Life & Culture

The Books of Jacob book review: Overlong and leaves us with little more than undigested historical research

Countless characters pass the reader by, underdeveloped and unrealised, their inner lives unexplored


The Books of Jacob
By Olga Tokarczuk
Trans: Jennifer Croft
Fitzcarraldo Editions, £20
Reviewed by Mark Glanville

Born Yankiele Leybowicz in Korołówka (then eastern Poland, now Ukraine) in 1726, Jacob Frank, Jewish heretic, spiritual descendant of the false messiah Shabbatai Tzvi, and subject of Nobel Prize-winning author Olga Tokarczuk’s book, spent his early life in Czernovitz where Shabbataism was prevalent. Returning to Poland after a period in Salonika, a charismatic figure, he attracted a large following.

In the first of two Church-sponsored disputations with Jewish religious representatives, the Frankists argued that the Talmud was “filled with countless blasphemies”, leading to the burning of thousands of Jewish religious texts throughout Poland. In the second, Frankists employed dishonest sophistry to claim that Jews used the blood of Christian children to make unleavened bread at Passover, with predictable consequences. Much to the delight of the Church, the Frankists then converted to Catholicism on the basis that, “you have to… go into the darkness to see clearly.”

Nonetheless, the Frankist cult remained under suspicion, especially when Jacob Frank began to make messianic claims of his own. Imprisoned, and eventually released by the Russians, Frank and his circle gravitated to Vienna where, remarkably, he and his daughter Eva were entertained at the Habsburg Court of Emperor Joseph II. Frank emerges in Olga Tokarzuk’s novel as a controlling cult leader with an anarchic agenda, attractive to women, lecherous and violent, seemingly more interested in wealth and power than in the anti-Jewish orthodoxy he professes.

Olga Tokarczuk’s 900-page book was originally published in Polish in 2014 and took seven years to see the light of day in English translation. There are books of similar length whose pace and flow make them feel much shorter. Tokarczuk’s seems double its length. Countless characters pass the reader by, underdeveloped and unrealised, their inner lives unexplored. Frank himself remains an enigma, which might be appropriate, but Tokarczuk is too dependent upon her considerable research to have the courage to explore him from within and realise a character that may or may not approximate to the historical figure, but might at least have engaged the reader.

Cults and their leaders are fictional subjects with potential, but Tokarczuk has left us with little more than undigested historical research and a suspicion that we might have been better off reading the primary source on the subject – as Tokarcuzk acknowledges – Pawel Maciejko’s The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816.

At a time when Poland’s right-wing government is keen to suppress recognition of the country’s involvement in the Holocaust, it is refreshing to see a major Polish author display such liberal, philosemitic tendencies, which is perhaps implicit in Tokarczuk’s claim that, “no real heresy could ever come about in Polish. By its nature, the Polish language is obedient to every orthodoxy”, but unfortunately The Books of Jacob, unlike her short, and more readable, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Flights, is too research-heavy to take wing.

More personally, she tells us that there are “types of money that never bring happiness”, in which she includes writers’, and translators’, fees,” One hopes Jennifer Croft has been well remunerated for her first-class English version. One also suspects that Tokarcjuk is being unduly modest about her own fee.

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