The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘The Books of Jacob’ is finally here. Now we know why the Nobel judges were so awestruck.

(Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was not a household name in the United States when she won the 2018 Nobel Prize for literature. It didn’t help that the Swedish Academy centered its praise on “The Books of Jacob,” an arduous-sounding novel that wasn’t available in English.

It especially didn’t help that the academy announced Tokarczuk’s award along with the 2019 Nobel Prize for Peter Handke, an Austrian writer sympathetic to Yugoslavia’s late genocidal leader, Slobodan Milosevic. That controversy sucked up attention for days and risked rendering Tokarczuk merely “the other winner.”

But nothing should overshadow Tokarczuk’s literary presence in the United States now. “The Books of Jacob” is finally available here in a wondrous English translation by Jennifer Croft, and it’s just as awe-inspiring as the Nobel judges claimed when they praised Tokarczuk for showing “the supreme capacity of the novel to represent a case almost beyond human understanding.” In terms of its scope and ambition, “The Books of Jacob” is beyond anything else I’ve ever read. Even its voluminous subtitle is a witty expression of Tokarczuk’s irrepressible, omnivorous reach. Deep breath: “A Fantastic Journey Across Seven Borders, Five Languages, and Three Major Religions, Not Counting the Minor Sects. Told by the Dead, Supplemented by the Author, Drawing From a Range of Books, and Aided by Imagination, the Which Being the Greatest Natural Gift of Any Person. That the Wise Might Have It for a Record, That My Compatriots Reflect, Laypersons Gain Some Understanding, and Melancholy Souls Obtain Some Slight Enjoyment.”

The Swedish Academy took a year off to fix the Nobel Prize in literature. It’s still broken.

Sprawling across a thousand pages decorated with period maps and etchings, the story revolves around a real-life 18th-century Polish mystic named Jacob Frank (1726-1791). From humble beginnings, he claimed to be the Messiah sent “to introduce an eternal existence into the world.” He rejected the Talmud and converted to Islam and then Catholicism. Along the way, he attracted tens of thousands of disciples, solicited and lost fortunes, escaped imprisonment, advised the Holy Roman Empress and set up his own faux royal court.

Jacob Frank sounds like a character Mark Twain invented and then discarded as too outlandish. The challenges here — for author and reader — are considerable. After all, Tokarczuk isn’t revising our understanding of Mozart or presenting a fresh take on Catherine the Great. She’s excavating a shadowy figure who’s almost entirely unknown today. The political geography has been scrambled by successive wars over the past two centuries. Foundational scholarship about Frank was being published even as Tokarczuk was writing her novel. And finally, the theological disagreements that his cult posed to Judaism and Christianity are irreducibly complex.

I freely confess to being lost sometimes and even taking solace in the shrinking page numbers, which run in reverse, “a nod to books written in Hebrew.” But as daunting as it sounds, “The Books of Jacob” is miraculously entertaining and consistently fascinating. Despite his best efforts, Frank never mastered alchemy, but Tokarczuk certainly has. Her light irony, delightfully conveyed by Croft’s translation, infuses many of the sections. What’s more, it turns out that the story of an 18th-century grifter inflated by Messianic delusions is surprisingly relevant to our own era.

The quality that makes “The Books of Jacob” so striking is its remarkable form. Tokarczuk has constructed her narrative as a collage of legends, letters, diary entries, rumors, hagiographies, political attacks and historical records. These pieces, jangling together, move forward more like a glaring of cats than a line of soldiers. That is to say: Prepare to work. The intricately designed but rough architecture of this novel leaves a series of gaps and overlaps that any intrepid historian confronts when exhuming a controversial figure mummified in mythology.

Sign up for the Book World newsletter

Among these disparate pieces, we hear the omniscient visions of Jacob’s grandmother. Frozen on the edge of death by swallowing an enchanted amulet, Yente has been moved deep into a cave where her body is slowly turning into a giant crystal — one of several fantastical elements that will make readers think of Tokarczuk’s fellow Nobel winner, Isaac Bashevis Singer. From Yente’s dark but safe refuge in the cave, her consciousness roams across Europe and through time, unfurling the stories of Jacob.

We don’t meet Jacob immediately — or even soon. Instead, among the many characters Tokarczuk first introduces is an avid book collector and writer named Father Chmielowski serving in the Polish town of Rohatyn, now part of Ukraine. With “a rebellious streak,” Father Chmielowski dreams of composing a “description of the world,” something like a paper version of the Internet that would collect all of mankind’s knowledge in one place. “I often stop to wonder how to encapsulate it,” he writes, “how to handle such Vastness?”

“The Books of Jacob” is Tokarczuk’s answer to that question. Through this unorthodox bible, we come to know Jacob by charting the atmospheric disturbance he creates in the world. The novel focuses on a group of mid-18th-century Jews — a loose collection of mystics and Kabbalists — struggling to reconcile their endless tribulations with an all-powerful God. Political and religious discrimination regularly ignites pogroms across Eastern Europe. Jews are routinely blamed for minor and major misfortunes, from a lost cow to a bad well to a devastating plague. “Why, if God so cherishes us, is there so much suffering in the world?” one wonders. “There has to be a secret somewhere to explain it all.”

Olga Tokarczuk's ‘Flights’ is a beautifully fragmented look at man’s longing for permanence

For a small but intense group of seekers, Yankiele Leybowicz — a.k.a. Jacob Frank — provides an explanation that fires the spiritual imagination. “All prophets must come from elsewhere, must suddenly appear, seem strange, out of the ordinary,” writes one scribe, and Jacob certainly fulfills that prophecy. Strikingly tall, unconventionally handsome and infinitely confident, he attracts attention wherever he goes. He lays hands on the sick (and the nubile). While insisting that he’s a mere simpleton, he preaches for hours, elaborating on his dreams and visions, spinning fables and parables, and promoting a scrambled theology that rejects the Mosaic law — particularly its sexual restrictions — in favor of a heretical mishmash of faiths. “Everyone knows that Jacob takes upon himself those weightiest of Strange Deeds,” Tokarczuk writes, “and also that in doing so, he attains a special power. Whoever helps him in this is also anointed.”

This is not good for the Jews. To win favor with influential Christians, Jacob and his followers insist on being baptized in the church. That cynical strategy only intensifies antisemitic feelings against devout Jews who remain stubbornly unwilling to see the light and come to the bosom of Christ. Indeed, the novel offers a sobering exploration of the infinite permutations of antisemitism that recycle the same lies and slurs — particularly the “plain old blood libel” that Jews use the blood of Christian children to bake matzoh. (Tokarczuk has reportedly received death threats from her countrymen for daring to expose these toxic elements of their history.)

Sign up for the Book World newsletter

The novel’s polymorphic structure shows us how Jacob manages to play Christians and Jews off one another for his own social and financial benefit. Even when he’s imprisoned in a Polish monastery — one of this bizarre book’s most bizarre episodes — he finds ways to maintain his lavish lifestyle, complete with a retinue of servants and sexual partners chosen from his followers’ wives and daughters. (Jacob’s potency is so legendary that his hernia is mistaken for a second penis.)

Allusions to what’s happening around the world at this time suggest that the Frankist cult was an example of the religious anarchy unleashed by the Enlightenment. But this is a story that grows simultaneously more detailed and more mysterious. Jacob, the figure at the center of all these rumors, legends, prayers and condemnations, is an enigma — alternately maniacal and pathetic, terrifying and ridiculous. And Tokarczuk draws his followers in a spectrum of tragedies. What is their reward for such slavish service to a greedy charlatan, a sexual abuser, a spouter of spiritual inanities? Jacob’s daughter, in particular, emerges late in the novel as a heartbreaking character — so devoted, so mistreated, so incalculably lonely as the blessed child of the world’s savior. What can explain the willingness of people to dedicate their lives, their fortunes, their souls to leaders who lead them astray?

Tokarczuk lets the branching narratives of this novel respond to that perennial conundrum. “The truth is like a gnarled tree,” she writes, “made up of many layers that are twisted all around each other.” In that sense, “The Books of Jacob” is a whole forest of such trees — haunting and irresistible.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts

The Books of Jacob

By Olga Tokarczuk

Riverhead. 992 pp. $35

A note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.