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

By

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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

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