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8 December 2021

Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob: an epic that sinks under the weight of facts

The Nobel winner’s novel about a religious cult in 18th-century eastern Europe suffers from an addiction to digression and a desire to leave nothing out.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

The Books of Jacob opens with a miracle. It’s 1752 and a wedding is about to take place at the home of Rabbi Elisha Shorr in the remote town of Rohatyn in the eastern part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. An old woman called Yente has travelled to Rohaytn for the celebration, but once there falls gravely ill. Fearing the wedding will be ruined, Rabbi Shorr produces an amulet inside of which is written a Kabbalist charm, hamtana (“waiting” in Hebrew). He places it around Yente’s neck, hoping it will extend her life until the festivities are over. Only when she is alone, Yente swallows the paper. The spell fuses with her body, halting the process of dying, fixing her forever in an “almost dead” caesura. While her body crystallises in a cave, Yente’s panoptic spirit hovers over the real and bloody history of the Jews and Christians in eastern Europe, homing in on a cult led by her grandson, the notorious “false messiah” of 18th-century Poland, Jacob Frank.

“Yente sees all,” Olga Tokarczuk tells us in the prologue to her encyclopaedic latest novel, which mixes history with invention. The Polish author has, half-jokingly, described Yente as a “fourth-person” narrator who “can see beyond the text and can even see the author of the text herself”. Yente’s in-between condition is a typical preoccupation of Tokarczuk’s. She is interested in difficult states of transition, from life to death, country to country, language to language, religion to religion. Her fiction chronicles border crossings, cultural change, redemption, exile and the line between reality and mythology.

In her 2007 novel Flights (which appeared in English in 2017 and won the International Booker Prize in 2018; the same year she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature), Tokarczuk’s unnamed narrator is a wanderer. Composed of wry, elusive fragments, from one-paragraph vignettes to story-length narratives, the book is organised around the theme of travel and the idea of “constellationality”. With no protagonist or linear journey, it is down to the reader to find resonance and meaning among the fragments. Tokarczuk’s 2009 novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated into English in 2018) was similarly hard to categorise – at once an eco-thriller, a feminist black comedy and a political fable. Here, too, boundaries are frequently transgressed. Humans encroach on nature and the main character, Janina, criss-crosses the border between Poland and the Czech Republic.

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The Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk’s ninth novel, which appeared in Polish in 2014 and has now been translated into English by Jennifer Croft, offers a more jaded view of the “peregrinations” of its huge cast of characters: here, an itinerant existence will not deliver you from pain and suffering. Jacob Frank, the real-life 18th-century Jewish mystic at the heart of the novel “feels best in new places” and believes that “to be foreign is to be free”. However, as Frank’s sect of breakaway Jews travels across modern Ukraine, Poland, Greece, Turkey, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic, seeking a territory in which to settle and be free from persecution, they experience banishment, plague, imprisonment and exile.

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Running to almost 1,000 pages, The Books of Jacob has the feeling of a national epic. It sold more than 170,000 copies in hardback in Poland and won the country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Nike Award. Tokarczuk also attracted death threats from Polish nationalists angry at her comments about the country’s need to confront ugly aspects of its history, including the colonisation of parts of Ukraine and anti-Semitism. Tokarczuk’s fiction is always asking the reader to imagine alternative realities, and her aim here is clearly to draw attention to a different Poland – an 18th-century melting pot, where languages, cultures and genes all mix together.

The merchant son of a Polish rabbi from Podolia (now in Ukraine), Jacob Frank, born in 1726, rebelled against Rabbinic Judaism, claimed he was the reincarnation of the self-proclaimed messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, briefly converted to Islam, and then persuaded thousands of his followers to become Christian neophytes, while keeping many of their Jewish customs and dress. The Frankists, as they became known, were a heretical sect within a heretical sect. In order to be baptised Catholic, they had to denounce the Talmud and confess to the anti-Semitic myth that Jews needed the blood of Christian children for the Passover matzah.

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Tokarczuk portrays Frank as a complex, charismatic, hot-headed figure. He convulses, he sweats, he has a penchant for drinking breast milk straight from the source and rumour has it that he is in proud possession of two penises. At the age of 30 he marries 14-year-old Hana – and according to his inverted morality, non-kosher diets, orgies, adultery and incest are also permitted. All of which horrifies the Jewish rabbis. He spends 13 years imprisoned in a monastery in southern Poland before passing his twilight years in Germany, where he calls himself the Baron of Offenbach and hobnobs with European aristocrats, who treat him as an “exotic curiosity”.

Spanning five decades, The Books of Jacob comprises hundreds of shortish present-tense scenes and tableaux told through the eyes of dozens of the characters drawn into Frank’s orbit, many of them historical figures. As well as Rabbi Shorr and his family – who play a pivotal role in Frank’s rise, fall and comeback – we meet gambling bishops, downcast doctors, jealous acolytes and lustful emperors. Most compelling is Father Benedykt Chmielowski, the author of Poland’s first encyclopaedia, who wants to push beyond the limits of Christian knowledge. Chmielowski’s intimate (and imagined) correspondence with Elżbieta Drużbacka, a baroque poet of “spiritual, panegyric moral and worldly rhymes”, is the most captivating aspect of the novel.

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There are also pictures and maps, interspersed with a first-person account from Nahman, Frank’s devoted but not-always-trusted disciple. The multiplicity of perspectives leaves you wondering whether Frank’s followers sincerely believed he was a messiah, or just a demonic trickster. Did his doctrinal rebellions really provoke a social revolution in Europe? Or was he a charlatan whose wild ideas about “redemption through sin” got out of hand?

Tokarczuk, who trained as a psychologist, suspends judgement. Indeed, parts of the novel read like case studies, written from different perspectives, of a patient with extreme mental health problems. But Frank’s rise did coincide with huge social and philosophical upheavals. Tokarczuk draws out connections between the Frankists’ heretical teachings and Enlightenment ideas. As one of Jacob’s female followers says: “Enlightenment begins when people lose their faith in the goodness and the order of the world. The Enlightenment is an expression of mistrust.”

The novel contains some spellbinding scenes. When Frank is cursed in a synagogue, there’s a beautifully rendered description of the reaction: “A murmur rises up all around, and it is not clear if it is of regret or of pleasure, but it is though it has come not from people’s lips, but rather from within their robes, from the bottoms of their pockets, from their wide sleeves, from the cracks in the floor.”

If Flights was a “cabinet of curiosities”, The Books of Jacob is a vast mosaic, exhaustive and a little exhausting. It is also dense and arcane, like a Holy Book. Even the pages are numbered backwards in a tribute to Hebrew convention. Credit must go to Jennifer Croft, who studied 18th-century English texts in order to find the right tone for each of the voices. It took Tokarczuk herself two decades to research the book and the time in the archives shows. It’s as if she felt the history of her country depended on her including every last detail. In a podcast, the author said: “This subject is so fragile in Poland that I have to be very honest because, after all, everybody can grab me and ask ‘ah, here is a mistake, you changed something!’” This was a different way of working, she said: “Sometimes it was quite boring for me to trust only the facts. The facts are quite narrow… But I should be strict with the facts.”

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Did she need to be quite so strict? The problem with The Books of Jacob is that its amassed information overshadows its creativity. Attention is lavished on clerical garments, matrimonial entanglements, esoteric theological quarrels, noble bloodlines, the intricacies of kneading matzah bread. Vivid renderings of food, clothes and candlelight give the prose a sensual texture but taken as a whole such minutiae outweigh the psychological insights. The prose often feels flat, too much like reportage. With seemingly hundreds of characters (and no dramatis personae) it’s as overpopulated as it is overloaded.

The more the novel proliferates, the less it penetrates. Even the strangest moments became mundane. One scene in which Jacob sucks milk from a woman’s breasts melts into another. The tension slackens with each new digression, the sentences lose their firmness and the book starts to untell itself. Tokarczuk has said that “things left unsaid cease to exist”. But part of the work of a writer is choosing what to omit, and The Books of Jacob suffers from her desire to leave nothing unsaid; to preserve everything.

The Books of Jacob
Olga Tokarczuk, translated by
Jennifer Croft
Fitzcarraldo, 928pp, £20

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special