“The Books of Jacob” by Olga Tokarczuk is finally here. We now know why the Nobel Prize judges were so impressed. | Culture & Leisure
Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was not known in the United States when she won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. It didn’t help that the Swedish Academy centered its praise on “The Books of Jacob”, an arduous-sounding novel that was not available in English.
It didn’t help that the academy announced Tokarczuk’s prize as well as the 2019 Nobel Prize for Peter Handke, an Austrian writer who sympathized with Yugoslavia’s late genocidal leader, Slobodan Milosevic. This controversy garnered attention for days and risked making Tokarczuk simply “the other winner”.
But nothing should now overshadow Tokarczuk’s literary presence in the United States. “The Books of Jacob” is finally available here in a wonderful English translation by Jennifer Croft, and it’s every bit as impressive as the Nobel Prize judges claimed when they praised Tokarczuk for showing “the supreme ability of novel to represent a case almost beyond human comprehension”. In terms of scope and ambition, “The Books of Jacob” is beyond anything I have ever read. Even its voluminous subtitle is a spiritual expression of Tokarczuk’s irrepressible, omnivorous reach. Deep Breath: “A fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not to mention minor sects. Told by the dead, completed by the author, drawn from a range of books and aided by the imagination, which is the greatest natural gift of any person. May the wise may have it for a record, may my countrymen reflect, may the laymen gain some understanding, and may souls melancholy get a slight pleasure.
Spanning a thousand pages adorned with vintage maps and engravings, the story revolves around an 18th-century Polish mystic named Jacob Frank (1726-1791). From humble beginnings, he claimed to be the Messiah sent “to bring eternal existence into the world.” He rejected the Talmud and converted to Islam and then to Catholicism. Along the way, he attracted tens of thousands of followers, solicited and lost fortunes, escaped prison, advised the Roman empress, and created his own fake royal court.
Jacob Frank sounds like a character that Mark Twain invented and then dismissed as too extravagant. The challenges here — for the author and the reader — are considerable. After all, Tokarczuk is not revising our understanding of Mozart or presenting a new vision of Catherine the Great. She searches a shadowy figure that is almost entirely unknown today. The political geography has been shaken up by successive wars over the past two centuries. Foundational scholarship on Frank was published even as Tokarczuk was writing his novel. And finally, the theological disagreements that his cult poses to Judaism and Christianity are irreducibly complex.
I freely admit to being lost at times and even finding solace in the shrinking page numbers, which run backwards, “a nod to books written in Hebrew”. But as daunting as it sounds, “The Books of Jacob” is miraculously entertaining and always fascinating. No matter how hard he tried, Frank never mastered alchemy, but Tokarczuk certainly did. Its light irony, deliciously conveyed by Croft’s translation, permeates many sections. Plus, it turns out that the story of an 18th-century trickster inflated by messianic delusions is surprisingly relevant to our own time.
The quality that makes “The Books of Jacob” so striking is its remarkable form. Tokarczuk constructed his narrative as a collage of legends, letters, diary entries, rumors, hagiographies, political attacks and historical documents. These clashing pieces advance more like the glare of cats than like a line of soldiers. That is to say: Get ready to work. The complex but rough architecture of this novel leaves a series of gaps and overlaps that any intrepid historian faces when unearthing a controversial mummified figure in mythology.
Among these disparate pieces are the omniscient visions of Jacob’s grandmother. Frozen to the brink of death by swallowing an enchanted amulet, Yente was moved deep into a cave where her body is slowly turning into a giant crystal – one of many fantastical elements that will make readers think of Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. From Yente’s dark but safe refuge in the cave, his consciousness wanders across Europe and through time, unfolding the stories of Jacob.
We don’t meet Jacob immediately – or even soon. Instead, among the many characters Tokarczuk introduces for the first time is an avid book collector and writer named Father Chmielowski who serves in the Polish town of Rohatyn, now part of Ukraine. With a “rebellious side”, Father Chmielowski dreams of composing a “description of the world”, something like a paper version of the Internet that would bring together all of humanity’s knowledge in one place. “I often stop to wonder how to encapsulate it,” he writes, “how to deal with such vastness?”
“The Books of Jacob” is Tokarczuk’s answer to this question. Through this unorthodox bible, we get to know Jacob by mapping the atmospheric disturbance he is creating in the world. The novel centers on a group of mid-18th-century Jews—a loose collection of mystics and kabbalists—struggling to reconcile their endless tribulations with an all-powerful God. Political and religious discrimination regularly triggers pogroms throughout Eastern Europe. Jews are regularly blamed for minor and major misfortunes, from a lost cow to a bad well to a devastating plague. “Why, if God loves us so much, is there so much suffering in the world?” We are wondering. “There must be a secret somewhere to explain everything.”
For a small but intense group of seekers, Yankiele Leybowicz – aka Jacob Frank – provides an explanation that ignites the spiritual imagination. “All prophets must come from somewhere else, must appear suddenly, seem strange, out of the ordinary,” writes a scribe, and Jacob certainly fulfills this prophecy. Surprisingly tall, unconventionally handsome, and infinitely self-assured, he commands attention wherever he goes. He lays hands on the sick (and nubiles). While insisting he’s just a simple idiot, he preaches for hours, expanding on his dreams and visions, spinning fables and parables, and promoting a muddled theology that rejects Mosaic law – especially its sexual restrictions – in favor of a heretical hodgepodge of times. “Everyone knows that Jacob takes upon himself the most important of strange actions,” writes Tokarczuk, “and also that in doing so he acquires a special power. He who helps him in this is also anointed.
It is not good for the Jews. To curry favor with influential Christians, Jacob and his followers insisted on being baptized into the church. This cynical strategy only intensifies anti-Semitic sentiments against devout Jews who remain stubbornly reluctant to see the light and come into the bosom of Christ. Indeed, the novel offers a sobering exploration of the endless permutations of anti-Semitism that recycle the same lies and insults – particularly the “pure and simple blood libel” that Jews use the blood of Christian children. to bake the matzoh. (Tokarczuk reportedly received death threats from his compatriots for daring to expose these toxic elements of their history.)
The polymorphic structure of the novel shows us how Jacob manages to play Christians and Jews against each other for his own social and financial benefit. Even when imprisoned in a Polish monastery – one of the most bizarre episodes in this bizarre book – he finds ways to maintain his lavish lifestyle, with a retinue of servants and sex partners chosen from women and the daughters of his disciples. (Jacob’s power is so legendary that his hernia is mistaken for a second penis.)
Allusions to what was happening in the world at that time suggest that the Frankist cult was an example of the religious anarchy unleashed by the Enlightenment. But it’s a story that becomes both more detailed and more mysterious. Jacob, the character at the center of all these rumours, legends, prayers and condemnations, is an enigma, by turns maniacal and pathetic, terrifying and ridiculous. And Tokarczuk drags his followers into an array of tragedies. What is their reward for such servile service to a greedy charlatan, a sexual abuser, a debtor of spiritual inanities? Jacob’s daughter, in particular, appears late in the novel as a heartbreaking character – so devoted, so abused, so incalculably alone as the blessed child of the savior of the world. What can explain the willingness of people to devote their lives, their fortunes, their souls to leaders who lead them astray?
Tokarczuk lets the branching narratives of this novel answer this eternal enigma. “Truth is like a gnarled tree,” she writes, “made up of many layers that are twisted around each other.” In this sense, “The Books of Jacob” is a whole forest of such trees – haunting and irresistible.