The epic story of a messiah
Books always arrive at the wrong time at Olga Tokarczuk Jacob’s Books. The 18th century Eastern Europe and Mediterranean through which this novel traces its course is a fully multilingual environment. It’s not uncommon for the characterers to juggle Polish, German, Yiddish, Turkish and Ruthenian in the same conversation. As a result, writing moves at a much slower pace and printing is often a matter of high personal cost. Official edicts take years to be translated into popular language, and heretical books are subject to censorship and often burned. Jacob’s Books also details premonitory volumes which arrive too soon, and for that amount to prophecy. It is therefore fitting that it takes considerable time and skillful translation work on the part of Jennifer Croft for this 965-page novel, which first appeared in the author’s native Poland in 2014, to make its way. in English.
It comes with the recommendation of the Nobel Committee for Literature – which, in another example of bibliographical bad timing, retroactively awarded Tokarczuk the 2018 prize a year late, due to resignations at the Swedish Academy in the middle of a #MeToo scandal. In the Anglosphere, little of Tokarczuk’s work had been widely publicized at this time, and most reports on the prize were instead devoted to 2019 laureate Peter Handke’s controversial support of Slobodan Milošević. Jacob’s Books appearing today seems like a long-promised release, an opportunity for English readers to experience a truly global artistic event: the publication of a genre-widening contribution to the historical novel.
For his subject, Tokarczuk takes the real-world figure of Jacob Frank, a Polish Jew who, from the 1750s, claimed to be a messiah before leading his followers down a path of mysticism, apostasy and often dangerous adventures. . Considered a reincarnation of the ancient messianic claimant, Sabbatai Tzvi, Jacob Frank preaches a doctrine of liberation from the Talmud, Mosaic Law, and nearly every other cornerstone of conventional Jewish faith. In extraordinary times, according to the teaching of Frank, it is incumbent on the messiah to transgress the old law and thus to announce the new. Scandalously, the Frankists converted to Christianity and risked excommunication from the Jewish community. Shortly after, they are accused of Christian heresy and Frank is brought before a court. Religious disputes and shifting political winds then find these true believers alternately embraced, besieged, imprisoned or on the road during the roughly 40-year period of Jacob’s Booksthe main action.
The magic of the novel is that an encyclopedic account of a fringe schismatic denomination from nearly three centuries ago should seem so wildly contemporary. Sometimes the long and abstract asides on Kabbalism can seem remote from the concerns of modern readers. But when true believers establish their communal peasant republic on the site of a town abandoned by its former inhabitants after a bout of plague, something of the apocalypse of our time is thrown into sharp relief. Jacob’s Books is peppered with equally moving moments, in which the closeness and distance of the past are simultaneously thrillingly affirmed.
In a way, Tokarczuk is concerned with letting you see the sweat on their product. The book ends with a note on sources, and every detail of the period reads as perfectly placed. Jacob’s Books projects the likelihood. At the same time, fictional composites rub shoulders with historical personalities. The romantic convention is subtle here, but omnipresent. Also frequently present are reproduced paintings, lithographs, maps and long blocks of direct quotes. Archival documents and sheer invention share the space of the page in a way that invites endless comment and interpretation, bringing into formal play the very questions of allegorical and mystical meaning that feature in the content of the novel.
Reality becomes increasingly difficult to separate from fabrication, and the power of storytelling, clearly, lies in the resonances and connections that artifice can reveal between known facts. As a late passage puts it, “As time goes by, moments occur that are very similar to each other. The threads of time have their knots and tangles, and every once in a while there is a symmetry, every once in a while something repeats, as if refrains and patterns are controlling them, a disturbing thing to notice.
During the Enlightenment period that Tokarczuk presents, many advances were made in the study of optics. Jacob Frank’s preaching is represented alongside Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the bifocal, the publication of Newton’s physical observations of light, and the popularization in Europe of the camera obscura, a technological precursor to photography. The suggestiveness of this choice in images for Jacob’s Books is rich, as light and its manipulation are increasingly explained in terms of the nascent scientific revolution. A story that the book must tell is therefore that of the undecidable encounter between a secular faith and a growing rationalism.
At the same time, it is a virtue of mysticism to be contradictory and confusing, and in Jacob Frank, Tokarczuk has an extremely confusing figure. Most of the novel observes him in a broad third person. Occasionally there are diary asides from Frank’s disciple and biographer, Nahman of Busk. Perhaps the most interesting and expansive of the perspectives offered here is that of Yente, Jacob Frank’s comatose grandmother: hovering somewhere between life and death after a debacle involving an amulet, she dispassionately observes the entire plot as a disembodied spirit. It synthesizes the diversity of otherwise random events, by cutting out an intelligible figure. This way she looks the most like the author, like Jacob’s Booksit is art restores and activates this recognizable human movement which is always present under the inert and static material of facts.
Jacob’s BooksThe choices can sometimes be daunting. The scale of the book; its overwhelmingly populated cast of named characters; its inverted page numbers, done in honor of the Hebrew convention; and the intense tone of human suffering so often achieved – it all makes for less than hospitable reading. In many ways, it is the content of the past itself that causes this difficulty – stubborn as it is and subject to unpredictable change. If there is one thing that Joseph Frank, the Messiah, cares to convey, it is the temporary nature of all earthly things. In her clairvoyant depiction of enormous historical momentum, ruthlessly displaying the dissolution of national borders and entire belief systems, Olga Tokarczuk achieves much the same goal.
Photo of the author: Lukasz Gizeh
Drew Dickerson lives in Providence, Rhode Island.