Before it arrived, it was hailed as a masterpiece. The Nobel Committee for Literature called it her “magnum opus”. In Poland, it won the Nike Literary Award in 2015, the country’s most prestigious literary prize. Reader copies were delivered in two weighty editions, owing to the book’s biblical proportions. Its table of contents — whose headings “Of Secret Hand and Eye Signals and Hints” and “Of The Lovemaking of Franciszek Wolowski” read like entries to a dusty encyclopaedia of long-forgotten folklore — is 23 pages long. Its page numbers, in line with Hebrew convention, are counted backwards. Indeed, The Books of Jacob, a historical novel about an 18th-century Jewish mystic and self-proclaimed messiah Jacob Frank, possesses a messianic halo of its own: in other words, the story in the book mimics the story around it, a fitting symmetry for a novelist endlessly fascinated by the hidden logic between disparate things.
The real life history of Jacob Frank is, according to Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, “a sort of morose but unintentionally absurd comedy”. The Books of Jacob, which details Frank’s eventful crisscrossing of Europe in the late 18th-century with his wide-eyed followers (known as Frankists), defies belief, so it is perhaps fortuitous it arrived in English — fastidiously and elegantly translated by Jennifer Croft — at the end of 2021, a time when truth had overtaken fiction in the race to incredulity.
The bones of The Books of Jacob, however, are factual, constructed by Tokarczuk from years of consulting historical archives, documents, and sources — in a brief afterword, she writes a complete bibliography would “take up entirely too much space”. Jewish gabardines (a type of coat), rituals performed by bishops, the intricate politics of village property ownership are all rendered in exquisite detail. Tokarczuk even admitted taking out a scene where candlelight was reflected by needles a group of women were using to sew; she later realised they would have been using needles made of wood or bone, which wouldn’t have reflected the light.
“My work fell somewhere between the archaeology of glueing together broken vessels and the building of a complex model ship”
“My work fell somewhere between the archaeology of glueing together broken vessels and the building of a complex model ship,” Tokarczuk has said of her writing. Indeed, the glue that binds these dug-up fragments together is squeezed through Tokarczuk’s sprawling imagination and it’s here her writing appears freer, less constrained by historical fidelity. Take this spine-tingling opening to one chapter: “Every now and then, God wearies of his own luminous silence, and infinity starts to make him a little bit sick.” Elsewhere, “waves make their way across the golden fields of crops that stretch out past the horizon, and it looks as though the whole earth, soft and gold, were sighing.” This is Tokarczuk at her most lyrical and beguiling, reminiscent of her 2019 novel Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead and 2018 Booker Prize-winning work, Flights.
With frequent digressions and tangents, plot marches forward to the beat of Frank and his heretical sect’s peregrinations across Europe. As he traverses the Ottoman and Habsburg empires and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — facing persecution, imprisonment, and plague — his notoriety swells with hearsay and village gossip: one account tells of how Frank triggered a lightning storm simply by shouting into the sky while another recalls that, upon his arrival, cows gave birth to twins with strange colourations and chickens laid eggs with multiple yolks. To many Rabbis, his religious beliefs — which mix Judaism, Christianity and Islam, denounce the Talmud and promote sexual promiscuity — are outrageous. To others, his outlandish antics are proof he is the reincarnation of the 17th-century Kabbalist Sabbatai Tzvi and has come to lead the people out of misery. Poverty-stricken in Europe’s hinterlands, the masses want “miracles, signs, shooting stars”. They don’t really understand Frank’s feverish diatribes, but because he is “tall, handsome, and dressed like a Turk, he seems exceptional”. In this sense, Frank resembles a modern-day populist leader skilled in the art of deception, a polarising figure whose stock is simultaneously up and down depending on who is asked.
Set across five decades, The Books of Jacob covers a lot of ground. Philosophically, Tokarzcuk interweaves arguments on Kabbalah, eschatology, antisemitism, ethics, and mysticism to name a few, expressing the simmering energy of the Enlightment period across Europe. This is embodied most directly by Father Chmielowski, vicar forane of Rohatyn, a real-life figure who created Poland’s first encyclopaedia, entitled New Athens. “Just imagine,” he says, “everything at hand, in every library, nobleman’s and peasant’s. All of mankind’s knowledge collected in one place.” That The Books of Jacob opens with Father Chmielowski’s quest for totality, is perhaps a wry nod to the book’s own Herculean intentions.
“As ambitious and daring as The Books of Jacobs is, its encyclopaedic pursuits sometimes undermine the punch of its story”
Chmielowski is joined by a dizzyingly tall cast of characters whose stories are told through a patchwork of vignettes comprising letters, inscriptions, documents, maps, illustrations, poems, prayers, and anecdotes. This formal variedness is impressive, if disorienting, a work that’s perhaps easier to gaze at than get inside of. Notably, Frank’s story is only ever told by others, the main being Nahman, a disciple and schoolmate whose credibility is often questioned. While the shared narration can feel stuffy and overpopulated, it reveals the impossibility of representation; at best, Frank is the sum of collective misunderstandings, at worst, apocryphal untruths.
One more name must be mentioned, Yente, an old woman on death’s door who we are told in the book’s prologue, “sees all”. “Yente gave the narrative a new perspective, a kind of bird’s-eye view, independent of time and space,” says Tokarczuk. “Somewhat in jest, I’ve referred to Yente as a ‘fourth-person narrator’, a point of view that exceeds the competence of an ordinary third-person narrator so that it can see beyond the text and can even see the author of the text herself.”
Is Yente to Tokarczuk, what New Athens is to Chmielowski, a kind of misplaced fantasy of omniscience? As ambitious and daring as The Books of Jacobs is, its encyclopaedic pursuits sometimes undermine the punch of its story. Do we really need every thread of backstory, each matrimonial tree? An encyclopaedia, by nature, is anti-novelistic: it is closed, immovable, absolute, qualities that suffocate the novel’s necessity for open exchange. Here, I am reminded of a characteristically acute line of Tokarczuk’s from Flights: “a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence”. Nonetheless, The Books of Jacob is a significant achievement. Judged against its understated subtitle — “that the wise might have it for a record, that my compatriots reflect, laypersons gain some understanding and melancholy souls obtain some slight enjoyment” — it keeps its word.