By Nick Owchar
Why do so many monsters live in Victorian London? Was there something toxic in the Thames (Spenser probably wouldn't call it "sweet" if he could have seen it then -- or now) or in the fog that, as the Environmental Protection Agency points out, isn't so quaint as it seemed when Holmes and Watson strode through it?
Whatever the reason, Victorian London is a splendid monster factory -- a place that exerts as strong an influence on writers today as 1940s and '50s noir does. The string of Victorian homages continues: Gerri Brightwell's "The Dark Lantern," Michael Cox's "The Meaning of Night," Stephen Gallagher's "The Kingdom of Bones," David Pirie's "The Night Calls" -- the titles alone make you think that the sun never rose on 19th century London.
When creatures are deprived of light, they grow in the most unusual ways. Consider some of the grotesques in Jonathan Barnes' devilishly bizarre first novel, "The Somnambulist" (William Morrow: 354 pp., $23.95):
* A decomposing criminal known as the Human Fly.
* Barabbas, a master criminal who slithers around in folds of flesh.
* An albino secret agent.
* A pair of argot-speaking murderers dressed as schoolboys.
* A dead Romantic poet re-animated.
* A prostitute whose unusual physical qualities seem more suited to a circus sideshow than to a brothel.
* A time traveler.
Out of place among them is the somewhat straight-arrow Edward Moon, a detective past his prime who now subsists as a conjurer with the Theatre of Marvels, a successful nightly show running in Albion Square near London's East End. Barnes' description of that place evokes a Victorian Ricky Jay and the shabby venues where rival magicians Rupert Angier and Alfred Borden dueled in Christopher Priest's novel "The Prestige."
Moon and his partner are asked by representatives of the Directorate -- a vague, sinister governmental agency -- to uncover the people behind a plot to destroy the city. How have the duo come by their information? From another exotic character, Madame Innocenti, a con artist who seems able to commune with the spirit world.
The reason for so much strangeness seems explained by an aristocratic lady who asks Moon to find her husband: "[O]ne finds one rather grows out of detective stories, doesn't one?"
It's hard not to suspect this is why Barnes presents characters so bizarre -- to rescue an otherwise familiar, slightly tedious plot. I've saved the story's most enigmatic character for last: Moon's companion, a giant known as the Somnambulist. Something of his strange identity comes to us in an early, startling scene at the Theatre. The rousing climax of Moon's show involves plunging swords into the Somnambulist's body. Barnes describes it thus:
"Under the pitiless gaze of the lights and in full view of the crowd, he plunged the blade deep into the Somnambulist's chest. The tip entered the giant's body with a slippery, sucking sound before emerging seconds later, with stomach-churning inevitability, from the centre of his back. The Somnambulist did not so much as blink in response."
Then more swords are stabbed into him -- into his neck, his chest, his thigh, his groin.
What is his response?
"Like a bored commuter waiting for his train, the Somnambulist yawned in response."
Checked by real audience members, not accomplices, the swords are real -- hard steel, sharp, no false levers allowing the weapons to retract into a secret compartment. Moon's emotionless, surgical insertion of these into his partner produces another startling result: no blood. None, despite their piercing his skin.
"It was a parlor game, surely. A conjuring trick," the narrator says, suggesting the audience's reaction. In fact, there's real magic going on. Barnes creates such a wonderful scene relying not on science (as in Priest's novel) nor on genuine sleight of hand worthy of Houdini or Jay, but on something more fascinating than those: the world of myth.
Who is the Somnambulist?
Consider the clues:
1) He is bloodless.
2) His body is strangely malleable.
3) He can't speak and uses a small chalkboard to scrawl messages (he's a ferociously poor speller, by the way).
4) His entire body is bald -- a condition hidden by a pasted wig and sideburns.
These qualities point to one very specific mythical figure: the golem.
Barnes is only the latest to flirt with such a beguiling creature who had such a minor, inauspicious origin in one biblical reference, in Psalm 139:16. In some translations, it isn't entirely clear where the idea of a man made of clay comes from (from the New Jerusalem Bible):
Your eyes could see my embryo.
In your book all my days were inscribed,
Every one that was fixed is there.
In other translations (like the Douay Rheims version), the language is even less suggestive:
Thy eyes did see my imperfect being, and in thy book all shall be written: days shall be formed, and no one in them.
The key word, from the Hebrew, is a form of the word gelem -- which means unformed material and which translators, as one can see, take in a variety of directions. (The New American Bible used by Catholics forgoes the idea of a shape or embryo entirely, translating that line as "Your eyes foresaw my actions . . . ").
Out of this verse, the masters of the Talmud, practitioners of biblical digression and explanation, spun an image of a partially created human, a being shaped from river mud or clay (or even wood, in some stories) and awaiting animation -- but unlike the galvanic shock that awakens Frankenstein's monster, the spark that enlivens the golem is a purely linguistic one: a holy word, the name of God, written on the creature's forehead or else upon parchment placed in its mouth.
The power of a word to give life makes the golem a very literary creature. Look around the halls of contemporary literature and you'll find his clayey footprints everywhere. He has appeared in novels by Michael Chabon, Harry Mulisch and Thane Rosenbaum. Young adult fantasist Jonathan Stroud has made him the centerpiece of Book 2 of his thrilling "The Bartimaeus Trilogy."
Commentaries on the golem are many. In recent years, two new books have sought to give readers fresh translations of many of the most famous tellings of this legend. These are Joachim Neugroschel's "The Golem: A New Translation of the Classic Play and Selected Short Stories" for W.W. Norton (324 pp., $25.95) as well as Curt Leviant's translation of Yudl Rosenberg's "The Golem" (Neugroschel includes this story in his book too) last year for Yale (222 pp., $25).
As Neugroschel, Leviant and other reliable sources explain, the creation of a golem was first meant as a contemplative exercise. It was a demonstration of a rabbi's powers. For me, I first thought the golem was an action figure. But that's because I first read about him in the Invaders, a Marvel comics series set during World War II. Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the rest of the team fought the Nazis and a host of evil Axis monsters. In issue No. 13, a Jewish youth becomes a golem and smashes a whole bunch of Nazi baddies.
But the idea of the golem as a powerful figure didn't come until later Jewish legends, when the golem turned from a display of Rabbinic excellence into an actual servant and a helper to the rabbis. Barnes' Somnambulist is clearly inspired by this -- the Somnambulist is a faithful companion to Moon, even though he is hardly as heroic as the legendary one belonging to Rabbi Leyb, who defended the Jews of Prague against all kinds of misfortunes.
Barnes adds his subversive elements to the legend -- his golem is a bit of a fraidy-cat, also a heavy milk drinker -- but his additions to the legend hardly compare to the later imaginings of Jewish storytellers. Dovid Frishman dared, in a 1922 story, to add another dimension to the golem that takes him beyond being a servant, hero or demonstration of rabbinical excellence. The golem becomes an object of passion to Eve, the granddaughter of Prague's Rabbi Leyb:
"Eve gazed at the creature; she had never seen anything so beautiful. His face was alive, his lips were alive, all his limbs were alive. Eve couldn't tear her eyes from that creature. And it was a male! She couldn't help it. She had to lean down and touch him. For a minute a warm thrill flashed through her body. Eve stripped away the silk morning gown the figure was wrapped in; her burning eyes devoured him. Indeed, she especially liked his lips!"
Desire leads Eve to kiss the clay figure, but when it won't stir under her lips, she uses words to bring it to life. Not God's holy name, though, but another forceful utterance: "I love you." Frishman's is such a startling, humane imagining of the legend; Eve and the golem must struggle to come to terms with their love. At the other end of the spectrum, Stroud's "The Golem's Eye" is a thoroughly sci-fi treatment. Here the golem is presented as a menacing robot with "two nominal eyes and above them a larger, far more defined third eye, planted in the center of the forehead. This swiveled left and right. . . . " That moving eye is the view, like a surveillance camera, given to the magician who created it.
With so many interesting treatments of this figure, it is a little disappointing to find that with Barnes, all he has in store for this creature is malaise, boredom, hesitation, a diet high in lactose and a disappointing demise. After the intriguing tease with the magic show act, there is nothing more provocative.
"The Somnambulist" turns instead to an incredibly far-fetched plot by conspirators devoted to Samuel Taylor Coleridge to realize the dream of utopia that he planned with Robert Southey when the two were young men. The re-animated poet mentioned earlier is Coleridge, and near the end, as riot and terror sweep through London, he goes on a bizarre, B-movie rampage spewing an acidic green liquid.
Our last view of the Somnambulist occurs when he struggles to halt the poet, the two of them like "monsters locked in conflict, an emerald miasma hanging about them, whilst Moon, not knowing what to do, gazed helplessly on." Not even the golem can defend itself from this yucky acid. He is lost among so wide a panoply of strange, bizarre beings that his own strangeness cannot shine through.
The golem is an enduring fascination. As Frishman assures us at the end of his story: "It is said that the golem lives everywhere and in all times."
Why are we so fascinated? Perhaps the notion of mud begetting a creature reminds us of who we are. There is a phrase from Genesis heard at funerals, "For dust you are, and to dust you shall return."
One also realizes that a human created from clay isn't a concept exclusive to Jewish lore. In "Gilgamesh," Aruru, the mother goddess, forms Enkidu thus (in Stephen Mitchell's translation):
She moistened her hands, she pinched off some clay,
She threw it into the wilderness,
Kneaded it, shaped it to her idea,
And fashioned a man, a warrior, a hero
Think also of the first creation of humans in Ovid's "Metamorphoses" or, in the same story, how people rose from stones tossed by Deucalion and Pyrrha. From this image, it is an easy leap to that stunning discovery of a terra-cotta army of life-size warriors who were interred with the first emperor of China (an exhibit of these at the British Museum is about to end). The associations seem endless; the legend of the golem reminds us of the ideas many cultures have in common.
Finally, the golem suggests the struggles faced by every artist, whether sculptor, painter, novelist or humble Web columnist. Don't they all search for the right vision that will bring a mass of crude materials to life?
Nick Owchar is deputy editor of the L.A. Times Book Review. The Siren's Call appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books
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