For a self-proclaimed messiah, any twist of fortune can be interpreted as preordained. And, who knows, it might be. At least, that’s the lesson of Jacob Frank, a charismatic 18th-century Polish Jewish mystic, whose real-life rise and fall — along with its dozens of twists along the way — form the heart of Olga Tokarczuk’s massive “The Books of Jacob.” Basing her nearly 1,000-page masterwork on Jacob’s travels, teachings, loves, and political intrigues, the Nobel laureate uses the historical figure as a lens through which to view a world in flux.
Funny, tragic, comprehensive, and at times hilariously graphic, “The Books of Jacob,” spans Eastern Europe, from the Kingdom of Prussia to the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, during the tumultuous second half of the century. The turbulent multicultural nature of this world — so like our own — is apparent from the book’s opening: On a foggy morning in Rohatyn, a backwater market town in Lesser Poland, a priest arrives seeking new books, offering in exchange his own, the encyclopedia “New Athens.” Nearby, a carriage carrying two Catholic women breaks down, all while the Jewish community, roiling from a controversy over a previous supposed messiah, prepares for a wedding.
It’s a messy, fraught world where the Enlightenment is beginning to reshape political consciousness and nations, while trade along with disease, war, and grinding poverty are transforming the many distinct populations within those states. Plagues decimate villages, while personal vendettas — in one notable case, launched by a gambling-addicted bishop — incite massacres. Through it all, Jacob manages to charm and seduce, leading his followers to death as often as to glory. Although Jacob only makes it to Germany at his life’s end — and never to France — he may as well be a follower of Leibniz or Voltaire, living in his best of all possible worlds.
But forget the philosophy. In its wild imaginative reach, “The Books of Jacob” most recalls the contemporaneous works of Laurence Sterne, if Tristram Shandy were a heretical Jewish leader rumored to have two penises. Like Sterne, Tokarczuk plays with form, alternating between epistolary and third-person narratives, first-person “scraps,” and excerpts from books of the period. Even the page numbering is skewed, starting with 963 and working backward to 1, a “nod to books written in Hebrew,” the author explains in a closing note. Presented largely as contemporary commentary, the narrative also switches between characters (often historical figures) with wildly different perspectives and priorities, including that of Yente, an old woman who, thanks to a Kabbalist charm, cannot die and who spends at least a century observing from above with growing detachment. The one point of view never presented is Jacob’s. In fact, he doesn’t make his first appearance for over 100 pages, and he remains an enigma to the end.
Tokarczuk’s writing, translated from the Polish (the book was first published in Poland in 2014), is both earthy and ethereal. Colloquial about bodily functions and desires — “I’d run her up the flagpole, that pretty little Polish thing” — it can be gorgeous in its detail. When a comet resembling “a scythe aimed at humanity, a naked glistening blade that might slice off millions of heads at any moment,” prompts apocalyptic fears, for example, Yente is more interested in “the countless humble human things that make up the warp of the world.” Looking down at a village, she sees “People take one another’s hands, then let go to eat from a single bowl, halving their bread. Steam rises from the kasha that fathers tenderly spoon into the mouths of the children sitting in their laps.” Throughout, humanity perseveres: During one rough patch when Jacob is imprisoned, a young woman is betrothed, musing: “they have to go on living and marrying and bearing children. That cannot be avoided. Life is fierce, like a flood, like a powerful current of water — you cannot oppose it.”
Dense and rich, at times the book can be overwhelming. As the narrative zigzags between places and perspectives, especially as Jacob’s followers convert and assume gentile names, it is easy to get lost. Perhaps the best way to appreciate this doorstop is to follow one of the many themes that weave through its pages. There’s the paradigm of the messiah, fated to undergo drastic vicissitudes, culminating in (spoiler alert) betrayal by a beloved disciple. The antisemitic blood libel is another recurring motif, despite — by the time of the events in this book — having been denounced as unfounded by the pope. Another is the fictionalized appearance of actual writers of the time, from Nahman ben Levi, who secretly recorded Jacob’s teachings, to Father Chmielowski and his “New Athens” and Aleksander Bronikowski/Julian Brinken, whose unpublished novel about Frank Jacob prompts a deliciously self-referential dialogue: “‘Is all this true? … ‘Madam, it is a novel. It is literature.’ ‘What does that mean? … Is it true or not?’” Female spirits reappear throughout as well, in both references to the Shekhinah, a Jewish concept of a divine presence, and her Christian cognate, the Virgin Mary, and, of course, Yente, watching over her descendants.
This latter motif is key, because although the book is centered around the unknowable — and at times unlikable — Jacob, it is peopled by women of deceptive, often hidden, strength. Not only Yente, whose death-defying act takes place quietly in the prologue, but Gitla/Gertruda, Jacob’s one-time bodyguard; Eva, Jacob’s long-suffering daughter; the Polish Katarzyna Kossakowska, Jacob’s unlikely champion; and the poet Elżbieta Drużbacka, whose correspondence with Chmielowski provides a running commentary on philosophy and the arts. It is these women, joined at the very end by Czarna, a descendent of Yente’s, and ultimately, briefly, by the author herself who drive “The Books of Jacob.” Together, they imbue this sprawling work with “the eternal mysteries of light” — that is, the profoundly moving, cumulative force of life.
THE BOOKS OF JACOB
By Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)
Riverhead Books, 992 pages, $35
Clea Simon is the author, most recently, of “Hold Me Down.” She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.