Very occasionally, a new work of translated fiction crosses over and becomes one of the most eagerly anticipated books around. It happened with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, also with Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, and now you can add Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s latest novel in English to that list. As an International Booker Prize winner and Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, Tokarczuk has become a major name in world literature, and today’s choice can only be described as a big book, in more ways than one. When you’ve been eagerly anticipating something, though, there’s always the chance of disappointment, so the question I want to focus on today is a simple one – is the book all it’s made out to be? Let’s find out…
The Books of Jacob (translated by Jennifer Croft, review copy courtesy of Text Publishing), running to close to a thousand pages, is a novel telling the real-life story of religious leader Jacob Frank. Born in Poland in 1726, this man of humble origins broke away from mainstream Judaism to start a different branch of the religion, eventually presenting himself as a saviour of sorts. He promoted baptism into Christianity as a means to an end, but while he was seen by his followers as a Messiah, others regarded him as a heretic, a man to be stopped, and made great efforts to do so.
Tokarczuk’s novel, then, attempts to introduce the man, the religion and the environment he lived in. As you can imagine, it’s an ambitious undertaking, introducing the reader to a very unfamiliar world. The Poland of The Books of Jacob is a rather different country to the one we know now, a sprawling commonwealth extending further into Eastern Europe, surrounded by three aggressive empires that were eventually to swallow it up. The story takes place in the eighteenth century, a time when the rational beliefs of the Enlightenment existed alongside mysticism and religion. It was an age where belief was malleable, and in which a man of low birth could rise to great heights if he went about it the right way.
A major feature of the novel is the way it introduces and fills out the character of Frank. From the start, he’s rather larger than life, winning people over through raw charm from their very first encounter, and he develops from a cheeky trader roaming the sunny lands to the south of his Polish home into a leader able to convince many of the Jews of eastern Europe of his spiritual nature, and of his role as a successor to the Biblical Jacob. Once the foundations of his movement are set, he and his closest followers set off on journeys in both Ottoman and Poland lands to espouse his cause.
Whatever else you might say about Frank, he’s certainly an interesting figure. Tokarczuk shows us a large man, perhaps not overly attractive, but striking. He’s charismatic, able to drag people along in his wake, and is able to appeal to both Jewish followers and his Christian supporters:
Jacob never talks like the tzaddikim do, in long, complicated sentences brimming with rare and precious words, always harking back to quotes from the Scriptures. He speaks concisely and clearly, like someone who earns his living at the market or drives a cart. He’s always joking, but you can’t tell if he’s actually joking in what he says or being serious. He looks you straight in the eye, says a sentence like he’s firing a shot, and then waits for a reaction. Usually his persistent gaze, like that of a bird – eagle, falcon, vulture – flusters his interlocutors. They look away, they falter.
p.776 (Text Publishing, 2021)
A slightly more unexpected feature of his character is his sexual promiscuity. The chapters detailing his early adventures describe a number of encounters, with men and women, and it’s no coincidence that the rituals for his new religion often involve nudity and partner swapping. In fact, for a new Messiah, Jacob enjoys himself inordinately, and it’s fortunate that there’s no shortage of people prepared to bankroll his lifestyle, or of followers able to persuade them to do so.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Jacob Frank sounds like a complete charlatan, but Tokarczuk paints a far more nuanced picture of her flawed hero. He truly believes he’s there to lead his people to safety (in an age when they were certainly in danger), and he shows great courage and leadership in standing up to the majority of the mainstream Jewish faith and negotiating with Christian nobility in Poland to find safe places to live. His actions often put him in danger, leading to a lengthy spell in prison, and for those who want something a little more intangible from their prophets, there’s even the occasional miracle and a spot of healing – enough, at any rate, to convince thousands of people to put their lives in his hands.
Interestingly, The Books of Jacob are actually more books *about* Jacob. He’s usually seen at a slight distance, as described by others – some recognise his flaws, while others focus on his good points. We get to see the ambiguous nature of the man, brutal at times, occasionally cruel, and yet still managing to charm and inspire the faithful enough to keep their belief in him. Occasionally, we’re taken close enough to see some of his doubts and fatigue, but on the whole we find ourselves on the edge of his inner circle, waiting for him to announce the next stage of the master plan.
Fans of Tokarczuk’s fiction will recognise the fragmented nature of the text, with many short chapters, several contributed by repeat writers. There’s also the customary dry humour, with several nice wry touches:
Asher Rubin thinks that most people are truly idiots, and that it is human stupidity that is ultimately responsible for introducing sadness into the world. It isn’t a sin or a trait with which human beings are born, but a false view of the world, a mistaken evaluation of what is seen by our eyes. (p.920)
The Books of Jacob isn’t just about Jacob, either, and Tokarczuk introduces a wide cast of protagonists, some real, some invented, many of whom are only tangentially connected to the main story. By darting around across the Polish Commonwealth, and beyond, the writer provides an overview of the whole of the society of the time: Jews, Christian clergy, the Sabbatarian dissidents and peasants.
Another familiar aspect of Tokarczuk’s writing is a slightly playful, magical approach to the story. We get occasional flashes of what was and will be, especially in the sections featuring Yente, Jacob’s grandmother. She’s an old woman who is prevented from dying by a magical amulet, and she becomes a presence floating above the book, providing a bird’s-eye view unrestricted by conventional time. This allows the writer to rove far and wide, leaving Jacob for a while as she looks back at his origins, or looks forward to reveal a character’s fate.
Unsurprisingly, while The Books of Jacob was a success in Poland, taking out the prestigious Nike Literary Award in 2015, it was also rather controversial. Poland and the Poles don’t always come off well: the country is described as a backwater, full of dull peasants labouring under leaden skies, ruled over by lazy, gluttonous noblemen who’d rather be elsewhere. The church, eager to convert Jacob and his band of followers, no matter how suspicious their attestations of faith are, is shown to be a manipulative organisation peopled by ambitious individuals concerned more with personal ambition than general salvation. Tokarczuk isn’t one to spare her homeland’s blushes, and it’s easy to see why many have attacked her online for betraying her country.
As impressive an achievement as it is for the most part, I’m not sure I’m quite as enthusiastic about the whole affair as many readers have been, though. While it is very Tokarczuk-like in its approach, on the whole it’s actually a rather conventional work. Despite the many voices and sections, once Jacob enters the scene, the story moves forward serenely through his life, elaborating on the major incidents, in a rather sedate manner – at times, it feels as if we’re simply chugging along from place to place. It’s all interesting enough, and undoubtedly well done, but compared to some of her earlier work, such as Primeval and Other Times or Flights, which make the reader work to find connections between the different parts, The Books of Jacob is almost too simple, at times merely a summary of events, as we follow Jacob and his merry band from place to place, with his followers growing richer all the while.
The Books of Jacob is undoubtedly well written, though, with much praise due to Croft for her excellent work on a task that would have taken a lot of research and effort. While I’m not convinced it’s the masterpiece we were expecting, and that some reviewers have proclaimed, it’s still an accomplished, fascinating story of a charismatic man making his way through some very interesting times. As Tokarczuk, through one of her characters, says:
“I would expect you, being an artist yourself, not to think in a manner more suited to simple people. Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is” – he sought the right words, and suddenly a phrase came ready to his lips – “the perfection of imprecise forms.” (p.14)
Imperfect, and often far from precise, The Books of Jacob, owing to its size and the enormous cast of protagonists, may seem rather daunting for some readers, but it’s an absorbing book you can easily get lost in. It’s one I’d recommend, and I suspect that the coming months will see many readers setting off to join Jacob on his travels. Whether you’re a true believer or more of a sceptic, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the journey if you tag along.