Olga Tokarczuk stands as a literary giant. Her latest masterpiece, “The Books of Jacob,” further solidifies her position as a brilliant storyteller and observer of the human condition. In this sprawling historical novel, which takes place in 18th century Poland, Tokarczuk takes readers on a mesmerizing journey. She weaves together a rich tapestry of characters, cultures, and ideas.
At its heart, “The Books of Jacob” is an epic. This is the story of a heretic, Tokarczuk invites readers to immerse themselves in the life of Jakub Frank, a real historical figure who lived in the 18th century. This ambitious novel spans continents and centuries, from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the courts of kings, and from the mystical realms of Kabbalistic thought to the gritty realities of life in the 18th century. Tokarczuk’s meticulous research and vivid prose bring this historical era to life in exquisite detail.
A beautiful example of the detail in this book (it’s also filled with reproductions of maps and engravings from the time period):
“In Polish, he can tell of his childhood in the home of the Kowno stolnik Dominik, Kossakowski’s uncle, who—after the sudden death of both his parents—took him in along with his five brothers. But the uncle was demanding, and ruled his home with an iron fist. When he caught one of his nephews in a lie, or some prevarication, he would backhand him hard. In cases of more severe transgressions (when, for instance, Antoni ate a little honey out of the pot and then, hoping to cover up his crime, added a little water, which spoiled the remainder), he would take out a leather scourge—probably intended for self-flagellation, as the family was very pious—that would slice through the boy’s naked back and buttocks. The most robust of the brothers the uncle prepared for a military career, and the two calmer and more trustworthy ones he sent off to the priesthood, but Antoni wasn’t suited for either. Several times he ran away from home, and the servants would search for him around the village or dig him out of peasants’ barns, where he had cried himself to sleep in the hay. Uncle Dominik’s methods were hard and painful, but at last there came a hope that Antoni might find his place in good society. His influential uncle had, after all, educated him well, and soon he arranged for the fifteen-year-old to take up a position in King Stanisław Leszczyński’s chancellery. He got him the appropriate clothing, bought him a travel case and shoes, sets of undergarments, and a handkerchief, and, so equipped, the boy set off for Warsaw. Once he got there, it turned out no one knew what to do with such a youngster, so he was made to write out copies of documents in his fine hand and to trim the wicks of candles. He told the chancellors that his uncle had found him in the forests of Żmudź, where a she-wolf had raised him for several years, so that he was fluent in the languages of dogs and wolves, and that he was the son of the sultan, begotten when the sultan was traveling incognito to the Radziwiłłs’. When he had had enough of copying out boring reports, he hid a whole folder of them behind a heavy piece of furniture under a window, where, since the panes weren’t fully sealed, they were ruined by damp. There were other offenses, too—schoolboy stuff, like when some older kids got him drunk and left him in a brothel in Powiśle, and he only narrowly escaped with his life, taking three full days to recover. In the end, he took the money he had so unwisely been entrusted with and used it to reign over Powiśle, until what he had left was stolen, and he was beaten up.”
Jakub Frank, the enigmatic protagonist, is a charismatic and complex figure who lead a religious movement that challenged the established order. Tokarczuk skillfully delves into Frank’s psyche, exploring his beliefs, motivations, and the impact of his teachings on his followers. Frank’s character is a compelling blend of charisma and mysticism, making him a captivating focal point for the narrative.
Tokarczuk employs a non-linear narrative structure that seamlessly shifts between multiple perspectives and timelines. While this may pose a challenge to some readers, it ultimately enhances the depth and complexity of the story. Through different voices and viewpoints, the author paints a multifaceted portrait of Jakub Frank’s world and the people who inhabit it.
“The Books of Jacob” is a novel of ideas, and Tokarczuk explores a wide range of themes, from religious fanaticism and the search for meaning to the clash of cultures and the human longing for transcendence. The novel delves into the intricacies of Kabbalistic thought, challenging readers to contemplate profound philosophical questions.
The English translation of “The Books of Jacob” by Jennifer Croft is a triumph in itself. Croft’s translation captures the essence of Tokarczuk’s original prose, allowing readers to fully appreciate the beauty of the author’s language and the depth of her storytelling. The novel’s poetic and lyrical qualities shine through, making it a joy to read.
In “The Books of Jacob,” Olga Tokarczuk has created a literary masterpiece. The novel deserves all the praise its received. With its epic scope, complex characters, and exploration of profound themes, this novel is a testament to Tokarczuk’s unparalleled storytelling prowess. It challenges readers to think deeply about the human condition and the enduring quest for meaning in a tumultuous world.
Whether you are a fan of historical fiction, philosophical exploration, or simply superb storytelling, “The Books of Jacob” is a must-read. Olga Tokarczuk’s narrative prowess and Jennifer Croft’s exceptional translation combine to create an unforgettable reading experience. This novel is a timeless work of art that will leave a lasting impression on anyone who ventures into its pages. “The Books of Jacob” is a literary triumph that deserves a prominent place on your bookshelf and in your thoughts.