Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel is one of the most evocative stories inspired by Prague’s Medieval Jewish Ghetto. It has a brooding, dreamlike quality that covers the story like a mist from the river Vltava hanging in the narrow pasažy that wind in strange configuration through the Stare Město. The Golem was praised by H.P. Lovecraft, it is long overdue for some more praise.
The protagonist is Athanasius Pernath, an amnesiac gem-cutter living in Josefov (the alternate name for the Jewish Ghetto). He is the focus of the complex intrigues of Aaron Wassertrum, the junk shop owner, Charousek, a Czech student, and Angelina, a young woman with a mysterious past. Above all the Golem has returned to the Ghetto, and its appearance is linked with Pernath’s quest for his own identity.
This barely scratches the surface of this complex story. There are puppeteers and prostitutes, gangsters and kabalists, quack doctors and meshugga musicians. Buddhist philosophy mixes with Jewish mysticism in Meyrink’s work. This is not a novel with a plot that is easily described, but it is a story of powerful and moving imagery as well as striking vignettes.
I give nothing away by adding that the great imperial urban renewal of the 1890s figures prominently. Much of the old Ghetto was razed to make way for new and highly ornate offices and homes. Praguers are still traumatized by it (one lady I knew gestured at the gorgeous Jugendstil buildings of Josefov and said dismissively, “This is all new. They got rid of the good stuff long ago.”).
While many people find the soul of Prague in the works of Franz Kafka, Gustav Meyrink carried a little bit of it away too. The Golem is a fantasy of remarkable power, like dreams rendered into life.