of its enslaver.
As Wecker’s story unfolds, the jinni’s enslaver dies at the time of the jinni’s capture in the metal lamp. The jinni in Wecker’s story is released from the metal lamp many generations later when being repaired by a Syrian shop keeper living in New York. Both, the golem and jinni appear in New York in the early 20th century; one is without its master; the other is without its enslaver.
Now, forget what you think you know about a golem or jinni as a monster. In Wecker’s novel, the monster under the bed, or in your dream, is not a golem or jinni. The monster is you, a human being. Wecker cleverly reveals myths of Jewish and Islamic demons in a story that blends human nature with a perception of differences between masculine and feminine mystique. Along the way, Wecker raises issues of faith and religion; caring and not caring; love and friendship. Wecker creates two powerful mythological characters with a supporting cast that contrast and reveal the nature of human beings. Wecker’s golem is feminine; her jinni is masculine.
The golem and jinni find each other in New York. They immediately recognize each’s true nature; not in detail, but in general. The golem can see the glow of fire in the jinni’s face; the jinni can see the earthen substance of the golem’s body. Neither of these entities knows of the legends of the other but they recognize their kindred isolation from humans. As their relationship develops, their characters change.
As the golem and jinni begin to know each other they reveal the mystique of gender; i.e. the masculine mystique of seduction and the feminine mystique of emotional attachment; each mystique carrying its own power. Wecker trades on this chimera by creating a growing, possibly romantic, relationship between the golem and jinni. The golem cares about others to the point of obsession. In contrast, the jinni cares only about itself. Both golem and jinni have extreme forms of equally destructive human characteristics; i.e. obsessive interest in what others think and obsessive interest in the self. Part of Wecker’s story explains how the golem and jinni moderate obsessive caring and extreme narcissism. Moderation comes from time and familiarity; i.e. a realization that no one is perfect and imperfection is part of human’ life.
Faith and religion are tested by supporting characters. When the golem first arrives in New York, a Rabbi rescues her from a belligerent New Yorker. The Rabbi knows she is a golem because of his rabbinical studies. The Rabbi takes the golem into his home and counsels her on how to behave in public to protect her identity. The Rabbi knows of the blood-lust risk inherent in a golem and wrestles with destruction or preservation of her being. The Rabbi dies of old age before making a decision but his faith is evident in the counsel he gives the golem. The Rabbi decries the golem maker’s dangerous act in creating life with inference that life is only in the purview of God; not man.
Belief in God is challenged by the magic and myth of Wecker’s story. In “The Golem and Jinni” life is created by man. God is questioned by the nephew of the golem’s helpful Rabbi. A human’s reincarnation and magic are at the heart of the story; i.e. both conceptual constructs, antithetical to belief in one God. The skepticism of the Rabbi’s nephew, the golem, and the jinni challenge the notion of God.
Human caring for others supplants much of the Rabbi’s devout belief in God. However, the ambivalence of caring shown by the Jinni are a part of Wecker’s story. Set in the early 1900s, when immigrants are entering the United States through Ellis Island, Wecker reveals how dependent new arrivals were (and still are) on the care of others who came before. One wonders how there can be a God with so much pain and hardship in the world.
Finally, at the story’s end, one hears an echo of the author’s view of love and friendship. Love and friendship’s differences lay somewhere between trust in what one says and the reality of what one does.
The Myth of the Golem:
The Myth of the Jinn: