When Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature — mere months after her novel “Flights,” translated by Jennifer Croft, won the Man Booker International Prize — the Swedish Academy singled out a different novel for particular praise. “The Books of Jacob,” they wrote, was Tokarczuk’s “magnum opus.” Based on the life of 18th century Polish religious leader Jacob Frank, which had fascinated Tokarczuk for a decade before she began writing, the book offered, among other things, “a remarkably rich panorama of an almost neglected chapter in European history.”
After seven years of translation work by Croft, “The Books of Jacob” has finally been published in English; if anything, the Swedish Academy was perhaps too reserved in their praise. “The Books of Jacob” is a virtuoso achievement in which ambitious stylistic experimentation never overshadows the piercing examination of humanity at its core.
At nearly a thousand pages (it took Tokarczuk six years to write), “The Books of Jacob” is set in the 18th Century, and follows the life of charismatic religious leader Jacob Frank who, in what was widely regarded as the prophesied end of days (nicely overlapping with the conflict between religion and science of the Enlightenment), sought to create a new faith. The result was the Frankist movement, which was expansive: it encompassed three religions — he was Jewish, then converted to Islam and added Catholicism, all under the umbrella of his entirely new religion. Imprisoned for thirteen years for his beliefs, Frank maintained his following and lived his final days, following his release, as the Baron of Offenbach, continuing his mystical teachings while supporting a private army. (It is estimated that Frankism had around 50,000 followers over the 18th and 19th centuries.)
Rather than treating Frank’s life in a straightforward, linear, biographical manner, Tokarczuk views the prophet askew: developments and events are recounted in a multitude of voices, including written accounts the Rabbi Nahman, one of Frank’s oldest friends and most devout followers (and eventual betrayer), the letters of a Catholic priest, and the overarching, near-omniscient voice of the novel itself (its origin revealed in the novel’s final pages).
Key among these voices is Yente, who readers meet at a wedding in the novel’s opening pages. The aged Yente, sickened on the journey to the wedding, arrives close to death. In order to not have her demise spoil the occasion, Yente is given an amulet, imbued with a spell, which will keep her alive until the spell is broken. Yente, however, consumes the spell. “Once swallowed, the piece of paper lodges in her esophagus, near her heart. Saliva-soaked. The specially prepared black ink dissolves slowly now, the letters losing their shapes. Within the human body, the word splits in two: substance and essence.” As a result, Yente enters into a fragile immortality. While her body lies virtually dead, her spirit leaves her body, rising up. “And this is how it is now, how it will be: Yente sees all.” Yente — Frank’s grandmother — serves as a recording angel, capturing the events of the lives of Frank and his followers, slipping back and forth across time to witness not only the movements of a faith, but the intimate moments of its human participants.
Through this tapestry of voices, readers witness Frank’s teachings, his purported miracles, his deliberately transgressive acts (including some dubious sexual practices), and his human failings, and are left to determine for themselves whether he was a prophet or a charlatan. It isn’t a spoiler to suggest there isn’t a correct answer.
In a book which incorporates the fall of empires, the birth of a faith, sweeping anti-semitism, the Kabbalah, alchemy, courtly politics, floods, plagues, and religious doctrines, Tokarczuk seems to revel in the muck and blood of her subjects. She focuses keenly on Frank’s followers (and dissenters), on births and deaths, family dynamics and petty rivalries. Croft’s translation seems particularly attuned to this boisterousness: the book slips from the sacred to the profane, from canonical debates to drunken hijinks, from poetry to secret, sexual rituals, without missing a beat. The language is dynamic and vibrant throughout, from Kabbalistic mysteries to the slow decline of age.
In addition to its humanity, this is a dense novel of ideas, and of questions, rooted in a history with which most of us are likely unfamiliar, an exploration of faith from a somewhat unexpected source (Tokarczuk is an atheist). Once the reader tunes in to the story, however, it transforms; the reader becomes part of the community, attached to its narrators, and swept up in the events. We feel a kinship with Yente, looking on as history is made, as lives are lived. We become involved, invested, affected. This engagement is a big part of what makes “The Books of Jacob” a singular, marvellous achievement.
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