The story of man trying to compete with the gods in creating a living being is one of the earliest tales. These narratives about effigies brought to life, homunculi, golems, reanimated corpses and sentient robots invariably end in death and disaster. Still, they profess our sincere hope that if we can invent the formula for life, we might also cheat death. It might even be argued that in the end this is really the only story there is to tell of our species. If only there will be someone left to tell it.
No one grows up without being exposed to this story in one form or another. So when I set out to write CoDex 1962, a novel about a dying man trying to find a place for himself within the grand narrative of human history, I immediately thought of the treasure trove of these tales. His need to be something new leads him to the story of the golem and the rabbi who created him, and even to the brink of awareness of the real author of the book he thinks he is creating. For, after all, a novel is made of ink-and-paper automatons.
Here are some of the other great stories that we will never learn from.
1. The Tale of Thorleif, the Earl’s Poet, translated by Judith Jesch
The poet/warrior Thorleif and his dealings with the evil Earl Hakon is the subject of this short Icelandic saga – which boasts of one of literature’s nastiest artificial hitmen. After Hakon has robbed Thorleif and burned his ship, the poet takes revenge by composing a curse so powerful it makes the earl lose his hair. In turn, the miserable earl enlists two witches to help him fashion a man’s likeness out of driftwood and bring it to life by putting a fresh human heart in its breast. Then they send it off to Iceland where the wooden killer hunts Thorleif down and cuts his stomach open with a halberd. The poet recites a poem about his own killing before he literally spills his guts.
2. The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, translated by Madeline G Levine One of the 20th century’s true masterpieces. Originally named The Cinnamon Shops, it is a string of stories taking place in the Jewish community of Drohobych in what was then Polish Galicia. It is a magical text where everything is infused with life. Things, creatures and natural phenomena constantly blend as they are used as metaphors for each other. At the book’s heart is the narrator’s father, Josef, slowly retreating into a world of his own within the large family house. He becomes the spokesman of tailors’ dummies and mounts a passionate defence of these silent, still beings. The book ends with a mysterious image of a giant homunculus merging with the universe and the index cards it is written on.
3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
With this novel, the mythic tale of man’s limited authority in creation becomes a modern story. Like all the best stories, it makes us face the failure of our ambition and the damage we can do. Claimed by each new age as the perfect mirror, Frankenstein has been rewritten, retold and reinterpreted in every narrative medium, just like the antique Greek myth of Prometheus that inspired Shelley in the first place.
4. The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, translated by Ann Lawson Lucas
Collodi’s tale about the rascally boy marionette has it all and all too much of it: loneliness, the fear of dying, treachery, the corruption of youth, violence towards the weak, devious humans and talking animals, sexy spirits, ominous landscapes, man-to-beast metamorphosis, hopes fulfilled and quashed, humanity gained through trial and error, and a strangely elastic nose. It is a children’s book of the best and darkest kind. Most of us get to know the Disney film at an age when we are still raw material like the wooden boy. To read the book as an adult is even scarier.
5. A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway
“The cyborg would not recognise the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.” Animal, human, cyborg; Haraway put humans in their place with her 1984 manifesto, arguing for a post-humanist stance based on affinity and kindness. Her thinking is challenging and in dialogue with radical feminist body and identity theory. It is not an easy text to decipher but it has brought me much inspiration over the years and I think it contains a seed for our survival.
6. The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick
Ozick gives us a female golem in the second “paper” in her book of Ruth Puttermesser, a busy feminist lawyer in mid-20th century New York. What Puttermesser needs is a helper (a wife, really) and one night while sleeping she makes a golem from the earth in her apartment’s flower pots. This creature grows so powerful that Puttermesser is able to become city mayor. She uses her golem to clean up the city, but as in every well-told automaton tale, the creature gains dangerous independence.
7. On Dolls, edited by Kenneth Gross
Gross brings together in one beautiful volume key texts about the uncanny world of inanimate beings, by authors including Walter Benjamin, Marina Warner, Sigmund Freud (on ETA Hoffman’s The Sandman) and Heinrich Von Kleist. The latter’s On the Marionette Theatre makes the unsettling case that the marionettes’ experience is superior to man’s bondage in living flesh.
8. He, She and It by Marge Piercy
In 2059, Shira Shipman is living in a changed North America. Her young son has been taken from her by the “multi” that runs her zone, so she returns to Tikva, the Jewish “free town” where she grew up. Here, she meets an extraordinary cyborg, imbued with intelligence, feeling and the ability to kill.
9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Told in the past, the present and possible futures, Cloud Atlas’s most tragic and human character is Sonmi–451, a future clone designed to have no self-awareness – and thereby no survival instinct – so she can be worked to death in a diner only to end up reprocessed as food. As her name implies, she finds her strength through reading and her own story becomes a cornerstone of a civilisation even farther in the future.
10. The Golem by Gustav Meyrink, translated by Mike Mitchell
When I was 17 and had just met my mentor in all things strange and marvellous, the Icelandic surrealist artist Alfreð Flóki, he gave me a copy of this novel and told me we could have no further conversation before I had read it. It is a fever dream of a book. The protagonist’s mind melds with the legend of the Golem of Prague, the original artificial man of clay created by rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel in the 16th-century ghetto. And my mind melded so thoroughly with the novel that 13 years later I decided to bring the golem story into the folds of Icelandic literature by any narrative means neccesary.