It is, I think, a testament to Olga Tokarczuk’s writing that I undertook to read The Books of Jacob at all. I loved her novel Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead and she won the Nobel Prize for Literature shortly after I raved about it here (I’m sure the committee reads my blog). When I heard her latest book was about a historical novel about a real figure who claimed to be a messiah, my interest was definitely piqued. I knew the book was large but didn’t realize how large until I picked up my hold at the library.
Friends, this book is 965 pages long. I had 2 weeks to read it before I had to return it for the next patron. And I did it! I carefully divided the number of pages (which are numbered intentionally backward) by the number of days I had and for 2 weeks I read diligently. In the end, it was both worth it and, perhaps, a better way to read this dense and thoughtful novel.
The story is set mostly in and around Poland in the 17th century. There are a lot of different characters but central to the action of the story is Jacob Frank, a man who for decades draws followers to him, seemingly casting a sort of spell of charisma and intrigue. Jacob is Jewish, as are his followers, but blasphemously he claims to be the Messiah that the Jews have so long waited for. This alienates him from both the larger Jewish community and the ruling Christian communities that surround them. But Jacob’s following is also loyal and it is growing.
Tokarcuzk deftly guides us through years of information and history, of geography and language. She uses a myriad of characters, using Jacob’s followers and detractors, as well as other witnesses, including Jacob’s not-quite-dead great-grandmother, to bring this part of history to life. The story is fantastical and yet feels grounded in reality. How much are we to believe? How much does Jacob expect his followers to believe? These are some of the questions that keep the reader enthralled.
This is a region and time period I’m not largely familiar with but I never felt overly lost as I followed Tokarczuk, a true testament to her writing. This also being a translation, applause surely goes to Jennifer Croft who brings us the English translation. Reflective of time and place, the characters speak multiple languages and one town close to another might speak an entirely different tongue. Croft and Tokarczuk capture these shifts beautifully, maintaining the rhythms of various languages while somehow also making it clear when these languages change.
It is a big book and it probably helps to be interested in religious history. In the end, I think it actually aided me to read it in a relatively short timeframe because it kept all the characters and settings fresh in my mind. I know this book won’t be for everyone but if it intrigues you at all, I certainly recommend giving it a try.