The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk Review – The Story of a Messiah | Olga Tokarczuk

NSIn the 18th century, an extraordinary religious movement arose in the border area between present-day Ukraine and Poland. It was a Jewish heresy invented by a man named Jacob Frank — “the most hideous and eerie figure in the entire history of Jewish messianism,” according to Israeli scholar Gershom Scholem. Frank claimed that the end times had come and conventional morality had to be turned upside down. He boasted of tarnishing the Torah with his bare bottom, encouraged his followers to break all manner of sexual and nutritional taboos, and eventually persuaded many of them to be baptized into the Christian church. His many disciples worshiped him as a prophet and recorded his visions and sayings in a book called The Words of the Lord. Sample excerpt: “In a dream I saw a very old woman, 1500 years old. Her hair was white as snow; she brought me 2 silver belts and a Wallachian sausage. I bought one from her and stole the other.”

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Charismatic, transgressive and downright silly, Frank today comes across as a Monty Python mashup of Osho, David Koresh and Mormon leader Joseph Smith, but he was highly influential in his day. Moreover, the course of his turbulent 80-year life coincided with enormous political and philosophical changes in Europe, as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth collapsed and traditional religious beliefs were appropriated by the rival claims of science.

Jacob’s books by Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk is an epic chronicle of the life and times of Frank and his followers. Over a thousand pages long, full of history and incidents, it’s big enough to make this reader’s knees buckle. Busy as a Bruegel painting, it moves from muddy Galician villages to Greek monasteries, 18th-century Warsaw, Brno, Vienna and the luxurious surroundings of the Habsburg court. It includes esoteric theological arguments, diplomatic history, alchemy, Kabbalah, Polish anti-Semitism, and the philosophical roots of the Enlightenment. It’s a dauntingly ambitious piece of work and one of the reactions it elicits is simply amazement at the patience and tenacity that went into its construction.

English-speaking readers will have encountered Tokarczuk’s writings in her two previous novels also published by Fitzcarraldo. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, her most instantly accessible book, is a noir murder mystery set in rural Poland; To flee, who won the Booker International Prize, is a thought-provoking collection of philosophical quirks about travel, time, history and disruption. Both hard-to-classify books are given coherence by the caustic and idiosyncratic author’s personality that hangs above them.

Dense, captivating and weird, The Books of Jacob is on a different scale than any of these. It is a visionary novel that satisfies a certain notion of masterpiece – long, mysterious and at times inhospitable. Tokarczuk grapples with the greatest philosophical themes: the purpose of life on Earth, the nature of religion, the possibility of redemption, the fraught and terrible history of Eastern European Jewry. With its formidable insistence on depicting an alien world in as much detail as possible, the novel sometimes reminded me of Paradise Lost. The vibrancy with which it has been done is astonishing. At the micro level, she sees things with a poetic freshness. Here’s a small example: When two of Frank’s followers bowed to the Habsburg Emperor, “Eva and Anusia’s dresses wither as they squat”. There’s a haiku-like density to this image of the great formal dresses losing their structure – and this painstaking degree of observation is consistently maintained throughout the book.

Another writer might have told this story from Frank’s birth, following the twists and turns of his calling and ministry in a linear fashion. That’s not Tokarczuk’s way. Like flights, Jacob’s books is a patchwork of scenes and voices, tableaux and fragments, interpolations of Jacob’s followers, images and maps from contemporary documents. (And by the way, the pages are numbered backwards in a nod to Hebrew convention and the reversal of values ​​implied by the approaching millennium.)

The dominant voice of the novel is that of the omniscient narrator, who writes in stately prose in the present tense about her characters’ spiritual crises: “At this moment, Antoni Kossakowski realizes that the plaintive rumble of the sea is a lament and that of nature participates in this process of mourning the gods whose world has been in such desperate need. There is no one here. God created the world, and the effort to do so killed it. Kossakowski had to come all the way here come to understand this.”

Interspersed throughout the story are first-person memories of Nahman, one of Frank’s followers, who eventually plays the part of his messiah Judas, as well as letters between a Polish noblewoman and a bibliophile Catholic priest, Father Chmielowski, who wrote the former. Polish Encyclopedia, The New Athens. Flights readers will know that this is one of Tokarczuk’s two favorite books. (The other, tellingly, is Moby-Dick.) Throughout the story hovers the disembodied spirit of Yente, Jacob’s grandmother, caught between life and death by a kabbalistic spell, and testifying to the long bloody history of the Jews in Poland into the 20th century.

Though he is at the heart of the book, the eponymous Jacob appears for no more than a hundred pages in the novel, and he remains a mysterious figure we see in glimpses of varying intimacy. It would be easy to portray him as a charlatan and opportunist – his control over his disciples is unnerving and his sexual behavior is exploitative. But Tokarczuk, an atheist, credits him with his charisma, his sincerity and is clearly fascinated by the spiritual and worldly journeys of his true followers (some eventually amassed great fortunes and played important roles in European history). Over the roughly 30 years that make up most of the action, we see these characters age, time pass and the world around them undergo massive changes.

Tokarczuk has written in Flights about the theological concept of contuition, the ability to see the divine unity in disparate things, and that is the artistic logic behind this book. It is the reader’s task to derive a higher order from the patchwork of scenes and fragments. It does require patience – and I’m not sure I’d recommend newbies to start Tokarczuk’s work here. But The Books of Jacob, which is so demanding yet has so much to say about the problems that plague our time, will be a milestone in the life of any reader who wants to tackle it.

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, is published by Fitzcarraldo. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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