Around St. Valentine’s I happened to read something more or less love-related so here comes a thematic post.
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker will appeal to all you (us) Gaiman fans, at least those who always thought there’s too much pop culture savviness in his books and not nearly enough tenderness. It tells a story of end-of-nineteenth-century New York with its crucible of cultures, each of which brings its own legends and, unknowingly, magical creatures. Yes, something like American Gods but with less sex and way less gods.
As the title immediately informs, the protagonists are the golem, come from around Gdańsk, who represents Jewish culture, and the jinni, from a Syrian desert, who lives with Christian Syrian community. Their stories start separately but come together somewhere in the middle of the book, the encounter possible thanks to the magic of New York.
While the love that will ensue (is this a spoiler? I guess it’s obvious from the title) is not particularly thunderous (it evolves rather than erupts), another love dominates it: the one for the city of New York. New York of the novel is a mythical place, not only inhabited by magical creatures but also, like any true myth, it brings together opposites. The rich and the poor meet in the same parks and people exist both as a part of their secluded community and of something bigger that grows out of it. I quite enjoyed walking this city with the characters.
Like the city, the golem and the jinni struggle to unite oppositions: their generic nature that makes them act one way, and the confusing expectations of humanity that they’ve joined. Like most fairy tales, this is not particularly difficult or nuanced but the attempt to understand human beings – resulting in deciding to join their society – is interesting. Of the two creatures, I found golem much more engaging. She struggles maturely with her situation, not like a brat whose toys are taken away, the way the jinni sometimes acts. But also, the Jewish community itself held more attraction for me, maybe because of Gdańsk (or, historically accurate, Danzig, but we don’t like this name) and because Jewish culture is part of the literature I come from.
I also felt that the natures of the golem and the jinni reflected on, rather stereotypical, natures of women and men. The golem is born to submission, she lets caution guide her actions and passes the time with drudgery. The jinni rebels against caution, human ways and boring jobs, walks the city at night and leaves heiresses pregnant in his wake. I was wondering what would happen, were they the opposite and decided the male golem would be dull and the jinniyeh (which is apparently female jinni) irritatingly loose. So, I guess those stereotypes are not going anywhere. But the character who steals the show is actually the villain, the golem’s creator who arrives to New York in quest for eternal life: the author manages to make him both repulsive and fascinating as a villain should be.
Definitely not one of those grand reading experiences that stay with you forever, The Golem and the Jinni still read great and kept my interest; it even managed to be poetic at times. Sometimes (or, quite often) that’s all you ask of a book. Happy Valentine’s, especially to those of you who spend it with a book.
PS. The one scene that intrigued me was when the golem and the jinni met a couple of other unidentified-but-probably-supernatural creatures. I like that it was never explained who they were.