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Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk review – a magical mystic tour | Fiction in translation

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Olga Tokarczuk became more widely known to English-speaking readers with the 2010 translation of Primeval and Other Times, a multigenerational fable of 20th-century life in a Polish village overseen by four angels. But it was the digressively discursive Flights, a mix of memoir and invention themed around travel and the body, published in her native Poland in 2007 but only translated into English 10 years later, amid fashionable Anglo-American impatience with novelistic norms, which has done most to make her name on both sides of the Atlantic, where her 2018 Nobel win was generally greeted with enthusiasm instead of the “who?” that tends to be reserved for feted European grandees.

Readers of Flights might have been surprised when Tokarczuk’s Nobel lecture distanced herself from the autofictional vogue in favour of the empathetic virtues of omniscient narration, but she clearly isn’t a writer to be pinned down. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, the next of her books that was translated (she has published 18), was an existential noir written fast to keep her in funds while she was embroiled in the research for her latest release, a sprawling historical-theological picaresque that was first published in Polish in 2014 and now comes heroically rendered into English by Jennifer Croft.

Set during the second half of the 18th century, comprising about 300 shortish present-tense segments with archly functional intertitles (“What Elżbieta Drużbacka Writes to Father Chmielowski in February of 1756 From Rzemień on the Wisłoka”, say, or “Meanwhile…”), it toggles between dozens of characters in several central and eastern European states to tell the story of Jacob Frank, an elusive Jewish mystic hailed as the Messiah by a breakaway sect in what is now Ukraine. We follow a growing band of adherents to his new religion, a mix of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as they embark on a cross-border hunt for territory in which to live free from persecution – from Jews as well as Roman Catholics, whose clergy gladly accept his dangerously (and treacherously) juiced-up claims about what is inside the Talmud.

Olga Tokarczuk: ‘tells the story with a sufficiently light touch’
Olga Tokarczuk: ‘tells the story with a sufficiently light touch’. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo

Part of the novel is told through the retrospective testimony of Jacob’s schoolmate, Nahman, a tobacco-trading rabbi who serves as his not-always-trusted fixer. Jacob’s dead grandmother Yente also occasionally turns up to oversee events as her body crystallises in a cave where, in the future, a band of Jews will hide from the Nazis. As Jacob’s power grows, so too does his extravagant sense of seigneurial privilege over his adherents – not only sex on tap, but breast milk too – which means he’s rarely above suspicion. With more than a third of the novel to go, he’s jailed as a heretic, with plenty of twists to come.

It reads like the wildest invention, yet isn’t, and while the novel’s absence of authorial hand-holding can be taxing, more challenging still is its vast sweep, as characters drift in and out of focus over the action’s 50-year span. Most destabilising of all is the passivity of the book’s voice, a kind of undeviating poker face that leaves judgment and intent radically open to interpretation. Tokarczuk tells the story with a sufficiently light touch that you’re left unsure whether Frank was a radical thinker, whose doctrinal provocations were of epochal significance, or simply a con artist whose tricks got wildly out of hand. Uncertainty becomes a running gag: Jacob is rumoured to be a Russian tsar, to have two penises and even to be dead, mistaken for a decoy.

You suspect the indeterminacy in Tokarczuk’s work, as well as her public critique of her government’s populist ethnonationalism, adds to the controversy that surrounds her in Poland. This particular novel calls into question the permanence of borders as well as other classifications of culture and creed, which means there’s probably something for everyone to dislike; abroad, the stakes may not be as high, but it remains potent. A panorama of early Enlightenment Europe that doubles as an open-minded study in the mysteries of charisma, it is perhaps above all – and aptly – a gargantuan act of faith, a novel in which your reading has barely begun by the time you’ve turned the last of its 900 pages.

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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