Fiction: Olga Tokarczuk ‘The Books of Jacob’ Review

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In 1665, in the Turkish city of Smyrna, an obscure Jewish mystic named Sabbatai Tzvi proclaimed himself the messiah, beginning, in the words of historian Gershom Scholem, “the most important messianic movement in the history of Judaism since the destruction of the Second Temple. “Followers of all ranks across the diaspora embraced his teachings, and although his immediate impact was brief – under threat of execution, Tzvi converted to Islam and ended his life in the disgrace – the apocalyptic ferment spawned successors claiming to embody its spirit and swearing to fulfill its mission. mission. The most successful and outrageous of these pretenders emerged about 100 years later: Jacob Frank, a student of Kabbalist mysticism from a small Polish town whose splinter sect caught the attention of kings and emperors and who died. as a wealthy nobleman in a castle in Germany, surrounded by acolytes.

The Books of Jacob: A Novel

By Olga Tokarczuk

Riverhead Books

992 pages

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Frank’s life and times provide the material for “The Books of Jacob” by Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk. It’s the first of Ms. Tokarczuk’s books to arrive in English since she was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize (it was published in Poland in 2014), and it’s just the kind of dense, monumental work that could help the Swedish Academy restore its rather tattered reputation as an arbiter of serious literature. Spanning the second half of the 18th century and touring Eastern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, the novel recapitulates an astonishing amount of esoteric learning. Ms. Tokarczuk is as comfortable portraying the world of the Jewish peasantry as that of the Polish royal court. And she’s made it even harder for herself – and certainly for her readers – by adopting an experimental narrative technique that moves away from dramatizing historical events to exploring the question of salvation and the perpetual longing for death. humanity.

Frank himself had no doubts about the power of this desire. The novel depicts a brash golden boy anointed in his youth by the elders of a community primed by centuries of suffering and impoverishment to place their hopes in a revolutionary new system. “The Messiah will complete [Tzvi’s] painful journey,” says one believer, “destroying empty worlds from within, reducing dead laws to rubble. The old order must therefore be annihilated, so that the new can prevail. Frank takes up the usual practices of cult leaders – the recitation of prophetic dreams, the laying on of hands, the initiation of exploitative sexual rites. But more than that, the full spiritual renewal mandate gives him the power to overturn millennia of Mosaic law for his own bespoke commandments.

Through the interspersed writings of Frank’s Chief Apostle Nahman, Ms. Tokarczuk delves into the improvised theological foundations of the group that came to be known as the Frankists or Counter-Talmudists. But she is more interested in the resulting political upheavals. Frank’s masterstroke is to incorporate elements of Christianity and Islam into his sect (he officially converted to both), making him an enemy of rabbinical authority and an unlikely bedfellow with the Catholic Church and the ruling aristocracies. More shockingly, he seeks to seal these alliances by bearing witness to the duck of blood libel (the claim that Jews use Christian blood in their rituals), providing new justifications for pogroms and dispossessions.

It makes for an incredibly juicy story of wickedness and intrigue, but the striking thing about “The Books of Jacob” is that Ms. Tokarczuk benefited from almost none of the drama inherent in the story. Most of the novel adopts the bird’s-eye perspective of a very old woman named Yente, who falls into a coma in the early chapters and, in her undead state, becomes “an eye that travels through the ‘space and time’. Omniscient, omnipresent and immutable, Yente observes the hustle and bustle of the Frankist revolt with a masterful indifference (at one point, her gaze is so high that she is looking at the planet itself, which looks like “a freshly baked pea”. Scotland “). The pace of events never slows – there is plague, betrayal, imprisonment, war, exile, death and succession – but their presentation is distant and uninvolved, conveyed in summaries rather than reconstructions undertaken.

The treatment of messianic passions through an attitude of Zen detachment is so ostensibly ironic that it colors every aspect of the novel, making it a curiously abstract historical epic. In Jennifer Croft’s translation – a feat of extraordinary diligence and care – the prose remains courteous and unflappable, whether describing religious ecstasy or sickening violence. On a practical level, this makes reading the novel extremely slow, as there is no momentum or catharsis and little emotional involvement with the characters – who are, after all, only “transient beings and ephemeral” in the enormous panorama of time.

There are, however, important exceptions to the governing impartiality, and they concern the mix of secondary characters who are only briefly or tangentially related to Jacob Frank, and whom Ms. Tokarczuk allows herself to inhabit more intimately. These include Asher Rubin, a skeptical Jewish doctor who marries one of Frank’s abandoned followers; nature poet Elżbieta Drużbacka, who struggles to maintain her belief in the goodness of existence; and, in the romance’s finest depiction, the solitary old vicar Benedykt Chmielowski, who has dedicated his life to writing a key to all mythologies called “New Athens,” which no one reads.

The hidden sub-drama that binds these characters is the power of words, whether in their ability to reveal or conceal, decode or distort, clarify or confuse. If the novel recognizes our intrinsic need for salvation everywhere, it is in the constant need to write and record – the endless pursuit, through the mysteries of language, after revelation. Ms. Tokarczuk jokingly teases doting father Chmielowski, but her challenging and rewarding book is in many ways like hers: encyclopedic, impersonal, immeasurably rich in knowledge, and driven by a faith in the numinous properties of knowledge. We can also imagine her repeating the cri de coeur of the vicar as she persisted in writing: “I often stop to ask myself how to lock her up, how to manage such an Immensity!

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