Where is the heart of coral red? It hangs upon a silken thread.
In the Golem, Athanasius Pernath lives in the Jewish ghetto in Prague. He’s surrounded by a cast of memorable and grotesque supporting characters: a Lolita-esque vixen; a pair of twin brothers, one of whom is deaf & dumb; a horribly disfigured shop owner; a doctor who purposely maims his patients; a mysterious next-door neighbor; a strange woman that seems to know things about Pernath’s past that he himself does not remember; a murderer with strange psychic powers; a saint-like rabbi with hypnotic powers. As if this wasn’t enough, Pernath himself struggles with amnesia and epilepsy. A mysterious series of murders breaks out in the ghetto. And then . . . last but not least . . . there’s the Golem.
The Golem is a figure of Jewish mythology. I’ll be interested to hear dp4m give a little insight on how this book’s vision of the Golem stacks up against the versions he’s heard about. The tale told here is of a rabbi who creates a being out of clay and then puts a section of the Torah inside the mouth of the clay figure; enlivened by the power of the Word of God, the Golem is used by the rabbi to carry out various drudgeries, including working on the Sabbath, something no Jew is allowed to do. But one Sabbath night, the rabbi forgets to remove the Word from the mouth of the Golem and the Golem, a soulless, piece of walking matter, breaks free and rampages through the ghetto. In this book, it has been thirty-three years since a Golem was seen in the ghetto and, legend says, this is exactly the number of years that must pass before the Golem returns. According to legend, the Golem will manifest himself into a room with no doors and either stay there as a looming presence in the ghetto or dematerialize his way out of it.
Anyway, Meyrink is a mostly forgotten author; it was only in the 2000s that the bulk of his work became available in English. This book was originally translated into English in 1927 and then again translated in 1995 by Mike Mitchell. It boasts only those two translations, near as I can tell, and, much as I really liked Mitchell’s version, it seems ripe for another translation.
This book is really incredibly rich and filled with symbolism, Christian, Jewish & pagan. There’s also numerology, I think, though I couldn’t follow all that through. But it doesn’t seem like one would simply randomly pick thirty-three as the central figure of a novel unless it meant something. The book is a strange, discomfiting read; it’s a book that’s deeply atmospheric and it slips from reality to dreams to episodes of madness with this incredible facility that keeps the reader constantly struggling to understand where and when these events are happening, if they are even happening at all. It’s a book that really challenges the very nature of reality in its narrative and as such, you really do not know what’s going to happen next at any point. The book uses the Golem as a symbol for humanity. The book is really about the nature of humanity. Are we, like the Golem, simply animated hunks of clay, soulless, wandering without meaning, slaves to the Word of God? Or are we living, breathing spirits, only inhabiting these bodies for a brief while in the midst of our eternal existence? The book is layered and evocative. The book seems to certainly lean toward the first of those outcomes and we’re pursued by symbols for the essential powerlessness of humanity. A man keeps a life-size statue of the woman he once loved; scriptures are read about “chaff on the wind;” a statue changes shape in front of Pernath’s eyes; one of the characters is literally a puppet-maker.
And let me briefly get into some spoilers, so if you want to read this book (and I actually do really recommend it), skip this stuff. If you’re interested but doubt you’ll ever read it, then go ahead and read on.
The Golem really functions almost entirely as a symbolic figure and a figure of dread. I consider the following a spoiler because the book really makes you fear that the Golem could appear at any moment and I think that’s central to really getting the full experience. But in the end, the Golem appears only on a single page of the book, at the climax. But what a climax it is. It’s intense and gripping. Pernath confronts the Golem in his own apartment, only to find that the Golem is, in fact, his own doppelganger. He flees from the Golem and discovers a window that leads into the doorless room. He lowers himself on a rope and finally sees through the window; we, the reader, are not told what he sees. He leaps for the window and, in a really amazing image, “I am hanging between heaven & earth, head downwards, legs forming a cross.” The rope snaps, the Golem vanishes, the doorless room slips away as Pernath plummets downward to the street far below. And, astoundingly, an image from the very first chapter recurs and we finally understand what that image means. It’s an image I had completely forgotten about; it’s only mentioned in the first chapter, where Pernath wakes from sleep with the strange image of stone polished as “smooth as a lump of fat” in his head. In the climax, as he leaps for the window, his hands grasp and then slip off the window ledge; it is this ledge that is the smooth stone. I probably won’t always go into such detail about the ending of a book, but this climactic scene is easily the best scene in the book, so I wanted to talk about it a bit.
And the book does have some ambiguity in it. The murders taking place are central to the last quarter or so of the book’s plot, which finds Pernath framed for the murders by the villainous, hare-lipped Wasserstrum. But, though Pernath has been exonerated by the end of the book, the novel ends without the identity of the real killer being revealed. It could have been any of the characters really; or perhaps simply someone not even in the book. But it doesn’t feel like a cheat.
Okay, end spoilers.
So, I intend to check each book against the genre it falls under and kind of say how it fits there.
Horror? Oh, yes. There are creepy and frightening scenes galore. The most frightening scene is one in which Pernath is lost in a warren of tunnels beneath the city and finds himself in the Golem’s windowless room; the night he spends there is harrowing. A later scene in which a man talks in his sleep is equally terrifying. What’s so bad about a guy talking in his sleep, you ask. Well, for starters . . . he’s not talking in his own voice . . . But it’s the existential horror, the way the book frays reality and posits a monstrous kind of existence for humanity, that will stay with you.
All in all, I loved, loved, loved this one. Great book. 4 stars.
Next time, it’s a posthumous collection of short stories by a horror legend, including a prequel to the author’s most famous novel. Join me next time for Dracula’s Guest & Other Weird Stories by Bram Stoker!