“An eminently enjoyable book” – The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk (trans. Jennifer Croft)

IMG_9Dec2021at003330It’s difficult to know where to start with a novel as capacious as this one: on the face of it, The Books of Jacob is an account of the rise, development, and legacy of the Polish Frankist movement, a heretical Jewish sect, let by Jacob Frank, that emerged in Podolia (now part of modern Ukraine) in the mid-1750s and faded away by the early 1800s — an uncovering of a forgotten past. But it’s also a writing of women into a masculinist history, a study of Messianic thinking, a meditation on the role of faith and orthodoxy in feudal life, an examination of the rise of heterodoxy and revolution across Europe, and a reflection on the very nature of life and death.

Frank’s story is one that has faded from historical consciousness, but one that, as Tokarczuk notes, had a profound impact on the development of modern Polish consciousness. His followers started out as scholars of the teachings of the seventeenth century rabbi, Kabbalist, and self-declared Messiah, Sabbatai Tzvi; Frank, a charismatic merchant, soon came to their attention as the reincarnation of Tzvi and the new Messiah. Frank took to the role and his creeds were complex and evolving, requiring his acolytes to abandon adherence to the Talmud and accept the teachings of the Torah on the Trinity, and to convert then officially first to Islam and then to Catholicism: to pass from Judaism through these would lead them to truths hidden since before the times of Mosaic law.

As heterodoxies go, this was major: Frank demanded the dissolution of all rules and customs, preaching, for instance, a rather hedonistic rejection of sexual monogamy. The picture was complicated by Podolian laws that forbade Jews from property ownership: conversion to the Christian church would allow them fuller access to citizenship than had previously been possible. Frank’s group, then, could not be viewed simply as a doctrinal oddity; rather they presented a significant threat to the status quo in a feudal society significantly dependent upon conservative stratification. We can see in Tokarczuk’s novel a grim build-up to the anti-Semitic atrocities of the twentieth century in the vitriol directed towards the Frankists by the Christians and that towards the orthodox Jewish community by Christians and Frankists alike. The bishops and the gentry were, however, divided: mass conversion, they thought, could only benefit the Church, no matter the apparent idiosyncrasies of the converts themselves. While the Jewish community was split, then, over the legitimacy or otherwise of this messiah, the Christian authorities were equally conflicted. Cue the blood libel: Jewish leaders and peasants sentenced to death as Catholic communities panic in the face of civic and ecclesiastical unrest and accuse the Jews of murdering Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. Consequently, one of Frank’s aims was to secure land for his people; in a sense, the Frankist project represents an early version of Zionism.

Back to Frank himself: he was arrested, eventually, and imprisoned for life, but was released by Russian troops in an environment of increasing political instability across Europe in the late eighteen century. Settling in Brünn (Brno), he befriended the Emperor and set himself up as a Polish baron, before, laden with debt and out of favour with the Austrian royals, he fled to Offenbach, where, with his daughter, he established a lavish (is somewhat damp and cold) court, welcoming his followers there until his eventual death in 1791. His followers dispersed; by the mid 1800s, Frankism had dissolved as its adherents drifted away and intermarried within the broader community.

That’s the history, broadly speaking; but what’s the novel like, you ask? Tokarczuk doesn’t speak for Jacob – whom she elsewhere describes as ‘a bit of a psychopath’: intelligent, sensitive, unpredictable – but rather presents a montage of various perspectives on his life, teachings and community, following both the devout (Nahman Samuel ben Levi of Busk, diligent recorder of Jacob’s parables and decrees) and the distant (Asher Rubin, a doctor and optician, tangentially connected to the Frankists), the curious (Father Pikulski, Catholic scholar of Judaism) and the philanthropic (Katarzyna Kossakowska, aristocratic Catholic benefactor of the Frankists). Tokarczuk guides us through the story via the all-seeing figure of Yente: a Jewish matriarch from Korolówka, grandmother of Jacob Frank (born Yankiele, son of Yente’s son, Yehuda Leyb Buchbinder) who on her deathbed has swallowed a Kabbalist amulet placed around her neck by a Sabbatarian rabbi who is afraid she will die during his own son’s wedding. After this, Yente cannot die at all, and while her body shrinks and, over the years to come, crystalises, she watches from on high as the world carried on. Yente is the ultimate omniscient narrator: she transcends all limits, unifies Christian and Jew, knits together the versions of events we hear from Nahman and the others.

It’s a long book, and a dense one; Tocarczuk doesn’t waste time explaining the basics of either Kabbalist or orthodox Judaism to the lay reader, never mind the politics or geography of eighteenth-century eastern Europe, which means the acclimatisation stage here is rather lengthy, if, like me, your history is rather shaky. But this is Olga Tokarczuk: the prose is captivating, dryly humorous, startling in its imagery, unflinching in its descriptions. That is to say: relax and let her guide you through it. Enjoy the characters; the contextual intricacies will sink in as you go. It’s an eminently enjoyable book, if you don’t worry about whether you’re following it at all times, and the final sections are painfully beautiful; her characters’ ruminations on death and dying stunningly poignant. In terms of literary predecessors, the closest I’ve come to this is Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety – her opus on the French Revolution – but, as ardent a fan of Mantel as I am, The Books of Jacob far surpasses this in the scope of its investment in humanity, its flaws and terrors and joys.

Any Cop?: Absolutely. (But only if you’ve got strong wrists and a taste for a challenge.)

Valerie O’Riordan

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