The Books of Jacob
The Books of Jacob
By Olga Tokarczuk. Translated by Jennifer Croft (Riverhead Books)
In her strangely immersive historical epic The Books of Jacob, Nobel Prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish-born Catholic turned atheist, dramatizes a slice of Jewish history you almost certainly never learned about in Hebrew school: the true story of the infamous false messiah Jacob Frank (1726-1791). At close to 1,000 pages and divided into seven “books,” this deeply researched tome is fascinating, but not for the faint of heart. Nevertheless, its portrait of a society in upheaval—shown through the eyes of an expansive network of characters—has the power to both enlighten and unnerve, especially in its eerie reflection of the rampant prejudices and inequalities that roil our world today.
The Books of Jacob, first published in Poland in 2014, begins in 1752 in the town of Rohatyn—in what was then Poland but is today Ukraine—with a magic spell cast from an amulet. The amulet had been swallowed by an elderly Jewish women named Yente, who spends the duration of the book in a mystical all-seeing state, hovering over and sometimes commenting on the messianic quests of the different members of her extended family. At the center of her mishpacha is her grandson, Jacob Frank. It is from Yente’s omniscient perspective that we view the devastating poverty, antisemitic persecution and cabalistic yearning for the world beyond that helped render all too appealing—and ultimately appalling—Frank’s transgressive allure.
Tokarczuk describes how Frank preached a redemption that could only be achieved through the defilement of the laws set out in the Torah and the Talmud. “The old rules no longer applied; the commandments we had once followed to the letter had lost their logic,” explains Nahman Samuel ben Levi, Frank’s most ardent supporter and chronicler. Instead, they must be turned inside out. Two examples: feast, rather than fast, on Yom Kippur; upend moral norms by engaging in all manner of sexual misbehavior. In keeping with this world turned upside down (and, perhaps, as a nod to books written in Hebrew), Tokarczuk paginates the book in reverse. The first page of the book is marked as 959; the final page, 1.
For their beliefs, the real-life Frank and his followers were condemned—and excommunicated—by the rabbis as renegade apostates. But that did not deter thousands of Jews from Poland, Greece, Bohemia and Germany from following the charismatic preacher in renouncing Judaism and converting to Catholicism. In a matter of just a few generations, Tokarczuk relates, many of those converts assimilated and melded into Christian society, with their earlier identities forgotten, demonized or hidden from public view.
It is the centuries-long intersection between Jewish and Polish Catholic history that most interests Tokarczuk, and for which the Nobel Prize judges applauded her when she received the 2018 award for her body of work. Among her acclaimed books available in English translation are Flights, a series of vignettes that ruminate on both travel and the human body, for which she became the first Polish winner of the Booker Prize, and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a mystery that was shortlisted for the international award.
In particular, the judges praised her exploration of “the crossing of borders as a form of life”—a citation that highlighted the diverse characters in many of her novels. In The Books of Jacob, they are multicultural by any definition, featuring members not just within the Jewish community but also the Catholic Church, the Polish government and the ruling courts of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, along with representatives of every strata of society.
Such is the globalized world of 18th-century Poland that Tokarczuk recovers from history. It is one in which marketplaces buzz with different languages and where people from diverse backgrounds cannot avoid influencing each other even as they clash, intermingle and sometimes meld with each other.
The book was a best seller in Tokarczuk’s home country, winning Poland’s top literary prize, the Nike Award. However, for some in contemporary Poland, which is now ruled by a populist right-wing government and where anti-immigrant and antisemitic bias is on the rise, the uncovering of this shared Jewish-Polish past was unwelcome. Tokarczuk was sent threats and harassed on social media, and for a time, her publishers had to hire bodyguards to protect her.
Yet such opposition to the truth of history only underscores Tokarczuk’s larger theme: We cannot come to terms with the past until we understand it.
Diane Cole is the author of a memoir, After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, and writes for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications.