Nobel Prize-winning novelist Olga Tokarczuk returns with a fictionalized account of the life of Jacob Frank, an 18th-century Jewish mystic who casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following of his religion that blended Judaism, Islam and Catholicism. Revered by some as the Messiah, Frank wreaked havoc on the conventional order as scandalous rumors of his sect's secret rituals and iconoclastic beliefs spread through Europe and the Ottoman empire.
Tokarczuk shows impressive skill in recreating an entire era and world, which ranges from Poland to Smyrna and Vienna. Yet her real genius lies in the cast of characters she has conjured up; dozens, each fully realised, from an emperor downwards ... Holding it all together for 900 pages is incredible, but that is not what makes this book great. Tokarczuk, unafraid and ambitious, creates a very fallible messiah, yet makes it seem reasonable and human to believe in his divinity. That is a kind of literary miracle.
Tokarczuk never gets too close to the character of Jacob, instead presenting him through the eyes of his contemporaries, both ardent believers and staunch skeptics. She is particularly attentive to the perspectives of women and outsiders, who bore the brunt of the Enlightenment’s growing pains yet are conspicuously missing from official histories. This polyphonic approach is never deliberately obscure: each character has a deep, sincere, and (because it is in Tokarczuk’s nature) often humorous 'psychological portrait' ... Croft’s translation is energetic and inventive; she’s proven to be a brilliant collaborator with Tokarczuk ... Her work is attuned to Tokarczuk’s polysemy, the delicate ambiguity built into the Polish language—an ambiguity Tokarczuk has previously lauded not only for its use in poetic language but also in political critique ... This colossal book is a truly bewitching account of untold fissures in history, minor religions, little lives, and splinterings-off. It is rich, strange, astonishing in scope, and delightfully enigmatic—whether the reader plunges deep into its metaphysics or simply obtains 'some slight enjoyment' is up to them. Tokarczuk’s magnum opus shows us a world on the precipice of a great change, one hand clinging to certainty while the other reaches for transcendence.
... [a] remarkable translation, the length of which, filled as it is with dense chapters that often veer from the central narrative to illuminate secondary characters, may test the patience of some readers. But, for those undaunted, the book offers an unusual level of engagement and perspectives on society and religion, which illuminate both past and present ... It may seem greedy to wish for more in a novel of such length, but one of the most interesting characters, and the book’s one element of magic realism, is a woman called Yente ... She is the spirit of the novel, but her potential to be a pivotal character is never fully realised. That many of the events Tokarczuk narrates are derived from historical sources is fascinating but essentially unimportant. What matters is the internal coherence of the world she creates through language and her ability to guide us through examinations of limitless faith and human failings, cultural identity and the ostracism of the other, the manipulation of the steadfast and the thoughtless cruelty of friends. Above all, she shows us our enduring search for meaning. This extraordinary novel is part of that search.