The Books of Jacob is considered to be Nobel prize winning author, Olga Tokarczuk’s masterpiece. Considering that the I loved the stellar Flights and her ‘light’ novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead , I was eager to see why this hefty 912 page tome has gathered so many accolades.
The titular Jacob is actual historical character Jacob Frank, a religious leader who preached against Jewish beliefs of the time and gathered followers as he travelled from Poland to Turkey and vice versa. Eventually he was proclaimed as the Messiah, only to convert to Christianity. Despite being imprisoned his popularity increased, in his last days he was based in Vienna and his daughter took over the cult.
Since The Books of Jacob is a Tokarczuk novel, things are not as simple. There is a huge cast of characters, whose backstory and connection to Jacob are given at various points in the novel. One such example is the first messiah, Sabbatai Zevi who gets a tiny mention but much later in the book he has a chapter devoted to him. Essentially this is a book to read in big chunks as more connections and backstories are revealed. Think of the book as a flower blooming in slow motion: the more you pay attention, the more it unfolds.
The books of Jacob has a plethora of themes but here are some that stood out:
The idea of Babel and reverse Babel : right from the beginning one of the many characters, a priest called Father Chmielowski approaches a major protagonist Rabbi Elisha Shorr and tries to prove to him that Babel is scientifically incorrect and yet Rabbi Shorr is not understanding him due to the fact that both people speak different languages.
The ‘Babel effect’ occurs throughout the novel. Characters have difficulty in communicating, new dialects spread out. To add to this division, the book takes place during the years 1748 – 1816, a time when Europe was going through many changes: new territories were annexed, some stopped existing, Poland had it’s borders changed, Vienna grew to be the capital. Elsewhere the French revolution took place. All these changes just created more schisms in society and at the same time a more modern era was approaching.
The reverse Babel comes in the form of Jacob Frank; by learning languages and understanding dialects and relating to people’s discontent with the religion they practise, he is uniting. By the mid section of the book Jacob Frank has amassed a substantial cult which continues after his death in 1791.
Treatment of Jews: In The Books of Jacob, we readers see the attitudes towards Jews, they are persecuted, seen as odd, at times they are evicted. Diasporas feature. As far I know this has always been a problem whether it is the crusades or the holocaust. Yet they are the chosen nation and are resilient, waiting for the messiah.
The character of Jacob Frank: This is an interesting one. Is Jacob Frank a tyrant? saviour? or pervert? Are his intentions to change the world? or does he just want to sleep with men and women? Is he a good father and husband? The novel presents all aspects of Frank. it neither glorifies him or makes him out to be a scoundrel. The one thing that we are certain of is that his words manage to attract people and he was looked up to by many of his followers.
There is also a semi mystical element to the book by mentions of Kabbalistic philosophy, debates over the validity of the Holy Trinity and a character whose soul watches over Jacob’s exploits, in fact we readers never see Jacob Frank’s POV, it is always through secondary sources.
The Books of Jacob is not an easy read, due to all the detail . Yet it was a book I found difficult to put down. I had to see the story develop and the more I researched about Jacob Frank, the more I wanted to see how Olga Tokarczuk would develop his character. Plus I just loved how Olga Tokarczuk managed to link all the protagonists destinies cleverly. Definitely kudos to Jennifer Croft for managing translate this awesome tome.
This novel has so much breadth and scope that one cannot help but marvel at it. Ambitious, daring and challenging (in the sense that questions one’s views of history) The Books of Jacob is a piece of work like no other. If one thought that Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy was the definitive historical novel, think again. This is the Burj Khalifa of historical fiction. At this point the only person who I think will be able to overcome this is Olga Tokarczuk herself.