The Nobel laureate’s visionary epic about 18th-century religious leader Jacob Frank takes on the biggest philosophical themes
During the 18th century, in the borderlands between present-day Ukraine and Poland, an extraordinary religious movement arose. It was a Jewish heresy invented by a man called Jacob Frank – “the most hideous and uncanny figure in the whole history of Jewish Messianism”, according to the Israeli scholar Gershom Scholem. Frank claimed that the end times had come and conventional morality needed to be turned upside down. He bragged about defiling the Torah with his naked buttocks, encouraged his followers to break all sorts of sexual and dietary taboos, and eventually persuaded many of them to be baptised into the Christian church. His many disciples worshipped him as a prophet and wrote his visions and utterances down in a book called The Words of the Lord. Sample extract: “In a dream I saw a very old woman, 1500 years old. Her hair was white as snow; she brought me 2 silver belts and a Walachian sausage. I bought one from her and stole the other.”
Charismatic, transgressive and downright loopy, Frank comes across today as a Monty Python mashup of Osho, David Koresh and Mormon leader Joseph Smith, but he was highly influential in his time. Furthermore, the course of his turbulent 80-year life coincided with huge political and philosophical changes in Europe, as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth collapsed and traditional religious beliefs were usurped by the rival claims of science.
The Books of Jacob by the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk is an epic chronicle of the life and times of Frank and his followers. Over a thousand pages long, dense with history and incident, it is vast enough to make this reader’s knees buckle. As crowded as a Bruegel painting, it moves from mud-bound Galician villages to Greek monasteries, 18th-century Warsaw, Brno, Vienna and the luxurious surroundings of the Habsburg court. It takes in esoteric theological arguments, diplomatic history, alchemy, Kabbalah, Polish antisemitism and the philosophical roots of the Enlightenment. It is a dauntingly ambitious piece of work and one of the responses it arouses is just plain amazement at the patience and tenacity that have gone into its construction.
English-speaking readers will have encountered Tokarczuk’s writing in the two previous novels of hers also published by Fitzcarraldo. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the most immediately accessible of her books, is a noirish murder mystery set in rural Poland; Flights, which won the Booker International prize, is a thought-provoking collection of philosophical oddities about travel, time, history and dislocation. Both those hard-to-classify books are given coherence by the mordant and idiosyncratic authorial personality that hovers over them.
Dense, captivating and weird, The Books of Jacob is on a different scale from either of these. It is a visionary novel that conforms to a particular notion of masterpiece – long, arcane and sometimes inhospitable. Tokarczuk is wrestling with the biggest philosophical themes: the purpose of life on earth, the nature of religion, the possibility of redemption, the fraught and terrible history of eastern European Jewry. With its formidable insistence on rendering an alien world with as much detail as possible, the novel reminded me at times of Paradise Lost. The vividness with which it’s done is amazing. At a micro-level, she sees things with a poetic freshness. Here’s a tiny instance: when two of Frank’s followers curtsey to the Habsburg emperor, “Eva and Anusia’s dresses wither as they squat”. There is a haiku-like density to this image of the big formal dresses losing their structure – and this painstaking degree of observation is sustained consistently throughout the book.
Another writer might have told this story from Frank’s birth and followed the twists and turns of his vocation and ministry in a linear fashion. That isn’t Tokarczuk’s way. Like Flights, The Books of Jacob is a patchwork of scenes and voices, tableaux and fragments, interpolations from Jacob’s followers, pictures and maps from contemporary documents. (And, by the way, the pages are numbered backwards in a nod to Hebrew convention and the reversal of values implied by the imminent millennium.)
The dominant voice of the novel is that of its omniscient narrator, who writes in stately present-tense prose about the spiritual crises of her characters: “In this moment, Antoni Kossakowski realises that the plaintive rumble of the sea is a lament and that all of nature is taking part in this process of mourning those gods of whom the world has been in such desperate need. There is no one here. God created the world, and the effort of doing so killed him. Kossakowski had to come all the way here to understand this.”
Interspersed in the narrative are first-person reminiscences from Nahman, one of Frank’s followers, who ends up playing the role of Judas to his messiah, as well as letters between a Polish noblewoman and a bibliophile Catholic priest, Father Chmielowski, who wrote the first Polish encyclopedia, The New Athens. Readers of Flights will know this is one of Tokarczuk’s two favourite books. (The other, tellingly, is Moby-Dick.) Over the whole story floats the disembodied spirit of Yente, Jacob’s grandmother, trapped between life and death by a Kabbalistic spell, and bearing witness to the long bloody history of the Jews in Poland right up to the 20th century.
Though he is at the book’s core, the eponymous Jacob doesn’t appear in the novel for more than a hundred pages, and he remains a mysterious figure whom we see in glimpses of varying intimacy. It would be easy to portray him as a charlatan and opportunist – his control over his disciples is unnerving and his sexual behaviour is exploitative. But Tokarczuk, an atheist, allows him his charisma, his sincerity, and is clearly fascinated by the spiritual and worldly journeys of his real-life followers (some ended up amassing big fortunes and playing important roles in European history). Over the 30 or so years that the bulk of the action covers, we see these characters age, time pass and the world around them undergo enormous changes.
Tokarczuk has written in Flights about the theological concept of contuition, the ability to see the divine unity in disparate things, and that’s the artistic logic behind this book. The reader’s task is to deduce a higher order out of the patchwork of scenes and fragments. It does require patience – and I’m not sure that I would recommend newcomers to Tokarczuk’s work start here. But The Books of Jacob, which is so demanding and yet has so much to say about the issues that rack our times, will be a landmark in the life of any reader with the appetite to tackle it.
The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, is published by Fitzcarraldo. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.