Book Review: The Books of Jacob – Olga Tokarczuk

Posted March 6, 2022 in Print

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The Books of Jacob

Olga Tokarczuk


The novel that the Nobel prize committee described as Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘magnum opus so far’

Who was Jacob Frank? He was born in 1726 to a Jewish family in Podolia. He was arrested in 1760 for heresy and imprisoned for thirteen years, having practiced and preached a conversion to Catholicism that produced a sect of ‘neophyte’ followers neither fully Jewish nor Catholic. He died in 1791 in Offenbach-am-Main, having briefly regained some sort of influence, his daughter a lover of the Holy Roman Emperor, his followers spread across several countries.

In the novel that the Nobel prize committee described as Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘magnum opus so far’, originally published in Polish in 2014, and appearing here in a masterful, stylish translation by Jennifer Croft, Jacob is ‘completely original’. His daughter reflects that while she could pass for Italian or Spanish, ‘there isn’t any nation for her father, no specific place that could stake a claim on him.’ We never really know what he’s thinking, seeing him instead through the eyes of his followers, such as the loyal Nahman, who writes ‘scraps’ recording Jacob’s teachings (first illicitly because it has been banned by Jacob and then openly – these total reversals of position characterise much of Jacob), and his enemies. Is he a fraud, an opportunist – or is he, as he suggests, the Messiah?

It would be easy in lesser hands for the depth and detail of the material to overwhelm. Tokarczuk is far too skilled for that. The novel gives us twin poles to tether ourselves to as we immerse fully in its riches. Jacob, around whom the disturbances of the Enlightenment spread out like ripples on a pond, is one. ‘Enlightenment begins when people lose their faith in the goodness and the order of the world. The Enlightenment is an expression of mistrust,’ a doctor muses towards the end. Jacob creates and thrives off mistrust; he also offers a hope that it might be for something, that the upturning of everything is necessary for change.

The other figure is Yente, who, at the very start of the novel, is dying at a wedding. Terrible luck. Rather than call the whole thing off the Rabbi Shorr places an amulet round her neck. ‘Hamtana: waiting.’ He hopes to extend her life just long enough for the marriage to be celebrated. Instead ‘she knows what’s written on it. She breaks the strap, opens the carrier and swallows the amulet like a little pill.’ She does not die. Eventually her family leave her in a cave where she will ‘become pure crystal’. She can see everything, an out-of-body experience, watching the events of the novel. Towards the end, she also allows us to see the fates of the characters.

Here it’s revealed that the same cave served as the hiding place for a group of Jews from Karolivka who evaded the Nazis there for two years – a story ‘so improbable that few believe it’. The world has not finished upturning. Whatever Yente is waiting for, it seems, has yet to appear.

Words: Alice Wickenden


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