New York, 1899:
CHAVA is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a Jewish rabbi. When her master dies on the voyage from Poland, she arrives alone in an unknown city.
AHMAD is a djinni, a being of fire, trapped for centuries and brought back to life by Arbeely, an impoverished tinsmith who invites him to stay in his workshop in Lower Manhattan.
Together, experiencing freedom for the first time, they form the most unlikely of friendships. But a powerful threat will soon test their bond, driving them back into their own worlds and forcing them to make a fateful choice.
I’ve just finished reading The Golem and the Djinni, and I thought it deserved a review. The book description on the back of this chunky, green paperback got me interested. Just as expected, the book read like a fairy tale – woven with magic, mysterious characters, and a myriad of emotions.
Ahmad and Chava look at the human world with childlike naivety, but also with fear and skepticism. In a way, the novel tries to look at people from a neutral, otherwordly point of view. How would someone who knows nothing about humans perceive our weaknesses, strengths, emotions, social constructs and habits?
Ahmad doesn’t really understand human constraints at first. Human values don’t apply to the djinni. However, once trapped in the human form, he learns how his actions affect those around him. Chava, on the other hand, was made by a human. Her master decided on her character and values, he made her proper, intelligent and curious. And it was in her golem nature to be strong but obedient – once bonded to her master, the golem has to do everything he orders. After the death of her master, Chava is without purpose and has to adapt to “normal” life. She is aware of her strength, and fears for the people around her. She accepts their values and norms, and tries to live by them. Ahmad does what he wants, just as he did once, a long time ago. He wants to be free.
“I depended on no one! I went where I would and followed my desires. I needed no money, no employer, no neighbors. None of this interminable good morning and how are you, whether one feels like it or not.”
Chava would rather go mad than hurt anyone so she hides as much as possible, and she even secretly wishes she had a master again.
“To me it felt like the way things were meant to be. And when (my master) died (…) I no longer had a 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.”
Once the two characters meet, they talk about their own natures, and try to find solutions to their situation. They are the complete opposites, and make us think about the two opposing forces that drive us all – a need to be independent, and a need to be a part of a community. People cannot live alone, but they also cannot allow themselves to do only what the others think they should. That is one of the main concepts the novel deals with – the importance of being true to ourselves, while at the same time accepting the company, friendship, love and responsibility for others.
Chava and Ahmad also discuss their own impressions of what they have seen and learned about humans, each from their own point of view. I found their conversations really interesting. They pose some questions which don’t really have an answer, and make us think about ourselves and our own character. As they try to understand human nature, the reader finds out that we don’t really understand ourselves as well. At the same time, when the golem and the djinni talk about themselves, they once again pose some universal questions. What is one’s “nature” and are we all slaves to it? What characteristics are we born with and which ones do we learn?
Ahmad also has some interesting conversations with Arbeely, and it is Arbeely, a human, who says the most harsh, and to me the most resounding claim about human character:
“They’d need no reason!” shouted Arbeely. “Why can’t you understand? Men need no reason to cause mischief, only an excuse!”
It’s clear that people are capable of great evil, but they are also capable of good. The villain, who goes by few names, embodies the insatiable thirst for power and immortality. The fear of death is something that is capable of bringing out the worst in people, making them fight for their survival regardless of the consequences, and I think this is shown quite well in the novel. But sometimes, people also show the willingness to sacrifice themselves for the others, and the novel addresses this other side of human nature as well, through some other characters.
There are so many interesting characters, and it would take too long to mention them all. And I wouldn’t want to reveal too much. What I have will say is that in the end, I really feared for them. I cared about them and hoped for the best possible outcome. I also liked how the novel combined different cultures, mostly Jewish and Muslim from which the two main characters originate. It also shows New York in the end of the 19th century, a place where people from all around the world came to start a new, better life. On the one side, the readers get en insight into the life in New York tenements, and on the other side they are able to follow Chava and Anhmad and explore the empty streets at night.
Do I have something bad to say? Not really. I do wish some things were explored a little bit more, but the book was what I expected it to be. It drew me into it’s magical world and what more could I ask from it?