The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk — ambitious, audacious, encyclopedic — The Calvert Journal


“My work was somewhere between the archeology of gluing broken vessels and building an intricate ship model,” Tokarczuk said of his writing. Indeed, the glue that binds these unearthed fragments together is pressed through Tokarczuk’s sprawling imagination and it is here that his writing appears freer, less constrained by historical fidelity. Take this thrilling one-chapter opening: “From time to time, God tires of his own luminous silence, and the infinite begins to make him a little sick.” Elsewhere, “the waves cut their way through the golden fields of crops that stretch beyond the horizon, and it seems that all the land, soft and golden, sighed”. This is Tokarczuk at his most lyrical and seductive, reminiscent of his 2019 novel Drive your plow over the bones of the dead and winning work of the Booker Prize 2018, Flights.

With frequent digressions and tangents, the plot moves to the rhythm of Frank and the peregrinations of his heretical sect across Europe. As he traverses the Ottoman and Habsburg empires and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth—faced with persecution, imprisonment, and plague—his notoriety swells with hearsay and village gossip: One account tells how Frank triggered a storm simply by shouting in the sky while another recalls that when he arrived, the cows gave birth to strangely colored twins and the hens laid eggs with multiple yolks. For many rabbis, his religious beliefs – which mix Judaism, Christianity and Islam, denounce the Talmud and promote sexual promiscuity – are outrageous. For others, his outlandish antics are proof that he is the reincarnation of the 17th century kabbalist Sabbatai Tzvi and that he came to lift the people out of misery. Miserable in the European hinterland, the masses want “miracles, signs, shooting stars”. They don’t quite understand Frank’s feverish rants, but because he’s “tall, handsome, and dressed like a Turk, he seems exceptional.” In this sense, Frank resembles a modern-day populist leader skilled in the art of deception, a polarizing figure whose stock rises and falls simultaneously depending on who is being interviewed.

Unfolding over five decades, Jacob’s Books covers a lot of ground. Philosophically, Tokarzcuk weaves together arguments on Kabbalah, eschatology, anti-Semitism, ethics and mysticism to name a few, expressing the simmering energy of the Enlightenment period across Europe. This is embodied most directly by Father Chmielowski, vicar foran of Rohatyn, a real-life figure who created Poland’s first encyclopedia, titled New Athens. “Imagine,” he said, “everything at your fingertips, in every library, noble and peasant. All the knowledge of mankind gathered in one place. This Jacob’s Books opens with Father Chmielowski’s quest for totality, is perhaps an ironic nod to the book’s own Herculean intentions.

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