Clay And Fire

the-golem-and-the-jinniThe Golem and The Jinni, by Helene Wecker, was published in 2013. An internet search lead me to this novel.

The year is 1899. Otto Rotfeld is a Prussian Jew from Konin. He’s a failure both in business and in love.

Rotfeld approaches a mysterious man named Schaalman. He wants Schaalman to make a golem for him – not the typical lumbering, unthinking beast of burden, but a golem, made of clay, that can pass for human. Rotfeld wants his golem to have curiosity and intelligence – and be female.

Schaalman thinks that Rotfeld doesn’t understand what he’s asking for, but agrees to the task. He takes most of the money Rotfeld has.

The golem is finished the night before Rotfeld leaves for America. Schaalman gives him a piece of paper with two commands on it: the command that will bring the golem to life, and the command that will destroy her.

Rotfeld had been advised to wait until he lands in America to wake his golem, to lessen the disorientation the golem will experience, but Rotfeld begins to wonder if he’d been cheated. What proof did he have that his golem will come to life? He speaks the command before reaching America.

The Golem comes to life in the hold of a steamship, midway between Poland and America. She is already knowledgeable and aware. She can understand any human language. She already knows that the man in front of her is her master, Otto Rotfeld.

Moments later, Rotfeld dies, without ever having a chance to give her a name. Without the bond between golem and master, her mind connects to the thoughts and desires of every human in her vicinity, all at the same time.

When the ship arrives at Ellis Island, the Golem, who, of course, has no immigration papers, jumps ship (literally) and walks along the river bottom to Manhattan.

In the Manhattan neighborhood called Little Syria, a Maronite Catholic tinsmith named Boutros Arbeely is hired to repair a battered old copper flask. As he works at the task, Arbeely accidentally frees a jinni, who had long ago been trapped, in human form (by an iron cuff), inside the flask, by a wizard.

The Jinni is a member of the most intelligent and powerful race of jinn. His race are formless creatures of fire, able to imitate the form of any animal or human. The Jinni had been born in the Syrian Desert, in what is now known as the seventh century.

Water is deadly to the fire jinn, and Manhattan is surrounded by more water than the Jinni had ever seen in his long life. The Jinni is given shelter by the tinsmith.

The Jinni takes the name Ahmad, and becomes the tinsmith’s apprentice. He is given a false backstory to explain his sudden appearance in the neighborhood.

The Golem, although aware and knowledgeable, is only two days old. She is naïve. She is found, wandering and confused, by Rabbi Avram Meyer, who immediately recognizes her as a golem. The Golem is given shelter by the Rabbi.

The Rabbi names the Golem Chava. She takes a job at a neighborhood bakery. Chava is given a backstory close enough to the truth that the Rabbi can, at least, forgive himself for concocting a lie.

Ahmad, the thousand-year-old jinni from the Syrian Desert, and Chava, the newborn golem from the Atlantic Ocean, meet by chance in New York City. He sees her as a creature of clay. She sees him as a creature of fire. Neither one understands what they are seeing.

This is only the beginning of the story.

The Golem and The Jinni is 484 pages long. Its many plots and subplots flowed nicely and never felt like filler. I felt like I was reading a fable.

It’s a book filled with ideas.

It’s a book about two beings who are different, in a city of differences. Chava longs for a master. Ahmad longs for freedom. Their differences are what they have in common, and how they form a friendship.

It’s a book about immigrants, in a city made up of immigrants. It’s about holding on to what you’ve brought from the old world while adapting to life in a new world, and eventually finding a way to blend in. It’s about different cultures existing mere city blocks apart.

It’s a book about religion – about Christianity, and Judaism, and Islam. It’s not a religious book – it’s a book about religious people.

The Golem and The Jinni is amazing, wonderful, tragic, and mind-blowing. It’s the best book I’ve read for the Reading Challenge, so far. It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time.

  • A book involving a mythical creature

(A book involving two mythical creatures, actually)

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