The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (Translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft) - review by Uilleam Blacker

Uilleam Blacker

Messiah Complex

The Books of Jacob


Fitzcarraldo Editions 928pp £20

The central figure in Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob is Jacob Frank, an 18th-century Jewish merchant from the eastern borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (today in Ukraine) who left his homeland for the Ottoman Empire and returned a self-proclaimed messiah. The sect that grew around him rejected the Talmud and embraced the kabbalah, espousing an acceptance of elements of Christian doctrine and rejecting traditional moral norms. This mixture of heresy and licentiousness caused consternation among Poland’s rabbis, who persecuted the Frankists until the Polish Church and nobility brought them under their protection (‘These Polish Lords would love to draw you all – their very own savages – into their fold,’ one character wryly observes). Mass baptisms of Frankists and mass burnings of the Talmud followed. Frank subsequently fell out of favour with the Church and was imprisoned for heresy; released after thirteen years, he found refuge in Austria (winning the personal trust of the emperor), before being forced to flee to Germany, where he settled, ennobled and protected by a private army, in Offenbach am Main.

Tokarczuk’s novel follows Frank’s wanderings, filling in the spaces between historical names, dates and places with meticulous period detail, an ensemble of psychologically rich characters and passages of profound philosophical reflection. The result is a work of vast scale and complexity that represents one of the greatest achievements in historical fiction of our time. Yet this is also a book that challenges the very concept of the historical novel. The genre grew out of Romantic nationalism in the 19th century. Its capaciousness was well suited to origin myths and its mass consumer appeal made it ideal for spreading the word. Hence the popularity of Scott, Tolstoy and, in Poland, Henryk Sienkiewicz, whose novels narrated the tragic yet also glorious history of Poland for a late 19th-century Polish audience spread across the different empires that had partitioned its homeland over a century earlier. They have a powerful grip on the Polish historical imagination to this day. Whereas in Sienkiewicz’s work, Polish knights heroically fend off various interlopers, from Tatars to Swedes, in Tokarczuk’s Poles recede to the periphery and others – principally, Poland’s Jews – are central. For her, the vast eastern borderlands, so crucial in lending grandeur to Polish national mythology, are not a space in which Polishness crystallises in confrontation with unruly Ukrainian Cossacks or recalcitrant Jews, but rather one where all identities, and indeed all ideas, are contingent.

One of the most remarkable features of the novel is its combination of a panoramic geographical and historical perspective and rich, specific detail, ranging from the intricacies of theological disputes to a visiting noblewoman’s perception of a Podolian shtetl:

They say it’s one kingdom, a united Commonwealth, but here everything is completely different from how it is in Greater Poland, where she comes from. It is wild here, and the faces are foreign, exotic, and the outfits almost comical, their sukmanas disintegrating into rags, strange fur hats and turbans, bare feet. Tiny, buckling houses made out of clay, even here, on the market square. The smell of malt and dung, the odour of damp, decaying leaves.

There are similarly vivid descriptions of everything from an Ottoman bazaar to the Habsburg court throughout The Books of Jacob’s nearly thousand pages.

The novel’s stylistic diversity and fragmented structure lead to dynamic transitions between wide and close-up perspectives. On the one hand, the reader’s point of view often merges with that of Yente, Jacob’s grandmother, who, thanks to a kabbalistic spell, falls into a sort of coma at the opening of the novel and finds herself floating above the action. Her gaze encompasses the whole spatial and temporal expanse of the story, even stretching forward to events outside its main timeframe: the fate of Rohatyn’s Jews in the Holocaust and, later, the writing of the book itself. On the other, for immediate submersion in the period we have the correspondence between Benedykt Chmielowski, bibliophile priest and author of Poland’s first encyclopedia, and the baroque poet Elżbieta Drużbacka, as well as the writings of Nahman of Busk, Frank’s very own Boswell, whose anxious notes introduce cracks of ambiguity to the image of his charismatic master.

These generic and stylistic shifts present a stiff challenge for the translator, and Tokarczuk is fortunate to have Jennifer Croft. She maintains the original’s balance between historical stylisation and neutral contemporary narration. She also guides the reader nimbly through a potentially bewildering array of names, historical details and cultural specifics, as well as through the text’s multiple languages (Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino, Latin, Turkish and more). The reader is never lost but is always, as in the original, submerged in otherness. This is a remarkable achievement that is clearly the result of painstaking research by Croft.

In 1905, Sienkiewicz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his ‘outstanding merits as an epic writer’. Over a century later, Tokarczuk, the sixth Polish winner of the prize, was praised by the Nobel committee for ‘a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life’. While the ability to present sweeping historical stories is as valuable now as it was in Sienkiewicz’s day, Tokarczuk’s work demonstrates that it is not simply epic scale that gives a story value but also the ends towards which it is used. At the turn of the 20th century, Poland’s challenge was national consolidation in the face of imperial oppression, and Sienkiewicz’s works addressed this; in the 21st century, as the drama currently playing out on its border with Belarus shows, Poland’s (and also Europe’s) challenge is how to come to terms with a world increasingly defined by the transgression of boundaries. Tokarczuk’s novel is an epic story to suit the age.

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