When I was in grad school, I took a Captivity class, where the focus was on the 18th and 19th century subaltern---people deemed to be of inferior statWhen I was in grad school, I took a Captivity class, where the focus was on the 18th and 19th century subaltern---people deemed to be of inferior status by the dominant culture, and included groups as diverse as women, Native Americans, Africans, Asians, and really anyone who did not conform to the patriarchal hegemony: i.e., white Christian males---and how the subalterns managed to find their voice.
Part of the study of the subaltern was understanding how acculturating and adapting the dominant culture’s ways did not necessarily bring equality, and more importantly, how the path towards finding their own voice involved much resistance and defiance despite being faced with unrelenting prejudice from the dominant culture. Because in finding their own voice, they gained a certain degree of freedom, a freedom which was separate and distinct from the freedom that was withheld from them by their captors, and which would not be realized in full until the twentieth century.
At its heart, The Golem and the Jinni is a tale of captivity. We have the Golem---a woman made from clay whose personality, character and uniqueness have all been pre-programmed---who was created to serve as a wife for a man who was generally disliked by all around him. He became her Master and when he dies shortly after he wakens her, the Golem is left adrift. Then we have the Jinni, an ethereal, ineffable, god-like creature whose entire being---his personality, character, temperament and disposition---has been trapped in a human body for millennia, that he can’t even say his own Jinn name out loud.
There are any number of secondary characters---all important to the narrative in their own way---who are also held captive in one way or another, such as: • Ice Cream Saleh, a doctor possessed by an ifrit trapped in him. The ifrit, in turn, traps Saleh in his own head, where he is unable to look at anyone around him for all he sees are ghouls, skeletal beings, nightmares. Saleh wants nothing more than death, but this eludes him. • Schaalman, a kabbalah-practicing disgraced rabbi, creator of the Golem. Knowing himself as an evil man, he fears death and what awaits him on the other side. He is trapped by his own desire to discover the secret to immortality, at any cost. • (view spoiler)[ibn Malik, the wizard who trapped and bound the Jinni in human form, who claimed him as his slave. But since his spell has linked his life to the Jinni’s, and the Jinni has been held captive for millennia, ibn Malik’s soul has been forced to jump from one body to the next, always following the same violent path towards malevolence and wickedness. (hide spoiler)] • Anna Blumberg, a young Jewish girl whose sole desire is to experience love and life to the fullest, and who does, until she has to deal with the harsh reality of a single, unwed woman with child. Trapped culturally, engaged in a battle against not only the mores and traditions of her culture, but also of the times. • Sophia Winston, an upper-class lady, daughter to New York’s richest magnate, who is trapped within the expectations and confines of her own society: schooled as a lady, she is expected to wed an acceptable gentleman of means she barely knows, then become a mother and doyenne of society. She wants nothing more than to travel and experience life but is not allowed this. It isn’t what ladies of her stature do.
The Golem and the Jinni is a sprawling tale not only of the two main characters, Chava the Golem and Ahmad the Jinni, but also of what it means to be Jewish or Syrian, what it means to be Muslim or Christian, what it means to have faith or none at all. It is a story of minorities, a story of immigration, and it is a story of a growing New York. For New York is as much a character in the novel as any of the other human and non-human characters in it. Home to a diverse crowd of people, of different races and religions and beliefs, New York comes alive when the Jinni goes off exploring his new home, then becomes even more so once the Golem and the Jinni finally meet and experience New York together.
The novel is so beautifully written. Helene Wecker is the kind of writer who has the sense of the lyrical about her. Her words flow languorously, the language at times soothing and melodic, and at others, rhapsodic and dangerous. She allows her readers to get to know her characters intimately, spending a good amount of time developing them, jumping back and forth in time---sometimes hundreds of years---to ensure that each character gets his or her fair share of development, that each one gets to say who they are and what they are about. In fact, she spends so much time upfront introducing the reader to her large cast of characters that Chava and Ahmad don’t even meet until we’re two-fifths of the way into the novel. The first part of the novel reads more like a series of short stories, each chapter or section within a chapter devoted to one character or one life, drawing the reader in deeper and deeper into the story, weaving each one into this tapestry she’s creating, but without really allowing us to see the full tableau, not yet, not completely.
But this is Chava and Ahmad’s story. One is practically a newborn, created just before her journey to New York, while the other is hundreds of years old. But when both finally come face-to-face with their new lives in New York, each is young, each has to undergo growing pains, and each has to learn how their lives fit into this new world and with the people around them. Each has to figure out how what to do with their lives, not truly their own, with their own set of restraints and boundaries, and how to keep others from discovering what they truly are, which is the largest shackle of all.
Chava and Ahmad themselves couldn’t be more different. Chava, gentle and inquisitive in nature---because this is how she was created---has long, philosophical discussions with both the Rabbi who finds her in New York and takes her under his wing, as well as Ahmad. Where her discussions with the former is more a pedantic kind of instruction---the Rabbi, after all, knows what Chava is and wants to ensure she can not only survive in New York but can also rise above what a Golem is---her long talks with Ahmad are more passionate, more heated for he challenges her to be more, to use her talents and skills and to not just sit idly by and accept what she has been told. He wants her to embrace her Golemness, to not hold back when she can be so much more that the ordinary humans surrounding them.
Ahmad, accustomed to the freedom he had as an incorporeal fire Jinni, is incensed by his inability to be as he was. His shackles---an iron cuff put on him by the wizard ibn Malik centuries ago---is not only a constant reminder of what he lost, but also of what he can be, but can’t. He sees Chava as a creature who has the freedom to do and be so much more, but chooses not to. She chooses to live an insular life, coded and guided now by the Rabbi’s teachings and her own inhibitions. This enrages him: here he is, shackled, tied to a human form he despises, unable to be himself, unable to remember what was done to him or what he had done as a slave to the wizard, unable to free himself, and here is the Golem, so capable of being more than what she is, of breaking free, but she refuses to do so.
This dichotomy in the two creatures, in Chava and Ahmad, are what drives them toward each other and propels the narrative forward. When Chava discovers how she was created by Schaalman and what characteristics he’d imbued in her, she is devastated:
Obedience. Curiosity. Intelligence. Virtuous and modest behavior.
She will make him an admirable wife, if she doesn’t destroy him first.
It was edifying, in a sense, to see her own origins, but at the same time she felt humiliated, reduced to nothing more than words. The request for modest behavior, for example: it rankled her to think of her arguments with the Jinni on the subject, how fervently she’d defended an opinion she’d had no choice but to believe. And if she was meant to be curious, did that mean she could take no credit for her own discoveries, her accomplishments? Had she nothing of her own, only what Joseph Schall [Schaalman] decreed she should have? And yet, if Rotfeld had lived, she would hve been more than content!
So do Chava and Ahmad break free of their captors? I can’t answer that question because that will give the story away. But it is a story worth reading. It is a story worth spending time with. It’s slow going, but I think this is one of those stories where the pacing is deliberate and is needed, in order to lay the groundwork. Once Wecker enters the last fifth of the story, the pace picks up significantly and hurtles towards the ending at breakneck speed.
My advice: enjoy it. Savor it. It’s well worth it, and in the end, it is a lovely journey, with so many unforgettable characters. ...more