A story about America and a story about immigration, Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni explores the not-quite-human status of its protagonists as a route into broader questions about freedom, whiteness and personhood in a country built by the enslaved. Both characters begin nameless but, named, continually slip back from their precarious individuality into representatives of their entire non-human race: Chava is always also ‘the golem’ and Ahmad always also ‘the jinni’. Chava – the Golem, the Jew; and Ahmad, the Jinni, the Arab, stand in also for migrant communities marked out from whiteness in distinct ways. As Gil Anidjar puts it, in The Jew, The Arab, A History of the Enemy, in America the golem and the jinni – ‘the Jew, the Arab on the one hand, religion and politics, on the other – are distinct, but indissociable.’ Chava’s Jewish people grapple with questions of right and wrong; of divine and human creation; of damnation and salvation. Ahmad’s Arab people struggle over clashing cultural norms and different ways of life, dividing over nomadic and settled relations to the land, over modern Western and traditional healing practices. Anidjar writes that ‘the war of the sexes would have to be rewritten, perhaps, from the perspective of a history of the enemy.’ Wecker’s book can be read as one such rewriting.
Chava and Ahmad, the Golem and the Jinni, the Jew and the Arab, the woman and the man, experiment over the course of the novel with the differently gendered visions of freedom offered to them within the constraints of the America dream. As the story begins, both awaken to the loss of a certain kind of freedom. The Jinni awakes to find himself trapped in human form, his wrists bound in iron, having lost the greater capacities of his previous spirit form – freedom to know and to map out the world, to build great palaces and to destroy them, and – perhaps most importantly – freedom from ties of duty or responsibility to others, a very enlightenment (masculine, aristocratic, white), kind of liberty. Instead, in bonds, as he struggles against his captivity he comes to know his own capacity to transform the world around him through productive labour, winning the respect and affection of his community by transforming the culture of his former, free, nomadic life into marketable commodities – a great tin roof which depicts the desert he used to roam freely (to the great delight of a local landlord); faux-antique jewellery for pampered rich white women to hire for Orientalist dressing up games. He has nothing to lose but his chains.
The Golem awakes to know briefly the state that she was created for: the absolute submission of her will to that of her master, who asked the magician Schaalman to make him a golem for a wife. But as she comes alive, he is dying of a ruptured appendix, and almost as soon as she awakes she is cast into the world alone, overwhelmed by the cacophony of other people’s desires which she cannot help but know. She longs to be liberated from responsibility, from choice; she longs for the freedom of submission to a rightful master even as she fears the consequences of unleashing her true nature in moments where her instinctive desire to protect others overtakes her conscious control of herself. Her friend and father figure, the Rabbi Avram Meyer, both afraid of what she may do if allowed to live without a master and unwilling to deny her any recognition whatsoever of personhood, brings forth a new spell out of the wisdom of ancient esoteric tradition, a formula which Chava can choose to pronounce and so bind herself to a new master. This spell, in a striking parody of the legal doctrine of couverture which shaped women’s marital status in early modernity, requires Chava’s consent for her independent personhood to be absorbed into her new master’s. As Rabbi Mayer agonises over whether to encourage her so to submit, Chava, like Ahmad, proves an exemplary worker, first alongside other single women in the reproductive labour of baking and mending, and then subsequently in marriage, tending to her new husband’s emotional and physical needs. Unlike her co-workers at the bakery, distracted by flirtations and incapacitated by extramarital pregnancy, Chava must remind herself to slow down, to take rests; must resist her urge to give to her customers what they truly desire, all so as not to reveal that endless, tireless work in service of the needs and desires of others is in fact in her nature. ‘Housework,’ Silvia Federici argues, has not only ‘been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character.’
As Tyler Stovall and Orlando Patterson (amongst others) have argued, the modern notion of freedom relies for its meaning on the contrast with racialised slavery, and this claim is borne out throughout the novel. The magician Schaalman says of Chava whilst making her that a golem is not, as her original purchaser might think, a ‘clay person’ but ‘a beast of burden … a slave to your will,’ so totally dominated that she will not even desire anything other than to obey. Awakening from captivity and a dark passage across the Atlantic which has severed him not only from his kin but from his own memories of what came before, Ahmad wonders if the wizard who first captured and chained him had ‘treated him like one of Sulayman’s slaves’ or simply discarded him like an unwanted object.
Yet in their in-between status, not quite enslaved and not quite free, both run up against the limits of the American dream of freedom. Ahmad, longing to return to the unconstrained life he lived before capture, free to come and go as he pleased, to build and to destroy, to love and to leave others, finds himself entangled in bonds of commitment and care. Longing to leave the shop in which he is first liberated from the flask he was trapped in and to wander freely around the city, he nonetheless agrees to stay until his host, Arbeely, deems it fit for him to do so, and reluctantly attends a community wedding for the sake of their business and reputation. When tempted to destroy what he has made. he finds he cannot bring himself to do so. When he makes the decision to leave, and realises that ‘he’d never be completely free of Little Syria’ as long as the tin ceiling he makes remains there, he nonetheless cannot bring himself to destroy it. Instead, he allows it to remain as a sign of the ties which bind him to others – his friend and co-worker Arbeely and the small boy Matthew for whom he has come to play a paternal role. Drawn to the Bedouin Fadwa and the heiress Sophia, albeit with no desire to bind himself to them in marriage, he nonetheless finds himself ensnared both by his desire for Fadwa and Sophia. But it is by harming Fadwa through his carelessness that he finds himself trapped in the flask as her community seek to heal her; and by seducing Sophia, he comes to find himself dependent on her for his very life as Chava, to whom he has made promises, who carries him, helpless, to her door.
Chava, formed and taught by the men who made and educated her to serve – to submit, to master her own unruly desires, to respond to the pain and the wants of others – nonetheless learns that longing, pain, and dissatisfaction cannot be stifled forever. A night of unexpected pleasure spent dancing with the Jinni ends in violence, as Chava’s rage at the young man who has impregnated and abandoned her friend Anna overtakes her and she almost kills the man. Realising what she has done, she tries to cut off her friendship with Ahmad whom, she says, confuses her, making her ‘forget that some things aren’t possible for me!’ Unable to destroy herself she instead asks the Rabbi’s nephew Michael to marry her, and tries to bend her will to his. But she strains against the constraints of marriage – longing to regain her freedom to walk through the city alone at night, longing for a sexual pleasure which Michael, still trapped in the sexual shame of his upbringing, cannot meet. Chava suffers constantly from her awareness of the desires of others, desires which she is not able or allowed to meet. But on meeting the magician Schaal, who has concealed his mind from her with magic so that she experiences from him not desire but a ‘bizarre void,’ she shudders, thinking of the surgeon cutting out the appendix of her now-dead husband, and cannot ‘shake her growing conviction that there was something very wrong’ with him. Later, discovering Schaal’s book of spells, she considers all the possibilities that magic offers her: to feed the hungry, to end both the jinni’s captivity and his longing to return home to the desert and so leave her; to erase Michael’s memories of her and so his pain; to give to those she loves the ‘true happiness’ that she felt when she lacked a will of her own. But she ultimately rejects this choice. The dissatisfaction which she longs to solve is, nonetheless, what makes those around her themselves.
At the end of the novel, it becomes clear that – as Carol Pateman has argued – consent to contract is no guarantee of either freedom or equality. Forcing Chava to submit to him in order to save her friend Anna, the magician Schaalman notes, in a strikingly Hobbesian moment, that ‘a choice made under coercion was still a choice.’ But in choosing to destroy Schaal’s spells, both Ahmad and Chava reject the idea that absolute power offers a way to evade violence and coercion. In the end both choose what they cannot help but do within the constraints afforded by their natures. Chava’s strength, she suggests, will make it possible for her to once again trap Ahmad in the flask, allowing him to make the choice which she describes as her ‘weakest, most selfish mistake,’ seeking to protect others from herself by submitting to the bonds of marriage to Michael.
What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be a woman or a man, a Jew or an Arab? The Golem and the Jinni suggests that to grapple with these questions is to recognise what we cannot help but be; what we choose within the constraints of tradition, love, need, and violence; what we are and what we make; what we can and cannot do for those around us. These themes are picked up in the novel’s sequel, The Hidden Palace, whose ending suggests two incompatible answers to these basic questions. The first is conservative: what makes us human, the book suggests on the one hand, is our work: the masculine, innovative and profitable work pursued by the Jinni, or the feminine, reproductive and caring labour chosen by the Golem. The second is more interesting: that what ultimately determines us is not what we possess or what we can do but our dispossession, what we have lost, how we have wounded one another – like the Moroccan mother from whom Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul takes its title, who speaks about the ‘the intertwining of her suffering with that of her son’; like the dispossession which forms the basis of Ursula le Guin’s utopian anarchist society:
‘It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.’