The Golem of Prague

I’ve fallen behind on my resolution to write a brief bit about the books I read. Not a review, really, as much as things I thought of as a result of reading the book. Recently I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, and I have just finished Some Danger Involved, by Will Thomas.

The latter of those two follows a template you might find familiar: A man in victorian London becomesan assistant to an almost legendary yet enigmatic private detective. Detective Barker has assembled around himself an odd menagerie and the newcomer, Thomas, gradually discovers that each of them, even the little dog, has hidden abilities. As the story progresses, he even discovers some hidden potential in himself.

The story takes place at a time when Jews were being purged from large parts of Europe (see “Fiddler on the Roof”). The Jews have been moving west, but when they reach England there’s no more west to go. As always happens when there is a large influx of refugees into a country, the people that are already there resent the newcomers, accuse them of taking jobs, and so forth. So far, London has been reasonably tolerant, but things start to come unglued in the face of a rather horrible murder — a young Jew has been crucified. Things are heating up, but none of the usual suspects seems to be the one behind the trouble.

It’s a good story, with twists and turns, and while the prose reflects the mannered speech of Victorian England it does not weigh down the modern ear. There is humor and intrigue, but not so much suspense. The whodunnit element was pretty easy to untangle early on, when the bad guy makes a mistake that is glossed over at the time, but was pretty much a giveaway. There are a few distractor suspects, but none of them are developed that much.

The good news is that I don’t think the author really intended for the story to hinge on the dramatic revelation at the end. It is more of an adventure story than a mystery, and a quite enjoyable one.

As the Jews are discussing how to defend themselves, the subject of the Golem of Prague comes up. The Golem was, legend has it, a creature of animated clay, created by a rabbi to protect the Jews there during some long-ago pogrom.

Clay. Reading that, I realized something about another book I read, something that should probably have been obvious. In Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier is a Czech Jew who is a talented artist and a passable escape artist as well. His greatest escape was getting out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and reaching New York, with a bit of help from the Golem of Prague.

In New York he shares a room with Sam Clay, his fast-talking fast-thinking cousin. Almost instantly Sam sweeps up the newcomer in grand plans, and they embark on a career making comic books. With Joe’s ground-breaking art and Sam’s ability to spew a compelling story out in minutes, their character, The Escapist, is a runaway hit. Joe never gives up trying to get at least some of his family out of Europe, and finds that as his comic books become more popular that he might even have the money to make something happen. He grows increasingly desperate, as it is clear that things are getting very bad for Jews in Prague.

As a side note, the first place I ever saw the word ‘golem’ was in a comic book. Like the Escapist, his job was beating up Nazis.

Stuff happens, lots of stuff, some good, some not. People change. Superheroes who wear their underwear outside their tights aren’t popular anymore. The golem reappears, but it has changed also, the magical spirit is no longer there, it is just a mass of clay. Where did that spirit go?

That’s what I figured out last night. I’m a little slow, sometimes.

This was a darn fine read, with the whole mixture of joy and sorrow and anger and uncertainty and just a bit of magic that adds up to life.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

4 thoughts on “The Golem of Prague

  1. I first met the Golem in a story in Analog magazine in the 1970s, and then I met him again in an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story that I read in the 1980s but which had been written much earlier. Then I saw him in a graphic novel (aka large-scale high-quality comic book) at a sci-fi convention, and I saw him again in a textbook in a college Hebrew class that I was taking — the textbook was actually aimed at children, and it used traditional stories to develop vocabulary.

    The Golem is an interesting superhero. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he has been called into existence by people who don’t necessarily understand all of the implications until after the deed is done. The legends have him existing just about anywhere Jewish communities have been oppressed, but Prague is a special case — the Czech science-fiction writer Carel Čapek might even have had the Golem in mind when he developed the concept of robot, which is Czech for “slave.”

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