The Golem of Paris by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman, New York: P.G. Putnam’s Sons, 2015. 497 pages, $27.95.
Warning: Reading The Golem of Paris may cause a severe case of literary whiplash.
On one page, we are in Prague, witnessing the frightening workings of a psychiatric hospital used by the communists as a political prison. Then, almost without warning the reader may be yanked into a police archive in Los Angeles where a detective is going over unsolved murder cases, or a home of Holocaust survivors in Brooklyn where the daughter of atheists (“God died in the camps”) is about to be introduced to Orthodox Judaism, or Paris where a policeman is investigating a gruesome murder.
Nor is the reader on terra firma when it comes to time. With no warning save the beginning of a new chapter, he or she is jerked from the 1950s to the ’60s, the ’80s or the new millennium, and then suddenly back again.
Despite the herky-jerky nature of the plot’s flow, in retrospect I view The Golem of Paris as a beautifully woven tapestry, seamlessly tying together the various places and times.
It is a detective story in which police sleuth Jacob Lev displays intelligence, persistence and luck — the three most important elements of success in most endeavors. He tries to bring a serial murderer to justice. In the process, he gains a measure of revenge on the human monster who destroyed his mother’s life.
But The Golem of Paris is much more than just a whodunit. The novel presents the Jerusalem of a bygone era in a flashback to 1969 as the recently reunited city gears up to receive the thousands of Western Orthodox young men and women eager to study in Judaism’s capital and see the sights that only a few years earlier would have been forbidden to them.
Detective Lev’s mother, Bina, was a student at the Sulam women’s yeshiva in Jerusalem. There are seven young women studying at the yeshiva — located in the western Jerusalem neighborhood Bayit Ve’gan and run by Rav Kalman and his wife, Rivka.
The students eat cucumbers and feta cheese and drink tea for breakfast. For lunch, it’s more vegetables and cheese. On their own for dinner, they walk down a dirt path in the neighborhood to a falafel stand where they purchase, for 30 agorot (100 agorot equaled an Israeli lira, the currency that preceded the shekel), “fresh pita stuffed with shatteringly crispy chickpea fritters, stiff hummus and watery tomatoes, washed down with a can of Tempo Cola.”
The house is austere and exists only as an element in the girls’ education:
“Books huddle three deep on cinder-block shelves.
“Books on the tables, on the chairs; books the upholstery of cast-off furniture.
“Books the only adornment, unless you count the small tapestry hanging from a nail in the dun-colored plaster, a verse embroidered in golden thread.
“And you shall meditate on it, day and night.
“Books a landscape in flux, like the city of Jerusalem itself.”
And then there is the golem as in The Golem of Paris. The most famous of those mythical creatures was the golem of Prague, created by the Maharal, the 16th-century rabbi of the city, who made the monster out of clay to protect Prague’s Jews and brought it to life with Hebrew incantations.
We encounter our peripatetic golem in Prague and in Paris, and she — her name is Mai — makes a brief appearance in Los Angeles, where she apparently destroyed the car of a pair of criminals who had just robbed a 7-Eleven and were trying to make their getaway.
She inadvertently causes anguish for, and saves the life of, different generations of the Lev family.
What makes this book very intriguing is its status as a shared effort. Collaborations in the arts and sciences, for instance in music, physics and history, are often highly successful.
But jointly writing a novel would seem to be a much more complicated endeavor — even if, as in this case, the writers are father and son.
First there is the matter of process. Do they divide the writing by chapters, sections or subjects? Do sonny and dad edit each other’s prose? Does each accept the other’s changes?
Then, what about the natural evolution of the storyline? From what I have read and from my own experience, plots and characters evolve while authors write. Even if the Kellermans are well organized, it is nonetheless difficult to believe that nothing changed, neither storyline nor characters, during the course of the writing. How can two writers handle those inevitable changes while writing different parts of the book?
Even if the two managed to deal with those problems, how can two individuals produce one integrated product — a hallmark of a good work of fiction?
Imagine for a moment that William Shakespeare and Ernest Hemingway had managed to overcome historical time and together had written a novel or a play. Would it not have been jarring to have read a chapter reminiscent of The Old Man and the Sea to be followed by one that brought to mind Hamlet?
Fortunately, I was unable to discern differences in style in the various parts of the novel. As to the other issues, it may be that one of the author’s experience in joint efforts trumped all those problems. When it comes to family collaborations on novels, Jonathan Kellerman must hold some sort of record. Not only is this the second with son Jesse but he also has co-authored two books with his wife, Faye.
I am not a golem aficionado. But The Golem of Paris, despite its title, is a fine detective story, wrapped in a quintessentially 20th-century Jewish tale.
It can be enjoyed without sharing the authors’ apparent passion — they earlier collaborated on The Golem of Hollywood — for this bizarre legendary creature.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.