Last Updated on March 16, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1004
Samuel (“Sammy”) Louis Klayman is an ordinary seventeen-year-old boy living in New York in 1939 when his cousin, Josef Kavalier, arrives unexpectedly from Prague. Sammy is induced by his mother to share his bed with Josef, who promises he will soon take lodgings and leave. He explains that he has recently been in Japan, to the great envy of the travel-hungry Sammy. He asks how he can get a job in the company where Sammy is employed as an artist. Sammy explains that he is actually an inventory clerk at a novelty-toy company and is occasionally asked to do illustrations. He realizes that his mother has believed his exaggerated account of his position, and he feels guilty. He tells Josef he will try to influence his boss.
Josef's family—who are, like Sammy’s, Jewish—have been unable to escape Prague yet as the German threat grows. The pair bond over their shared fear of this threat and smoke hand-rolled cigarettes by the window.
The narrative moves back to March of 1939, when Prague is occupied by the Germans. The city’s Jews fear that the Germans will destroy or seize their Golem, a clay automaton that, according to local legend, protects the city’s Jewish community. It is suggested that Bernard Kornblum, a retired illusionist, might help remove the Golem to safety. Kornblum agrees to try but will not reveal his secrets.
Josef arrives unexpectedly at Kornblum's home to say that all of his family's money has been exhausted on their plan to help him emigrate to the USA. Josef explains that he took a train to the exit port but was told that a stamp is missing from his visa. Josef did not want to return to his parents and admit what happened. He instead returned to Prague in a third-class train and went to Kornblum's house.
Kornblum promises that he will get Josef to Lithuania, from where he can perhaps find passage to the USA.
The narrative moves back in time to 1935. Josef is living with his parents, both accomplished doctors, and his brother, Thomas. Josef's interest in stage magic is by this point fairly advanced, and Kornblum is his tutor. One morning at breakfast, Josef chokes on a torque wrench. Kornblum gave it to him, explaining that famed illusionist Harry Houdini held tools in his mouth at all times.
Kornblum is “an ‘eastern’ Jew” who dresses in a deliberately unusual way to distract his audience while he performs. He is of a class far lower than the Kavaliers and is an atheist, despite his being culturally Jewish. During his twice-weekly lessons with Kornblum, Josef is chained up, put into chests, and taught to pick locks—all to train him for stage performance. Kornblum gives Josef a series of torque wrenches and asks him to chain up his tutor and then unpick all the latches. When he succeeds, he is permitted to keep the tools.
Thomas Kavalier is also theatrical by nature and becomes interested in Josef’s torque wrench. He asks Josef about Houdini and inquires about how one can become a member of the Hofzinser club, Kornblum's club of illusionists. Thomas suggests that Josef might gain an invitation to join by performing an elaborate magic trick.
On 27 September 1935, at four in the morning, both Kavalier brothers venture out into deserted Prague. Josef has sent a postal invitation to the Hofzinser Club's president, suggesting that an "astounding feat of autoliberation" might be witnessed at 4:30 a.m. on a bridge over the River Moldau. Josef plans to free himself from within a chained sack dropped into the river. Thomas balks at the size of the sack when it is revealed, and he has to be coaxed to roll his brother into the water in the tied sack. Thomas is terrified as Josef tries to unpick all the locks. It takes Josef more than three minutes to break free and reach the surface. At this point Thomas is in the water, searching for Josef, and has to be rescued.
After this, the lessons stop, both boys having suffered for their fall into the river. But Kornblum nonetheless takes both brothers to the Hofzinser Club, which they find rather anticlimactic.
The narrative returns to early 1939, at which point Kornblum is looking for the Golem, which has not been seen since 1917. A vague address—a building’s name—is given to Kornblum. He and Josef comb the building for the automaton, knocking on doors and entering flats, but to no avail. The final apartment, 42, they cannot access legally. Returning by night, they pick the locks on the door and find a woman and an old man, Max, a descendant of the Golem's maker. He assures Kornblum that the Golem isn't there. Josef and Kornblum remain for the night as guests, along with three prostitutes who are staying there, and Josef sleeps with one of the prostitutes.
Later, Josef explains to Kornblum what his night-companion told him: that there is one unaccounted-for window in the building. He and Kornblum provide the building’s tenants with blue stars of David and ask them to put the stars in their windows "to be counted," thereby making the unstarred window visible. In doing so, they discover a room on the top floor. That night, Josef and Kornblum enter the window to find the Golem in a casket. The plan is to convey the Golem out of the building and to Lithuania with Joseph also hiding inside the casket. To make it appear like a "goyische" dead giant it would need to be dressed.Creeping home to find clothes, Josef finds that his parents have left. Thomas is still there, but Josef promises him they will be reunited in America soon enough.
Josef is packed into the casket, and papers are attached which claim it contains a dead giant. In Lithuania, two members of Kornblum’s magic circle accept the delivery of the giant. Josef then travels, via Japan, to San Francisco and on to Brooklyn.