Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the March 2022 issue

Olga Tokarczuk’s “The Books of Jacob”: Witnesses to the Messiah

Reviewed by Tara Wanda Merrigan

Olga Tokarczuk's long-awaited opus tells the stories of the followers of Jacob Frank, an eighteenth-century messianic figure.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Books of Jacob, in a virtuosic translation by Jennifer Croft, begins in 1752 in Rohatyn, a rural town located in what is now Western Ukraine. Rohatyn, like much of East Central Europe, has belonged to different countries over the last thousand years. The Rohatyn of Books of Jacob is a modest Polish town of two churches, a monastery, two synagogues, and five Orthodox churches, and is home to Father Benedykt Chmielowski, a priest with an insatiable desire for knowledge who has authored the first Polish encyclopedia. (We will meet Chmielowski’s foil, the charismatic Jewish messianic figure Jacob Frank, later.) 

The reader first encounters Chmielowski, an emblem of Enlightenment rationality and progress, on his way to the market in search of books. He enters a general store owned by a Jewish family whose patriarch is a learned rabbi and there is confronted by the acrid smell of the increasingly popular beverage “cophee.” Passing through the store into the family’s quarters, he notices “thea,” a drink that helps Chmielowski sustain his scholarly efforts. He asks Elisha Shoor, the rabbi in the family, to lend him books. He offers a copy of his encyclopedia in return. Shorr is unimpressed. What use does a rabbi have for this priest’s encyclopedia? He sends Chmielowski home with a book of fairytales instead of the religious text the priest came looking for. Chmielowski will become less and less prominent in the narrative after this opening scene, but the journey has only begun for the reader: we have met the Shorrs, a few of Jacob Frank’s many future followers. Soon after Chmielowski’s visit to the general store, Jacob will declare himself the messiah and amass a following. 

As with Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the DeadBooks of Jacob demonstrates Tokarczuk’s delicate artistry. The novel ushers readers through eighteenth-century history, ferrying us from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the lands of the Ottoman Empire and across more borders into the Habsburg Empire. The journey begins with the novel’s title page, whose long, campy subtitle imitates early print publishers’ attempt at marketing: “A fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages, and three major religions.” Images of antique print materials continue to set the mood. The novel’s page numbers tick down toward zero, the apocalypse longed for by the novel’s characters. This millenarian religious atmosphere offers a high-stakes context for reading and interpretation: characters must be vigilant for signs of the impending Final Judgment. Bodily ailments like infected, peeling skin might mean you’re cursed. Or that you’re the messiah. 

Tokarczuk’s story of Frank relies on the perspectives of his witnesses—followers, casual observers, and critics. Readers join Jacob’s company as they admire him, closely watch his actions, search for signs of divinity, and negotiate flickers of doubt about his charming, narcissistic, deranged personality. They eventually cling to him desperately, because he provides certainty in a time of upheaval and modernization. These witnesses provide a useful tool for Tokarczuk’s narrative: an intimate view of an enigmatic figure, whose own inner life was probably less interesting than the effects his actions had on the inner lives of others. 

Nahman, a Jewish merchant skilled in theological debate, is perhaps the most interesting of Jacob’s followers. Through Nahman’s eyes — his memoiristic entries, called “scraps," appear frequently — we see why Jacob's followers abandoned their lives to follow this pockmarked Podolian would-be messiah. In Nahman's case, joining Jacob's inner circle means financial ruin and the demise of his marriage. But as his memoiristic entries show, Jacob’s appeal defies logic; without Jacob, life is cold, hollow. Of a reunion with Jacob and other followers, Nahman writes that "it was as if we four and [Jacob], at our center, had joined together to create a single man, and we breathed a single breath.” This “complete” union fills Nahman with the certainty “he, Jacob, would lead us onward.” If a group hug with Jacob is able to fill Nahman with such feelings of harmony, we begin to understand why Jacob’s Jewish followers converted to Christianity when he told them to do so, even though this was the very conversion that Jews living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had resisted for so many years. 

Like any good cult leader, Jacob seems to know how to get the most out of theology. Jacob’s followers practice a form of hospitality that includes offering a wife, daughter, or sister to Jacob for the night, any of whom would be excited to sleep with him. (One woman feels disappointed when Jacob, exhausted, falls asleep immediately.) Jacob’s religious rituals, which he seems to improvise based on fancy, are sexual, too. In one scene, men, including relatives, suck from a woman’s breast in a sort of strengthening ritual. It’s an affecting moment: repulsive, alarming, but also compelling in spite of the shock it triggers. Tokarczuk holds strong convictions — her public statements have gotten her into trouble with Poland’s current far-right government — but as a writer she excels in the realm of the morally ambiguous where, as in the breastfeeding scene, the terrible and the inspiring can coexist, undisturbed by the other’s presence. 

Creating literature from history is another of Tokarczuk’s strengths. Books of Jacob is built from years of research, but perhaps most importantly, Tokarczuk has a light touch with research, treating each turn in Jacob’s story as if it were fresh and unexpected rather than recorded. Reading Books of Jacob often sent me back to War and Peace and Tolstoy’s historiographical rants about history happening the way it happens for no good reason other than that it happened that way. For Tokarczuk, history unfolds organically rather than randomly. Human events have a shape and direction. Difficulties create obstacles but pleasant coincidences abound: Jacob, referred to by followers as “The Lord,” learns to read Polish from Chmielowski’s encyclopedia, hundreds of pages after the priest first offered his book to the Rabbi Shorr.

A countercultural figure herself, Tokarczuk first became interested in Jacob Frank in 1997 after finding two volumes of Frank's lectures in a bookshop. Frank, it seemed to her, was underappreciated in Polish history. The story of Frank and his followers, mostly Eastern European Jews living tentatively under Christian rule a century and a half before the Holocaust, has clear echoes in modern times. But it’s also worth noting that Tokarczuk’s novel is set during the last decades of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which is perceived as a halcyon period of autonomous, proto-democratic rule in Polish history. Following the Commonwealth's demise, Poland was overseen by foreign powers from 1795 to 1989, with the exception of a twenty-year interlude between World War I and World War II. It’s hard to imagine a more subversive way to write a novel about the last fifty years of the Commonwealth than the one Tokarczuk has offered, in its focus on multiculturalism, border crossing, and religious heterodoxy. It stands opposed to the mushroom-picking and soup-eating nostalgia of Adam Mickiewicz’s popular nineteenth-century epic poem Pan Tadeusz and the resounding monoculture promoted by the governing far-right Law and Justice party. (Anglophone readers can enjoy Pan Tadeusz in Bill Johnston’s excellent translation that was published by Archipelago in 2018.) 

Despite Jacob’s appeal as a historical figure, approaching the alleged messiah’s story from his own perspective seemed impossible to Tokarczuk. In an essay explaining her process of writing Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk admits that the narrative positioning of telling Jacob’s story through his followers’ eyes was born of necessity. “I didn’t know how to cope with this figure empathetically, I couldn’t understand him,” she wrote in 2014 (translated in 2022 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tokarczuk’s other English-language translator). “So I decided to present Jacob Frank through the eyes of others, without daring to go too close, though the longer I was involved with him, the more he aroused my sympathy.” In this particular essay, Tokarczuk’s reflections on sympathy and empathy stop there, but it feels as if she picks up this line of thinking five years later in her Nobel prize lecture on the “czuły narrator” (in English, “tender narrator”). Tokarczuk’s czuły narrator — czuły is pronounced choo-way — is not strictly empathic. This narrator goes beyond the kind of instantaneous fellow feeling and position-swapping understanding prescribed by empathy. They are sensitive to the situations of others and position this sensitivity in philosophical understanding of common human fate: the “lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time.” (Tokarczuk’s Nobel lecture was translated by Croft and Lloyd-Jones.) Furthermore, rather than adopting the perspective of another, a tender narrator causes boundaries between themself and the outside world to collapse, embracing connectedness. In Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk’s tenderness wraps her novel’s world in a cozy atmosphere; it also precludes judgment, which would have likely stifled a novel on an eighteenth-century cult. “Tenderness personalizes everything to which it relates, making it possible to give it a voice, to give it the space and the time to come into existence, and to be expressed,” Tokarczuk says. “It is thanks to tenderness that the teapot starts to talk.” 

Tokarczuk’s generous interest in the teapot, food, geography, religion, omens, death, relationships, writing and books, among other things, is the life-giving force that propels this novel forward. Croft’s swift, energetic English maintains momentum and enthusiasm through nearly one thousand pages. A buoyant, anarchic, consuming reading experience, Books of Jacob is a novel so all-encompassing and alive that it’s as if Tokarczuk has managed to break off a piece of the world and convert it into paper and ink. 

© 2022 by Tara Wanda Merrigan. All rights reserved.

Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.