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The Maybe-Messiah and His Grandmother’s Ghost: On Olga Tokarczuk’s ‘The Books of Jacob’

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At last, it has arrived. Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s dark star epic, The Books of Jacob, has been released in English with Jennifer Croft’s stunning translation. For Ms. Tokarczuk’s English-speaking readers, The Books of Jacob has long hovered on the horizon, promising the full realization of the powerful and idiosyncratic vision we’ve encountered in books such as Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. That her Nobel nomination was rumored to be greatly based on the accomplishments of this book has only magnified the anticipation. And now, it is here.

The Books of Jacob is a singular, anomalous work, a massive novel overwhelmingly researched and intricately plotted. Rife with paradoxes, the book is a fictional rendering of factual events centered around a controversial and fascinating figure named Jacob Frank who instigated a largely forgotten religious movement in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 18th century. Though it is an unabashed epic in scope—a book that luxuriates in detail—it is not a slog. In fact, it moves briskly, its tone often leaning toward satire but never sacrificing its humanity, tragic sensibilities, or deep sense of mystery.

The novel portrays the life of Jacob Frank, as seen through the eyes of those surrounding him, opening first with the story of one Father Chmielowski, a Catholic priest who “knows the world only through books” and has written an encyclopedic volume titled New Athens, “a compendium of knowledge of the sort that could be found in every home.” Father Chmielowski breaks from custom to borrow books from a prominent Jewish businessman named Elisha Shorr, and their interaction hints at an alternate reality that could have unfolded between their Catholic and Jewish communities. And, in another turn of imagined reality, Tokarczuk portrays the fictionalized meeting—and subsequent friendship—of real-world poet Elżbieta Drużbacka and Father Chmielowski. These quiet and mutually edifying interactions—first between a Catholic man and a Jewish man and then between a man and a woman—serve as an ironically peaceful false start. For, after this, things turn strange.

At the Shorr’s house, Frank’s ailing grandmother Yente has swallowed an amulet intended to keep her from dying during an upcoming wedding and “is surprised to discover that she can easily slide out of her body and be suspended over it; she looks right at her own face, fallen and pale, a strange feeling, but soon she floats away, gliding along on the drafts of air, on the vibrations of sound, passing without difficulty through wooden walls and doors.” She floats through the story while the family is now burdened with a body that refuses to die. Yente provides bird’s-eye witness to public and private acts alike, her presence interpolated at pivotal moments with gentle reminders: “Yente, who sees all,” “Yente, who is never far.”

Providing a counterpoint to Yente’s detached witness is Nahman, a rabbi and Jacob Frank’s troubled biographer whose writings intersperse the main narrative with gospel-like first-hand accounts. Nahman, who was raised in a milieu peopled by “Kabbalists with clouded eyes,” shadows his enigmatic acquaintance in Smyrna, where he witnesses his beginnings as an indomitable and confident religious rebel. Born Yankiele Leybowicz, he renames himself Frank, which “means foreign. Nahman knows Jacob likes this.” In fact, Tokarczuk tells us, “in every language Jacob speaks you can detect a foreign accent.”

Jacob Frank “always has the garland of an audience around him,” and yet “you can’t tell if he’s actually joking in what he says or being serious. He looks you straight in the eye, says a sentence like he’s firing a shot, and then waits for a reaction.” Nahman muses that “prophets must come from elsewhere, must suddenly appear, seem strange, out of the ordinary. Be shrouded in mystery…” This otherworldly man, it begins to occur to those around him, may be the long-awaited Messiah. His brazen assuredness is mesmerizing, if perplexing, and he comes to be called “the Lord” by his increasing throng of followers.

Mainline and esoteric Abrahamic theologies alike are utterly malleable in Jacob’s hands and conflations abound. “In this religion of the end of days,” we are told, “all three religions will be braided into one.” In this way, Frank recalls Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century messiah claimant who notoriously converted to Islam to escape death. Jacob Frank is Jewish but, after arriving in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, he continues to dress in a fashion associated with Islam. Eventually, he persuades his Jewish followers to be baptized into the Catholic faith, to the shock of all. And, upon being baptized, Frank’s faithful are assigned new “Christian” names, which results in confusion for Frankists and readers alike.

With each theological development, the central question deepens: does he intend to truly reunite the three Abrahamic faiths, or does he simply use conversion as a means to better navigate the local social structures? It is not so easy to say: again and again, he is regularly overcome with ecstatic visions and seems to possess inexplicable power. His followers know that they defy him at their peril, and the surrounding Jewish and Catholic communities struggle to understand what is happening. And, all the while, ethereal Yente looks on.

As the novel progresses, Frank takes on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh-esque dimensions. In his system, “divinity and sinfulness are everlastingly connected.” Religious rite and convention are abandoned, and rumors of sexually-charged secret rituals are confirmed in a bizarre ceremony wherein Frank’s cousin Hayah, who also seems in possession of unexplained power, is presented half naked to a group of men—including several family members. Supposedly, “the Torah itself has entered… Hayah; that is what beams out now through her skin.” Throughout the book, Frank attempts to elevate femininity conceptually to actually subjugate the women around him. Thus, women remain at his beck and call—to the point that, when he falls ill, he demands to be nursed with breast milk.

“The Lord” revises theological and social norms to maintain purchase upon his followers. The inherent slipperiness of his mystical outlook provides a convenient framework to contain the cognitive dissonance required to follow his leadership. He presents himself as both cunning and aloof. Even when tried for heresy by the Catholic church, Frank neither refutes nor acknowledges claims that he believes himself to be the Messiah.

As the book continues, Frank’s obstacles become numerous, yet he always manages to emerge victorious. He escapes betrayal, a life sentence to prison, war, massive debts, and the trouble brought on by his ever-precarious position. Through it all, “Jacob’s spirits were not dampened… On the contrary: this chaos was giving him strength.”

However, not all of the chaos remains in his control: the book portrays the evolution of the previously insular setting as it becomes increasingly exposed to what lies beyond its borders: Descartes, Paraguay, Africa, Alaska, Canada, hurricanes, Kant, Mozart. Foreshadowing the Holocaust, a Catholic priest, annoyed with the Jewish community, longs to do “something decisive, irreversible.” And toward the novel’s close come reckonings with the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic wars. The world that produced “the Lord” is changing, and the relative (though imperfect) calm he has exploited is disappearing.

With The Books of Jacob, Olga Tokarczuk has performed an incredible reversal: while the real-life Frank fabricated to conceal, Tokarczuk has invented to reveal. Through the use of fiction, Tokarczuk fleshes out what has been lost to history through a portrayal replete with beautiful period illustrations, the ghostly presence of a forgotten woman who cannot quite die, and a cacophonous ecosystem of characters. Especially moving are the closing portrayals of the characters that have been most used by Frank: Eva, his daughter and heir-apparent; Hayah, his cousin; and Nahman, his devoted apostle. To name just a few.

The Books of Jacob is a sui generis work that presents a beautifully nuanced take upon belief. Lesser writers incorporating this almost unbelievable set of real-life events into fiction would have likely veered into easy mockery and dismissal. As Frank’s health deteriorates and his tenure as the “maybe-Messiah” comes to a close, Tokarczuk’s narrative gracefully considers the legacy of the Frankists. Jacob was an extraordinary swindler, but was there any part of his life that deserves our pity? His followers may have been naïve and beguiled, but was it so wrong to hope for more than the world had so far offered them? In the end, The Books of Jacob provides narrative closure but few answers. Like Yente, we are left hovering in consideration over this beautiful and dizzying book that will almost certainly become a defining work of its generation.

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