Let me start off by saying that I’m becoming a huge fan of Olga Tokarczuk. This book, having taken six or seven years to write, was first published in Poland in 2014, but it wasn’t translated into English until after she’d won the Nobel Prize in 2019. It was finally offered to the English-reading public in 2022 and on the basis of her prior books, Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – I promptly bought it. It took me all of 5 days to read (a rather long time for me) and I should probably do that again but that would be quite a project. It’s a huge book in many ways.
The Books of Jacob
by Olga Tokarczuk
Translator: Jennifer Croft
2014/ 912 pages
read by Allen Lewis Rickman, Gilli Messer
(both read and listened)
It’s a long, lush epic of carefully researched historical fiction. But rather than being a family saga or a biographic novel, it’s more of a “sect” or “cult” novel. It’s based very closely on the life of a real life “prophet,” but it’s still fiction. It’s also a beautifully written, nicely translated, wonderfully narrated and marvelously complex tale of a charismatic leader with hundreds of followers focused on some inner circle leaders and their families. It’s a wonderfully mesmerizing book, but I think it might not be for everyone.
The story is divided into seven basic parts, “The Book of Fog,” “The Book of Sand,” “The Book of The Road,” “The Book of The Comet,” “The Book of The Distant Country,” and “The Book of Names.” This gives the work its title.
Essentially taking place near the Dniester River in central Poland between the 1750s and the 1790s the story extends to the mid-20th century including references to the French Revolution and that aftermath all the way to the end of World War II. Most of the book concerns the period following the echoes of the Counter-Reformation in which the Catholics are still superstitiously focused on maintaining their power by force.
There are dozens of characters living under sometimes tortuous circumstances all bound up with some of the finer points of 18th century Central European Catholicism and Judaism. Because what’s happening is that a group of Jews, dissatisfied with their lot and intrigued by Christianity, has found a leader. He’s one of their own, a traveling prophet from a town not too distant who gathers a number of these people and convinces them to join with him in claiming that he, Jacob Frank, is the new Messiah by way of reincarnation. This makes him the third Messiah starting with Jesus.
This group which had been followers of Tzvi decides to actually join the Christians, at least in appearance, although it’s certainly Frank’s idea. That doesn’t sit very well with most of the non-Frankish Jews so this new group is persecuted from two directions. They go to the Catholics, but there’s not a whole lot of immediate welcoming and Frank, a charismatic and possibly psychopathic personality, spends many years in jail while his followers remain dedicated. And when he gets out he is still most definitely “the Lord.” So, as the author says, “Frank and his followers carried out a multilateral, multifaceted rebellion and fell afoul of everyone.”*
I Googled what I could, names and events, ideas, and only a very few seemed really fictional. Tokarczuk’s book is not as “accurate” as Hillary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” but that’s the general idea. And I don’t think the eponymous Jacob Frank is ever as intimately portrayed as Mantel managed with Thomas Cromwell.
I have to mention the focus which Tokarczuk puts on the women. The book is certainly not about the women but their perspective is vital to the whole story. This is pre-Victorian era so there are really no “strong” women characters are we read about in the 21st century, these women have their place in society and there is really no choice about that. But they certainly are a force of their own with their own ideas and doings. I am really impressed by the way this was done.
As I said, I know I “should” read this again. I got the basics and that’s it. Dwight Garner of the New York Times book reviewer, called it “overwhelming,” and yes, it is rather. It’s also rather “Chaucerian,” as Garner says, continuing his excellent although certainly not glowing review, in that it tells the stories of so many characters.
There are a formidable number of characters, but after awhile, 25%?, the reader knows the main ones. At times there is an omniscient narrator, but at other times various 1st person narrators give their perspectives and an originally living woman named Yenta becomes what Tokarczuk, in an interview, calls a “4th person narrator” – a ghost. There is also a wonderful sly and satirical sense of humor mixed with the darkness of some of it.
In terms of ideas I suppose that this covers it: towards the end, one of the main characters says, “I know there is one God but there a great many ways of believing in him.” But it’s not a philosophical book, most of the action is quite active – this is not The Magic Mountain (Mann).
After the story:
This is an essay by Tokarczuk re her research – this is pretty cool but it can be found other places