Friday, December 3

Olga Tokarczuk’s Jacob’s Books Review: The Story of a Messiah | Olga Tokarczuk

During the 18th century, in the border areas between present-day Ukraine and Poland, an extraordinary religious movement emerged. It was a Jewish heresy invented by a man named Jacob Frank, “the most gruesome and strange figure in the entire history of Jewish messianism,” according to Israeli scholar Gershom Scholem. Frank claimed that the end of time had come and that conventional morality must be changed. He boasted of desecrating the Torah with his bare buttocks, encouraged his followers to break all kinds of sexual and dietary taboos, and eventually persuaded many of them to be baptized in the Christian church. His many disciples worshiped him as a prophet and wrote his visions and statements in a book called The Words of the Lord.. Sample excerpt: “In a dream I saw a very old woman, 1500 years old. His hair was white as snow; brought me 2 silver belts and a walachian sausage. I bought him one and stole the other. “

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Charismatic, transgressive, and downright insane, Frank is portrayed today as a mix of Osho’s Monty Python, David Koresh, and Mormon leader Joseph Smith, but he was highly influential in his day. Furthermore, the course of his turbulent 80-year life coincided with enormous political and philosophical changes in Europe, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth collapsed and traditional religious beliefs were usurped by rival claims of science.

Jacob’s books by Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk is an epic chronicle of the life and times of Frank and his followers. At over a thousand pages, packed with history and incidents, it is vast enough to make this reader’s knees buckle. As crowded as a Bruegel painting, it moves from the mud-surrounded Galician villages to Greek monasteries, 18th-century Warsaw, Brno, Vienna, and the luxurious surroundings of the Habsburg court. It encompasses esoteric theological arguments, diplomatic history, alchemy, Kabbalah, Polish anti-Semitism, and the philosophical roots of the Enlightenment. It is a dauntingly ambitious work and one of the responses it arouses is simply astonishment at the patience and tenacity that went into its construction.

English-speaking readers will have come across Tokarczuk’s writing in the two previous novels of his also published by Fitzcarraldo. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the most accessible of his books, it’s a black murder mystery set in rural Poland; Flights, which won the Booker International award, is a collection that invites reflection on philosophical oddities about travel, time, history and dislocation. Both difficult-to-classify books are given coherence by the author’s biting and idiosyncratic personality looming over them.

Dense, captivating and strange, The Books of Jacob it is on a different scale than any of these. That it is a visionary novel that conforms to a particular notion of a masterpiece: long, arcane, and at times bleak. Tokarczuk is wrestling with the most important philosophical issues: the purpose of life on earth, the nature of religion, the possibility of redemption, the tense and terrible history of the Jews of Eastern Europe. With its formidable insistence on depicting an alien world in as much detail as possible, the novel reminded me at times of Paradise Lost.. The vividness with which it is done is amazing. On a micro level, he sees things with a poetic freshness. Here’s a small example: When two of Frank’s followers bow to the Habsburg emperor, “Eva and Anusia’s dresses wither when they crouch.” There is a haiku-like density to this image of large formal dresses losing their structure, and this minute degree of observation is consistently maintained throughout the book.

Another writer could have told this story from Frank’s birth and followed the twists and turns of his calling and ministry in a linear fashion. That is not the Tokarczuk style. Like flights, Jacob’s books it is a mosaic of scenes and voices, pictures and fragments, interpolations of Jacob’s followers, images and maps of contemporary documents. (And by the way, the pages are numbered backwards in a nod to the Hebrew convention and the reversal of values ​​that the impending millennium entails.)

The dominant voice of the novel is that of its omniscient narrator, who writes in majestic prose in the present tense about the spiritual crises of his characters: “At this moment, Antoni Kossakowski realizes that the wailing roar of the sea is a lament and that all of nature is participating in this process of mourning for those gods of whom the world has been so desperately in need. There is nobody here. God created the world and the effort to do so killed it. Kossakowski had to come here to understand this. “

Interspersed in the narrative are first-person reminiscences of Nahman, one of Frank’s followers, who ends up playing the role of Judas before his messiah, as well as letters between a Polish noblewoman and a bibliophile Catholic priest, Father Chmielowski, who wrote the first. Polish Encyclopedia, The New Athens. Readers of Flights will know that this is one of Tokarczuk’s two favorite books. (The other, tellingly, is Moby-Dick.) Throughout history floats the disembodied spirit of Yente, Jacob’s grandmother, trapped between life and death by a cabalistic spell, and witness to the long and bloody history of the Jews in Poland until the 20th century.

Although he is in the center of the book, the eponymous Jacob does not appear in the novel for more than a hundred pages, and he remains a mysterious figure whom we see in flashes of diverse intimacy. It would be easy to portray him as a charlatan and opportunist: his control over his disciples is disconcerting and his sexual behavior is exploitative. But Tokarczuk, an atheist, allows him his charisma, his sincerity, and he is clearly fascinated by spiritual and worldly journeys. of his followers in real life (some ended up amassing huge fortunes and playing important roles in European history). During the 30 or so years that most of the action encompasses, we see these characters grow old, time pass, and the world around them undergo enormous changes.

Tokarczuk has written in Flights about the theological concept of contuition, the ability to see divine unity in disparate things, and that is the artistic logic behind this book. The reader’s task is to deduce a higher order from the mosaic of scenes and fragments. It takes patience, and I’m not sure I’d recommend that newcomers to Tokarczuk’s work start here. But The Books of Jacob, which is so demanding and yet has a lot to say about the issues that plague our time, will be a milestone in the life of any reader with the appetite to tackle it.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Jacob Books, translated by Jennifer Croft, are published by Fitzcarraldo. To support the Guardian and Observer, request your copy at Shipping charges may apply.

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