Review: Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize Novel “The Books of Jacob”

On the bookshelf

Jacob’s Books

By Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Jennifer Croft
Riverhead: 992 pages, $35

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The 18th-century false messiah, Jacob Frank, “will forever be remembered as one of the most chilling phenomena in all of Jewish history,” as Gershom Scholem put it. Approaching with curiosity rather than condemnation, Polish author Olga Tokarczuk made Frank and his followers the subject of her 12th work of fiction, the gargantuan novel “Jacob’s Bookswhich convinced the Swedish Academy to award him the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Originally published in Polish in 2014 and now translated into English by Jennifer Croft, the novel is the product of immense research and a brilliant imagination. At nearly 1,000 pages, spanning 50 years and as many characters, it’s a historical epic comparable to “War and Peace,” but not as straightforward. With its disorienting reverse order of the pages and its dozens of maps, illustrations and documents, “The Books of Jacob” offers a reading experience literally incomparable.

The story begins in 1752 in Podolia (then Poland, now Ukraine), when Frank’s grandmother, Yente, swallows a written spell meant to delay her demise, suspending her between life and death. Tokarczuk cleverly tells the story from the omniscient perspective of Yente’s mind. At the time, Jewish thought was dominated by Talmudists, orthodox scholars of rabbinic law. But with the widespread popularity of the “Zohar”, a strong undercurrent of kabbalists, linguistic alchemists who penetrated the esoteric meaning of the scriptures to gain mystical wisdom, arose. From this ferment was born the millennial fever and Rabbi Sabbatai Tzvi, who claimed to be the Messiah and violated the commandments of the Torah. Eventually he went to Istanbul and converted to Islam, the most transgressive thing a Jew could do.

It’s easy to forget how far the Ottoman Empire once stretched across Europe, but at one time the Turks ruled over part of present-day Poland. Tokarczuk beautifully captures his rugged diversity in the novel, which has made his enemies Polish nationalists proselytize a homogenous version of their past. This story helps explain why Sabbatai’s successor, Jacob Frank, dressed in Turkish fashion throughout his life, wearing curvy shoes and a large fez. Born Yankiele Leybowicz, he settled in Sabbatai’s hometown of Smyra, where he was called ‘Frank’, the Turkish word at the time for European. Rather than adopt Islam, however, Frank led thousands of Jews to convert to Catholicism – the central event of Tokarczuk’s novel.

Through a bizarre philosophy that weaved together Kabbalah, Gnosticism and Sabbatai ideas with Divine Mother worship, Frank believed he was realizing tikkun olam, the Jewish ideal of repairing the world. Yet he taught that salvation is found through sin, encouraging Jews to work on the Sabbath, eat pork, and commit adultery; he made concubines of the wives and daughters of his followers and sucked milk from the breasts of mothers. Indeed, rather than Jesus or the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism), Frank of Tokarczuk is more like Rasputin – a charismatic, sex-obsessed trickster. Yet his “believers” claim he is a healer, the reincarnation of Sabbatai Tzvi and the embodiment of the Holy Spirit. They even see a halo above his head.

At a time when plagues were ravaging populations and comets were seen as omens in the sky, Jews believed that the Messiah would appear as a warrior, wiping sultans, kings and emperors from the face of the earth. The Temple in Jerusalem would be rebuilt and all the Jews would return to the land of Israel. The dead would be raised and the followers of the Messiah would never die. Yet, as “The Books of Jacob” progresses, none of this happens; the halo fades, and we see Frank for the charlatan he is. Rather than bring heaven to Earth, all Frank really wants is land and power – his own earthly kingdom.

How did this megalomaniac manage to deceive so many people into giving him not only their money, their daughters and their wives, but also their souls? Simply because, as Tokarczuk points out, Eastern European Jews were “always afraid” – of lords, peasants and Cossacks; of injustice, hunger and cold. Prohibited from owning land or practicing most professions, their lives and possessions taken at will, the Jews lived in a state of hopeless uncertainty. Jacob took away their fear and, as Tokarczuk writes, “the absence of fear is like a halo that radiates a warmth that can warm a chilly, frightened little soul.”

Moreover, their dedication paid off materially; after converting to Catholicism in mass baptisms, Frank’s followers take on Polish names and prosper as Gentiles, with several even entering the nobility. Frank himself becomes a baron and lives in a castle. Ultimately, therefore, the story is not one of apocalypse but one of assimilation and transition to modernity.

The subtle emphasis on this transition resonates with Tokarczuk’s earlier books, only a few of which have been translated into English. His charming novel “Drive your plow over the bones of the deadis about an astrology-obsessed woman who rails against local hunters, policemen and other chauvinists. The unclassifiable “Flights” is a frustratingly fragmented work of philosophical musings, vague character sketches and incoherent scenes. Tokarczuk’s strong ethics and celebration of intuition bind such disparate books together; with these tools she re-enchants the world. “The Books of Jacob” continues this project by allowing readers to experience what it is like to be totally in the grip of mysticism.

Along the way, she writes many dazzling, transcendent passages, the beauty of which Croft preserves. Take, for example, this scene in which Jacob and his followers look at a golden statue of the Virgin Mary placed on a cathedral:

“The sun rises from behind the clouds, quite unexpectedly, since the sky has been cloudy since morning, and one of its rays hits the statue, and all this gold of Gdansk begins to shine like a kind of second sun , and suddenly the square in front of the Cathedral of Kamieniec shines with a fresh and joyful light, and the Virgin, who runs in the sky, is pure goodness, like someone who arises among the people to give them hope — that everything will be fine. Everyone sighs in ecstasy at this powerful spectacle of pure light. The Blessed Virgin. People squint and kneel before this clear evidence of his miracle.

Yes, there is a miracle in these pages. It’s not about the Virgin Mary or the false Messiah Jacob Frank, though., but how Tokarczuk can make a time so distant from us feel so completely alive. In an age of cynicism about both spirituality and the abilities of written fiction, that might be miracle enough.

Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.

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