The first thing to say about Gustav Meyrink’s novel, The Golem, is that it’s not really what you would expect. It is surprisingly light on directly golem-related material. Fortunately, this is still a delightfully dark gothic novel.
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a golem is a human-like figure which is magically created and animated. Meyrink explores the Hebrew tradition of the golem, which is given life by inscribing the Hebrew word emet (‘truth’) on its forehead, and returned to its inanimate state by removing the first letter of the inscription, leaving met, meaning ‘death’. Meyrink’s golem manifests itself once every thirty-three years, in a room with no doors and one tiny, barred window.
The setting is the Jewish ghetto in Prague, towards the end of the nineteenth century. This is a richly atmospheric environment which Meyrink fully exploits, giving us all the claustrophobic sights, sounds and smells of the city. The narrow houses, for instance, subsist by exhaling humans each morning and drawing them back every evening to leech out their life as they sleep.
Such colourful descriptions suggest just how much Meyrink drew on his own experiences while writing The Golem. The main character, the splendidly named Athanasius Pernath, endures insanity and imprisonment just as the author did. Descriptions of both, and of the city in which they took place, are consequently very powerful.
Pernath is an engraver of gems whose frequent bouts of insanity mean that the plot of the novel plays second fiddle to Meyrink’s darkly colourful imagination. This imagination draws on the hermaphroditic cults of ancient Egypt just as readily as it does on Hebrew mythology and the kaballah, making for a rocky ride. When the plot does surface, it seems that our protagonist must save the woman he loves from a blackmailing junk-dealer, whilst simultaneously trying to piece together fragmented memories of his troubled past.
So far then, no golem. But during Pernath’s lapses into unconsciousness and insanity it gradually becomes clear that he is inextricably linked with the creature. Neighbours who see the golem rushing through the streets swear that it looks just like him. During his somnambulations beneath the streets of Prague, Pernath emerges into a room with no doors and just one window, with a pack of tarot cards strewn across the floor.
It’s all very confusing, and it is sometimes hard to tell whether this is intentional or not. The first half of the novel is fairly humdrum and revolves around the petty activities of the ghetto-dwellers. The second half snowballs rapidly, becoming ever harder to follow as Pernath’s condition deteriorates in prison.
Eventually, when the fog clears, Meyrink hits you with a plot twist so unexpected (and so unsubtle) that you have to stop and think for a few moments. The ending of the novel is beautiful, despite its appearance out of the blue: Pernath’s hallucinations coalesce and elevate him to some vague, semi-divine state. A stranger arrives. He and Pernath mistakenly swapped hats at a recent gathering. The stranger hopes that his hat has not given Herr Pernath a headache.
Throughout the novel identities are manipulated by the author and episodes of madness are strategically deployed to make it a remarkably confusing read. Although it is engrossing and well worth reading, The Golem ultimately leaves you feeling much like the unsuspecting victim of some stranger's weighty headgear.