Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Kinds of Abandon in The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker.
Helene Wecker's debut novel The Golem and the Jinni is a lovely novel, even if it does read a little like the first novel it is (there's too much coincidence). As the back of the book explains, it is about Chava, a golem, and Ahmad, a jinni, arriving in New York City in 1899. Chava's master-husband wakes her for the first time minutes before his unsuspected death; when Chava arrives in New York, she is masterless. Ahmad has been trapped in a flask for centuries, and when he is released by a Syrian tinsmith in Manhattan he is still trapped in the human form given to him by the same Bedouin wizard who put him in the bottle. Assorted plotlines unfurl and characters develop, including members of both the Syrian and Jewish immigrant communities and including Yehudah Schaalman, a deadly Kabbalist sorcerer. In a sense it is a book about immigrants in America (Wecker says so explicitly), as the Golem and the Jinni are immigrants in immigrant communities, but the eponymous protagonists are also immigrants to a parody humanity, both trying to act human despite the ways in which their natures rebel against human constraints.

Chava and Ahmad become friends of a sort (though their first meeting is late in the novel, more than a third of the way through), bound by the fact that each of them is a mythical creature pretending to be human for fear that the humans around them, compared to whom both Chava and Ahmad are incredibly powerful, would quickly destroy them in fear and distrust. But they make poor, quarrelsome friends most of the time, because as much as both of their natures resist the humanity they are forced to take on, they resist in very different ways. Chava is a golem, a creature made to serve; without a master, she is aimless, and a quirk of the magic which bound her to her master now allows her (compels her) to feel the desires of everyone she encounters, and when she feels those desires she has an impulse to serve them. (With one exception: she was made to be sexually faithful to her husband.) Chava also fears running amok; whenever a golem gets a taste for violence, it is said, that golem will never stop. Ahmad, on the other hand, is a powerful jinni, a fire spirit once able to enter dreams, fly, and change his shape at will. He roamed the deserts and acted on his whims and desires without thought to consequence. While he retains some of his power, he is bound to human form and certain human vulnerabilities (and worse). And so while both struggle with being human, their desires are radically different: Chava hates the freedom of being human, while Ahmad hates the constraints of being human. Let me excerpt a passage for you (I admit it's a little long):
She shook her head. "You misunderstand me. Each golem is built to serve a master. When I woke, I was already bound to mine. To his will. I heard every thing, and I obeyed with no hesitation."
"That's terrible," the Jinni said.
"To you, perhaps. To me it felt like the way things were meant to be. And when he died--when that connection left me--I no longer had a clear purpose. Now I'm bound to everyone, if only a little. I have to fight against it, I can't be solving everyone's wishes. But sometimes, at the bakery where I work, I'll give someone a loaf of bread--and it answers a need. For a moment, that person is my master. And in that moment, I'm content. If I were as independent as you wish you were, I'd feel I had no purpose at all"
He frowned. "Were you so happy, to be ruled by another."
"Happy is not the word," she said. "It felt right."
"All right, then let me ask you this. If by some chance or magic you could have your master back again, would you wish it?"
It was an obvious question, but one that she had never quite asked herself. But then, couldn't she guess? What sort of man would take a golem for a wife, the way a delivery man might purchase a new cart?
But oh, to be returned to that certainty! The memory of it rose up, sharp and beguiling. And she wouldn't feel as though she was being used. One choice, one decision--and then, nothing.
"I don't know," she said at last. "Maybe I would. Though in a way, I think it would be like dying. But perhaps it would be for the best. I make so many mistakes, on my own."
She'd half decided to turn back toward Broadway; but then he said, "Do you remember what I told you before? That I was captured, but have no memory of it?"
"Yes, of course I remember."
"I have no idea," he said, "how long I was that man's servant. His slave. I don't know what he made me do. I might have killed my own kind." There was a tight edge in his voice, painful to hear. "But even worse would be if I did it all gladly. If he robbed me of my will, and turned me against myself. Given a choice, I'd sooner extinguish myself in the ocean."
"But if all those terrible things did happen, then it was the wizard's fault, not yours," she said.
Again, that not-quite laugh. "Do you have colleagues at this bakery where you work?"
"Of course," she said. "Moe and Thea Radzin, and Anna Blumberg."
He said, "Imagine that your precious master returns to you, and you give yourself to him, as you said you perhaps would. Because you make so many mistakes. And he says, 'Please, my dear golem, kill those good people at the bakery, the Radzins and Anna Blumberg. Rip them limb from limb."
"But why--"
"Oh, for whatever reason! They insult him, or make threats against him, or he simply develops a whim. Imagine it. And then tell me what comfort it gives to think it wasn't your own fault."
This was a possibility she'd never considered. And now she couldn't help but picture it: grabbing Moe Radzin by the wrist and pulling until his arm came free. She had the strength. She could do it. And all the while, that peace and certainty.
To be honest, I am more sympathetic to Chava's plight than to Ahmad's. Ahmad's desire is freedom, and his growth as a character is to move from moral nihilism to greater responsibility; his attendant fear is simply that he will lose his freedom. Chava's desire is to be servant to a master which will grant her certainty in her decisions, but her fear is more than just that she'll remain aimless; her fear becomes the dark parody of what she desires, that she will be servant to someone who would cause her to hurt others. And, indeed, this is precisely what the threat of running amok is to her: she would be servant to her own darkest impulse, the golem's buried but ever-present taste for violence. It's not just that I recognize both Chava's fears and her desires more than I recognize Ahmad's; I find the fact that what she fears is the logical extension of what she desires to be more interesting than Ahmad's simplicity.

But what interests me most is how both of them desire a kind of abandonment. Ahmad wants to abandon himself to his own desires, be they good or bad; he wants to abandon himself to freedom. Chava wants to abandon herself to her master's desires; she wants to abandon herself to service. If each of them got what they wished, they would lose themselves. Chava explicitly acknowledges this--"I think it would be like dying"--but even Ahmad would dissolve into a sort of formlessness, being a shape-shifter and perpetual wanderer. He would not be recongizable. (To an extent this is a writer's trick; he would probably have a continued sense of identity, but his jinni name is kept from us because it's supposedly inarticulable by humans, and in the flashbacks to his time as a free jinni he did not appear, at least to me, to be quite as fully developed a character as when he was human; at any rate, it wasn't until he starts following humans and investigating them that he starts to differentiate from other jinn. I think this was deliberate on Wecker's part.) As much as Chava's nature and Ahmad's nature rebel against their current human condition, it is exactly that condition--not free of conscience or consequence, but free to make decisions nonetheless--which makes them characters. They gain identity by their humanity.

While The Golem and the Jinni is no allegory, the point is pretty plain. Chava and Ahmad are different in origin and different in ability than humans, but otherwise they are hardly different at all. This sense that being human is horribly uncomfortable, either because we rebel against the limitations our humanity gives us or because we rebel against the freedom our humanity gives us. Some people prefer one rebellion to another, but each fails. From what I can tell Wecker is not particularly religious, but I think that between Chava and Ahmad (but more Chava) some of the particular struggles and griefs of religious life are well represented. I saw much of my own fears and concerns in Chava, and while I do not feel that The Golem and the Jinni provided much way forward as far as those struggles go, I nonetheless found it an enormously satisfying read, not least because character-driven fantasy novels are so hard to come by.

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