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.
I have read the novel in English and Polish and promise you the praise is deserved ... Tokarczuk maintains her novel’s pace with section breaks, narrating her characters’ psychological development with the tension of discovery, the slow but progressive movement of their thoughts ... One could say it is written against our times, in defiance of our short attention spans, the spinning news cycle, the pithy tweet, and the rapid scroll. The novel poses a challenge to our literature ... By writing from an eccentric (ex-centric) perspective about the women excluded from the historical archives, Tokarczuk teaches us a new historiographic way to see: we learn to see what may not be apparent but is nonetheless present. In this way, The Books of Jacob becomes a reader’s guide for life ... The Books of Jacob is incredible because of its sheer mass of its details, so sensuous, so precise, that its readers cannot help but marvel at the novel’s construction. In the early pages, Tokarczuk lays out so much detail that the book simultaneously develops as a novel and a manifesto on writing historical fiction and retrieving, or revisioning, the past ... Tokarczuk presents Jacob as a mystery, glimpsed through others’ eyes. She does not permit us access to his final thoughts, but she does bring us into Yente’s body and soul, starting and ending the novel with her ... The tender narrator also views events “'ex-centrically,' distanced from conventional viewpoints. It becomes clear, reading The Books of Jacob, that these narrative theories arose from the challenge of writing the epic history of the Frankists as a novel. As Tokarczuk has said, Yente became the mechanism through which she could hold together this expansive universe of details and lives ... Croft’s translation accurately represents Tokarczuk’s prose ... But there is also something in Croft’s translation that opened the novel up for me — something in the rhythm and word choice that revealed aspects of Tokarczuk’s world I hadn’t seen before ... The Books of Jacob is a novel in which, finally, words have been acknowledged as real things, like roses and ceramic bowls ... The reader’s guide was right: I found myself transported and transformed. Every time I have experienced this novel, I have become a different person.
Dense, monumental ... he novel recapitulates an astonishing amount of esoteric learning. Ms. Tokarczuk is as comfortable rendering the world of the Jewish peasantry as that of the Polish royal court. And she has made matters even more challenging for herself—and certainly for her readers—by adopting an experimental narrative technique that draws back from the dramatization of historical events to explore the question of salvation, and of humankind’s perpetual longing for it ... An incredibly juicy tale of villainy and intrigue, yet the striking thing about The Books of Jacob is that Ms. Tokarczuk has taken advantage of almost none of the story’s inherent drama ... The pace of events never slackens—there is plague, betrayal, imprisonment, war, exile, death and succession—but their presentation is distant and uninvolved, conveyed in summaries rather than engaged re-enactments ... The treatment of messianic passions through an attitude of Zen detachment is so pointedly ironic that it colors every aspect of the novel, making this a curiously abstracted historical epic. In Jennifer Croft’s translation—a feat of tremendous diligence and care—the prose remains urbane and unruffled whether it describes religious ecstasy or sickening violence. On the practical level, this makes reading the novel extremely slow going ... There are important exceptions to the governing dispassion, however, and they concern the medley of side characters...whom Ms. Tokarczuk allows herself to inhabit more intimately ... Difficult and rewarding ... Encyclopedic, impersonal, incalculably rich in learning and driven by a faith in the numinous properties of knowledge.
The Books of Jacob is finally available here in a wondrous English translation by Jennifer Croft, and it’s just as awe-inspiring as the Nobel judges claimed when they praised Tokarczuk for showing 'the supreme capacity of the novel to represent a case almost beyond human understanding.' In terms of its scope and ambition, The Books of Jacob is beyond anything else I’ve ever read. Even its voluminous subtitle is a witty expression of Tokarczuk’s irrepressible, omnivorous reach ... The challenges here — for author and reader — are considerable. After all, Tokarczuk isn’t revising our understanding of Mozart or presenting a fresh take on Catherine the Great. She’s excavating a shadowy figure who’s almost entirely unknown today ... As daunting as it sounds, The Books of Jacob is miraculously entertaining and consistently fascinating. Despite his best efforts, Frank never mastered alchemy, but Tokarczuk certainly has. Her light irony, delightfully conveyed by Croft’s translation, infuses many of the sections ... The quality that makes The Books of Jacob so striking is its remarkable form. Tokarczuk has constructed her narrative as a collage of legends, letters, diary entries, rumors, hagiographies, political attacks and historical records ... This is a story that grows simultaneously more detailed and more mysterious ... Haunting and irresistible.