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How Olga Tokarczuk Finds Possibility in the Past

Her encyclopedic historical novel “The Books of Jacob” takes us to a world before nationalism.

Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Getty
Polish Nobel Prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk

You probably don’t know this, and I didn’t either, but it turns out that in eighteenth-century Poland there lived a Jewish heretic named Jacob Frank. The origins of this Frank are murky, but at some point he acquired several thousand followers and traveled with those followers through what are now the nations of Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and Turkey. After the Frankists came into conflict with other Jewish sects, they converted to Catholicism, which at first earned them the favor of the Polish royalty but later landed Frank in a monastery prison. He remained in prison for 13 years until the Russians invaded and released him, then he moved to what is now the Czech Republic and joined the court of the young Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. When the emperor tired of him, Frank and his followers moved again and took up residence in the German barony of Offenbach, where Frank died several years later.

The Books of Jacob: A Novel
by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft
Riverhead Books, 992 pp., $35.00

The saga of the Frankists, which would occupy no more than a footnote in most histories of Europe, provides novelist Olga Tokarczuk with the material for an epic called The Books of Jacob. Even to the average bookstore buyer, who will not receive from the publisher a “Reader’s Guide” to the novel along with her review copy, the book announces itself as an encyclopedic affair. It is one thousand pages long. It is paginated in reverse to mimic the way Hebrew is read. There are hundreds of chapter headings, dozens of illustrations, several poems, and a map.

The book traces the rise and fall of the Frankists more or less as one would encounter it in an archive: Tokarczuk leaps from letters to diary entries to travelogues to character sketches, sometimes giving two or three characters’ perspectives on the same event. We watch—sometimes from close up and sometimes from very far away—Jacob bring together a cast of disciples from across the multiethnic landscape of Eastern Europe and lead these disciples on a flight from various persecutions. Tokarczuk revives the bygone, borderless world of the eighteenth century not to teach us something about the world of the present but to create a kind of instructive disorientation: This is the world before nationalism, before religious and linguistic consolidation, before identity hardened into something concrete and immutable. This world is low-lit and chaotic, ruled jointly by the unnatural and the supernatural.

Defamiliarization is Tokarczuk’s stock-in-trade, and here it serves a political purpose. She intends her multiethnic Europe to undermine the self-perception of the present-day continent, a collective of nation states where many people view themselves as separate from the poorer and browner remainder of the world. The novel is a kind of metaphysical dunk tank, a means to immerse the reader in the unusual and obscure—it tries to evoke a new awareness of how much in our contemporary world is historically contingent. It’s an ambitious premise, and the resulting narrative lacks the emotional handholds that help such lessons land. It’s easy to understand why someone might want to try a dunk tank, but there are many moments here when one wants to come up for air and dry off.

The Books of Jacob is a weird book. It reads like something Hilary Mantel might produce if you trapped her in a Polish cave, or the book Helen DeWitt might write if she lost a bet. Tokarczuk is baggy, profuse, and unembarrassed about being either. She toggles between perspectives every chapter, or even mid-chapter, and toggles between registers even more often than that. There are extensive digressions on the tripartite nature of God, the merits of Latin prose, and the ecology of the Dniester River.

Tokarczuk’s other novels display this eclectic tendency, but they don’t go quite as far. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a murder mystery saturated with images of dead game animals and swarming beetles, but it’s also a novel about being on the outside of an insular and masculine social world. The fragmented Flights contains extensive sections about human anatomy and about the disembodied heart of the composer Frédéric Chopin, but its longest and most memorable section is about a man who loses track of his family while traveling in modern-day Greece.

That undercurrent of pathos is not present in The Books of Jacob. Tokarczuk sketches the outlines of a few characters but doesn’t present them with any psychological depth. There’s a religious scribe named Nahman of Busk, who functions as Jacob’s amanuensis and whose diary entries depict a man struggling with the idea that enlightenment might not really be all that useful. There’s Asher Rubin, a lovelorn eye doctor who takes in a runaway from the Frankist sect after Jacob impregnates her. The most compelling character, a vicar in a small Polish village, has no real connection to the Frankist saga, but he does carry on a quasi-romantic correspondence with a smart-mouthed poet, and Tokarczuk renders their courteous letters to perfection.

Jacob Frank and his family are inscrutable by design. The reader sees Jacob getting massive erections during spiritual seances, slapping around his underlings when they fail him, and having sex with a harem of young women, but Tokarczuk doesn’t spend much time showing what it is that attracts his followers to his sect. The same goes for his daughter Eva, whose romantic prospects are a main focus of the novel’s second half—the narrator tells us time and time again that everyone thinks she’s hot, but we never learn much about what she’s actually like. Swirling around Jacob in the meantime are dozens of undifferentiated disciples, whose names Tokarczuk often rattles off as though she were taking attendance: “When [Eva Jezierzanska] goes back to Warsaw,” she writes at one point, “her duties are taken over by Jacob Zalewski, the younger Dembowski’s son-in-law. The Czerniawskis, meanwhile, are in charge of finances. Their son, Antoni, is [Jacob’s] secretary, along with Yeruchim Dembowski.” You get the idea. It doesn’t help that everyone changes names halfway through, once they get baptized.

One ends up feeling the same way Tokarczuk must have felt as she sifted through several libraries’ worth of historical documentation: You see the same names popping up over and over again, and sometimes you even get a direct indication of how certain people were feeling at certain times, but the characters don’t appear on the page as characters. Granted, all novels require their readers to imagine real-life people based on limited textual material, but most of them try to meet their reader halfway. Here, though, there’s some assembly required, at least when it comes to the inner circle of heretics we are led to believe the book is about.

The strange effect of this central absence is that the narrative seems to grow more vivid the further it strays from the story of Frank and the Frankists. The opening chapter follows the aforementioned vicar through the damp, unenlightened village of Rohatyn, showing his progress through the Jewish ghetto and into the warrenlike house of a local rabbi. The episode at the court of Joseph II features marvelous descriptions of imperial Vienna, including of a tour through the emperor’s Wunderkammer museum: “He leads them among the vitrines, where he has collected the bones of ancient animals and the giants who evidently once roamed the earth … he takes them to the shelves where human embryos float in murky liquid inside great jars.”

In other places, though, Tokarczuk falters right as she gets to the good stuff: The pivotal public debate between the Frankists and their rival Talmudists feels limp, as do the scenes of Jacob in the monastic prison. We know Jacob is somewhat ugly; we know he is cantankerous and nymphomaniacal; we know his beliefs make him some mix of a holy fool, proto-Zionist, and carnival barker; but we still don’t get a good sense of who he is or why his disciples (and his creator) find him so magnetic. This is probably by design, of course, since the easiest way to preserve mystique is by withholding information, but it feels artificial in such a voluminous book.

In place of this narrative meat and potatoes, we get a prose that feels at once more unbuttoned and more effortful than that of Tokarczuk’s other translated novels. Whereas a writer like Mantel shifts into a grandiloquent register to signify that we are now In The Past, Tokarczuk is content to stay casual, sometimes skating over years at a stroke and other times slowing down to describe the “peasants in thick felt trousers and sukmanas of indeterminate color, their hair disheveled, their wives in thick wrinkled trousers and fustian kerchiefs, aprons tied around their middles.”

The best moments are those in which the narrator ascends into the religious ether, offering a kind of commentary on the metaphysics of the novel’s world: After a Talmud scholar curses Jacob, she informs us that “there is nothing about this [curse] that is concerning or even surprising. Look—there are many such curses around, lesser, weaker, perhaps, more insignificant. Many are hounded by these, as they orbit the human heart like slimy moons.” This seems at first like a metaphysical claim, a way of informing us that the historical world we’re in doesn’t operate the way we might think, but soon the narrator dives back into images. The cursed include “all those to whom someone has ever said, ‘I hope you croak,’ when their cart went off the road into the cabbage fields, its wheels crushing fully grown heads, and the girls cursed by their own fathers because they went into the bushes with a farmhand, and the man with a beautifully embroidered zupan cursed by his own serf,” and so on. The important part is not the abstract reality of curses but the specific roster of the cursed. The chaotic particulars of this bygone society are the product not only of mundane historical forces but of supernatural ones, as well.

Still, Tokarczuk’s tonal shifts land awkwardly sometimes—as when we get a cringey line like, “In everything he does, Jacob is absolutely authentic,” or when the narrator sputters out on a list of names that would embarrass the writer of the Pentateuch. The temporal limbo is purposeful, but it also tends to chafe.

None of this should be read as a jeremiad against difficult, encyclopedic texts—The Books of Jacob is a refreshing reprieve from a ketogenic diet of Iowa realism and Rooneyesque alienation. There are plenty of novels that manage to balance an encyclopedic tendency with a commitment to the evocation of empathy. Mantel accomplished it in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and David Foster Wallace accomplished it in Infinite Jest, and Roberto Bolaño accomplished it several times. The novel is an attempt to do something unconventional and maybe even impossible with the medium of fiction. It is an attempt to ape the patternless, arbitrary stumble of history, not history as it really happened but history as it looks to us almost three centuries later.

In the afterword to the novel, Tokarczuk says that writing the book led her to understand that “so many things remain quietly connected.” The Books of Jacob discounts the importance of the loud connections, the visible connections of race and religion and nationhood, and it also discounts the sentimental connections that bridge the centuries, the basic love-and-fear emotions that help make Jacob’s contemporaries intelligible to ours. In place of these bonds, Tokarczuk challenges us to focus on the invisible similarities, the butterfly-effect linkages of fate and circumstance that don’t appear in traditional accounts of history or in contemporary nationalistic myths.

The usefulness of fiction is that it allows her to give an alternative account of how the world works, an account that frames the people of Eurasia as part of a unified community—a tangled and heterogeneous one, but a unified one nonetheless. The force of this argument has been felt in Tokarczuk’s native Poland, where the ethnonationalist right has excoriated her work as being in “contradiction to the assumptions of the Polish historical politics.” This is a revealing inversion of the Nobel committee’s claim that her work “represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”

As Jacob’s chief scribe puts it, describing the feeling of walking along with his fellow disciples through a plague-ridden town: “It is good not to be able to understand a language … to glide like a spirit among others who are distant and unrecognizable. Then a particular kind of wisdom awakens—an ability to surmise, to grasp the things that aren’t obvious.” He is right about this, and we come to Tokarczuk’s books precisely because they evoke this experience. Nevertheless, crossing boundaries is hard work.