A Magnum Opus

2018 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Olga Tokarczuk was born to humble beginnings. Having teachers as parents helped mold her progressive intellect, a key in the cultivation of her interest in literature at a young age. Although she would initially pursue a career in psychology, Tokarczuk would return to her true calling, writing, with the publication of her first work, a poetry collection, in 1989. Four years later, her first novel, Podróż ludzi księgi (The Journey of the Book-People) was published to critical acclaim, winning the Polish Publisher’s Prize for best debut. It was, however, her third novel Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times, 1996) that firmly established her as a rising star in Polish literature.

Despite being a household name in her homeland, Tokarczuk was relatively unknown to the rest of the world. That was until 2017, when her 2007 novel, Bieguni, was translated to English. Published as Flights, the novel received critical acclaim and went on to win the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, making Tokarczuk the first Polish writer to win the prestigious literary award. Tokarczuk’s international fame took an upward trajectory. There was no turning back, and, in 2019, Tokarczuk was announced as the winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature. She was lauded by the Swedish Academy for her “narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” The Swedish Academy has also singled out Ksiegi Jakubowe as her magnum opus.

Tokarczuk’s ninth novel, Ksiegi Jakubowe was originally published in Polish in 2014. However, it would take seven years before the book would be made available to the English-speaking audience. Superbly translated by Jennifer Croft, the same translator who worked on Flights, the book was finally released in late 2021 as The Books of Jacob. The novel captured the remarkable emergence of a religious movement in 18th-century Eastern Europe, particularly the border between Ukraine and Poland. At the heart of this religious movement was the eponymous Jacob Frank, a controversial but charismatic religious leader, and mystic.

“Some people have a sense of unearthly things, just as others have an excellent sense of smell or hearing or taste. They can feel the subtle shifts in the great and complicated body of the world. And some of these have so honed that inner sight that they can even tell where a holy spark has fallen, notice its glow in the very place you would least expect it. The worse the place, the more fervently the spark gleams, flickers – and the warmer and purer is its light.”

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

In over a thousand pages divided into seven books, The Books of Jacob chronicled the life and times of Frank and his followers. Born Jacob Leybowicz in 1726 in Berezanka or Korolowka, Galicia in present-day Ukraine, Jacob Frank was raised in a Polish-Jewish household. Before becoming a religious leader, he worked as a merchant, traveling all over the Balkans and other Ottoman territories to trade textile and precious stones. It was through his forays that he met followers of Sabbatai Zevi, a self-proclaimed 17th century Messiah. His father was also a Sabbatean. These meetings eventually led to intimate friendships with the leaders of the movement. In the early 1750s, he proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Sabbatai Zevi. He also claimed to be the reincarnation of the Biblical patriarch Jacob. With his pronouncement, the number of his followers and disciples started to grow exponentially.

The exponential growth of Frank’s followers resulted in the birth of a Judaist sect called Frankism. The Frankists are antirabbinical by nature, and they refused to conform to the traditional teachings of Judaism. In its stead, they sought a higher Torah, the Jewish Law, based on the Zohar. The Zohar is a 13th-century book and is considered to be the most important text of Jewish mysticism or Kabbala. Frankists are also referred to as Zoharists. While he fought for the rights of Jews, Frank’s teachings promoted the idea that some individuals are exempted from moral laws. Days for fasting were turned into feasts. Orgiastic promiscuous rites and the breaking of dietary taboos were encouraged. These breaches of moral boundaries and norms led the Jewish community to ban the Frankists, calling them heretics.

A Labyrinthine Masterpiece

On the surface, Frank and his followers were the focus of the narrative. However, Tokarczuk, being the brilliant writer that she is, did not reduce her work into a mere exploration of a singular group, individual, or religion. An epic, The Books of Jacob is a literary masterpiece with several layers and facets. The Nobel Laureate in Literature provided her readers a vast and lush landscape. It covered three major religions and several minor sects. It was also peripatetic by nature, transporting the readers to various cities, towns, and villages in present-day Turkey, Greece, Austria, and Germany. The novel’s labyrinthine portrait was reflected in its equally fascinating albeit lengthy alternative title:

A fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages, and three major religions, not counting the minor sects.
Told by the dead, supplemented by the author, drawing from a range of books and aided by imagination, the which being the greatest natural gift of any person.
That the wise might have it for a record, that my compatriots reflect, laypersons gain some understanding and melancholy souls obtain some slight enjoyment.

Encyclopedic is but one adjective that can be used to describe the hefty The Books of Jacob. Juxtaposed to Jacob’s story is a wealth of historical information, and details. The plights and history of Eastern European Jewry were extensively dealt with in the novel. Tokarczuk vividly captured seminal events of the era, including plagues, pogroms, and wars. As Jacob journeys across Ukraine and Poland and across seven borders, the readers get to witness the political and philosophical transformation taking place all over Europe. While Englightenment emerged late in Poland, it nonetheless ushered in diversification to every level of society. As depicted by the story of Jacob and his disciples, various ideas, from the liberal to the conservative to the outright brazen, have trickled into religion, people, and even ideas.

“To be foreign is to be free. To have a great expanse strectch out before you – the desert, the steppe. To have the shape of the moon behind you like a cradle, the deafening symphony of the cicadas, the air’s fragrance of melon peel, the rustle of the scarab beetle when, come evening, the sky turns red, and it ventures out onto the sand to hunt. To have your own history, not for everyone, just your wn history written in the tracks you leave behind.”

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

Tokarczuk painted a picture of Poland where various ethnicities from different religions coexisted. Historical figures, from rabbis to priests to Austrian and Polish aristocrats, populated the story. One prominent historical figure is Father Benedykt Chmielowski. The first book, The Book of Fog, commenced in 1752 in Rohatyn, a city in present-day western Ukraine, the same year Father Chmielowski acquired the city’s clergy house. Father Chmielowski is credited for writing Nowe Ateny (New Athens), widely regarded to be the first Polish-language encyclopedia, and the product of his pursuit to make information available to everyone. The novel’s alternative title is a nod to the extended title of the encyclopedia: “New Athens or the Academy full of all science, divided into subjects and classes, for the wise ones to record, for the idiots to learn, for the politicians to practice, for the melancholics to entertain . . .

The Books of Jacob is a labyrinth of ideas. It is rich in discourses that cover a vast terrain of subjects, and themes. With the intersection of three major religions, the novel was brimming with discourses on theology and religion. The Kabbalah was repeatedly referred to. Diplomatic history was also captured by the novel. This lush landscape was reminiscent of Tokarczuk’s Booker International Prize-winning novel, Flights. Tokarczuk also grappled with familiar and profound themes such as the meaning of life and the birth of ideas. While Jacob’s actions were viewed as heretical by Jews, his actions also remind us that norms and dogmas can be challenged, hence, paving the way for new ideas. Contrary to how we see and understand things, perspectives are not monochromatic or linear. Tokarczuk’s refusal to conform to literary norms is one manifestation of this idea. The novel’s reverse pagination, starting from the last page, was another Jewish reference but, at the same time, it was a nod to Jacob’s idea.

Messianic Complex

The concept of Messiah, which takes Jewish origin, was one of the most prevalent themes in the novel. Under the gaze of their followers, the Messiahs are viewed as the spiritual leaders of a new world order. History is jotted with several individuals who claimed to be a Messiah, and with their charisma and flowery words, they were able to convert throngs of skeptics into their acolytes and followers. Tokarczuk’s fellow Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Mario Vargas Llosa also wrote about a Messiah, Antônio Conselheiro, in his novel, The War of the End of the World.

But while he was the novel’s core, Tokarczuk studied him from a distance. Nevertheless, his profile was constructed brick by brick through the testimonies of those who surrounded him, both of his supporters and of the cynics. Their perspectives provided intimate glimpses into the interiors of Jacob. His charisma overflowed. He was able to command attention with his presence. He has an insatiable sexual appetite. He can be viewed as a lot of things – a mystic, a revolutionary, even as an opportunistic con man. Despite the details provided by those around him, we still see an individual who was shrouded by a veil of mystery. Establishing Jacob as a charlatan or a real Messiah was rarely the story’s concern.

Genre-Bending

With the discussion focusing on Jacob, it is easy to picture the novel as linear and formulaic. This would have been the safest route any typical writer would take. But Tokarczuk is no typical writer. Through her previous works, she has continuously demonstrated her boldness as a writer. She refuses to be bound by literary norms. She thrives in literary chaos and idiosyncrasy, as two of her most accessible works in English, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Flights, have evinced. The same level of chaos permeated in The Books of Jacob. The intricacies of these three novels showed a visionary writer while at the same time showcasing different dimensions of her prose. Each had its own character but Tokarczuk’s command still loomed.

“To be impatient means never really living, being always in the future, in what will happen, but which is after all not yet here. Do not impatient people resemble spirits who are never here in this place, and now, in this very moment, but rather sticking their heads out of life like those wanderers who supposedly, when they found themselves at the end of the world, just looked onward, beyond the horizon? What did they see there? What is it that an impatient person hopes to glimpse?”

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob

Akin to Flights, The Books of Jacob abandoned linearity. It was episodic, a tapestry of patches carefully woven together under Tokarczuk’s astute storytelling. Traditional storytelling was integrated with epistolary form as the novel was interspersed with diary entries and correspondences. Adding to the chaos at play are three distinct narrative voices. The most dominant voice was an omniscient narrator. It was accentuated by first-person reminiscences of Nahman, a literary rabbi who was one of Jacob’s most devout acolytes. Floating around the seams of the novel was the voice of Yente, Jacob’s grandmother. On her deathbed, Yente was presented with a Kabbalist amulet that allowed her to live longer, albeit as a disembodied spirit. Yente, in a state of coma, was “a witness, an eye that travels through space and time”, and provided the novel an air of magical realism.

The novel’s heft makes it daunting but beyond its physical appearance, the novel is immersive. But if there was one scintillating facet to the novel that needs underscoring, it would be its plenitude of details. It was astounding how Tokarczuk captured quotidian spectacles. The descriptive nature of the prose made objects like Turkish tobaccos, embroideries, and the kitchen the subject of attention. One can get lost in this detailed world. Cultural touchstones like fairy tales and dances also added texture to the narrative. At times, these details come across as excessive – Tokarczuk was relentless in providing details – but they also demonstrated the writer’s extensive research. The novel was accentuated with maps, pictures, and newspaper clippings, further underlining the author’s level of research. It was the product of hard labor that took Tokarczuk at least seven years to complete.

A Literary Titan

Like most works of literature, The Books of Jacob had its flaws. The earlier part of the novel was preoccupied with capturing the landscape and the atmosphere. But these are secondary to what Tokarczuk has achieved with her novel. The novel earned Tokarczuk her second Nike Prize. Despite being warmly received by literary pundits and readers, the book made Tokarczuk the center of controversy in her homeland. Right-wing nationalists were critical of her highlighting the discriminations perpetrated by the Catholics against Jews. The diverse world that she has portrayed was also a contradiction to the homogenous identity that Poland projected itself since the end of the Second World War. For these, she was called a “targowiczanin” – an old word for traitor. With the proliferation of internet harassment and even death threats, her publisher had to hire bodyguards to protect her.

It was the very same work she was criticized for in her homeland that she was lauded for by the rest of the world. Her willingness to study her nation’s history made The Books of Jacob a stellar work of historical fiction. By chronicling the story of a Messiah, Tokarczuk conjured a world that was hopelessly clinging to certainty. But as The Books of Jacob, and even history itself, has underscored, nothing is ever fixed, including identities, religious dogmas, and physical boundaries. We inhabit a world that continuously shifts. This makes the novel resonate in the contemporary. Limits, whether physical or intellectual, existed to be breached and breach them Tokarczuk did by weaving a rich tapestry that was brimming with vivid details of diverse cultures, religions, and ideas. The Books of Jacob was lush and complex but at the same time remarkable and highly immersive.

Recently longlisted for the 2022 Booker International Prize, The Books of Jacob rightly deserved to be called the Nobel Laureate in Literature’s best work, to date, while establishing Tokarczuk as a literary titan.

“If human beings had only known how to truly preserve their knowledge of the world, if they had just engraved it into rock, into crystals, into diamond and in so doing, passed it on to their descendants, then perhaps the world would now look altogether otherwise. For what are we to do with such a brittle stuff as paper? What can come of writing books?”

~ Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob
Ratings

95%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 
27%
Writing (25%) – 
25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

Olga Tokarczuk is certainly growing on me. After reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Flights, I knew I am hooked although I, honestly, wasn’t planning on reading The Books of Jacob this early. I guess I was not yet prepared to read what the Swedish Academy has cited as her best work to date. It was daunting. But with many readers equally excited to read the book, might as well dig in. With its intricate details, the novel requires patience. Compounded with its heft, these two facets can easily turn off any reader but give it time to develop and one will find himself or herself swept away. No superlative can express how much in awe I am of the book although I have to admit that it is not for everyone. It can be inhospitable at times. While I love the novel, even better than the first two novels by Tokarczuk I read, I am reluctant to recommend it as a primer to Tokarczuk’s prose. However, for those who want to experience her prose, I recommend that they start with Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

Book Specs

Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Translator (from Polish): Jennifer Croft
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 961
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

In the mid-eighteenth century, as a new unrest begins to sweep Europe, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell. In the decade to come, he and his increasingly fervent followers will crisscross the Habsburg and Ottoman empires as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then to Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic one moment, hailed as the Messiah the next – all amid rumors of his sect’s secret rituals and radical beliefs. The story of Rank, a real historical figure around whom mystery and controversy swirl to this day, is an ideal canvas for Olga Tokarczuk’s genius and unparalleled reach. Narrated through the perspectives of his contemporaries – those who revere him, those who revile him, the friend who betrays him, the lone woman who sees him for what he is – The Books of Jacob captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.

About the Author

To learn more about the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Olga Tokarczuk, click here.