#language & literature
In Księgi Jakubowe / The Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk took on a new role: a pugnacious 21st-century prophetess who reaches back into the history of the nation to properly shake it up, grill it and interpret it in her own way.
The Books of Jacob, or a great journey through seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not counting the small ones (editor's translation) ... is an insane book. Everything is insane here, starting from its length (900 pages), full title (consisting of several lines), and pagination (‘from the end’, as a tribute to books written in Hebrew, and as a reminder that ‘every order is a matter of habit’). The very physical encounter with The Books (announced, long-awaited, and written over the period of six years, both confuses and throws one out of one's ‘comfort zone’.
The story itself doesn’t make the reader comfortable either. Although one can discern a distant echo of Olga Tokarczuk’s previous books The Journey of the Book – People and Primeval and Other Times, the territory through which she leads us this time seems much more unpredictable. The story is set in 1752, the region of Podolia (part of Lesser Poland Province of the Polish Crown), a picturesque world, yet devoured by suffering and poverty, and full of dirty yards and ulcerated old women. A man named Jakub Lejbowicz Frank announces that he is the Messiah, which marks the birth of heresy within Judaism that later will be called Frankism. His followers reject the law of Moses and the Talmud in favor of Kabbalah, they believe in the Trinity and the Virgin (sometimes identified with Virgin Mary), and they seal their beliefs by converting to Catholicism.
Tokarczuk goes back to the moment in Polish history that has not been elaborated on so far by any other author. Perhaps, this extraordinary story required an equally exceptional narrator. It was her very anarcho-mystical approach that enabled to show Poland as a both familiar (manors, bishops, shtetls) and unfamiliar place, a country whose religious tolerance and Catholic identity has been called into question.
The Frankist heresy was conceived in a multinational, mixed and diverse society. As a mystical but also pragmatic movement it disregarded limitations of tradition, dogma and custom. In today’s discourse it could be defined in terms of a challenge to stale identities and forms, as a prologue to anarchism and socialism. Moreover, the phenomenon described by Tokarczuk is very ambiguous, just as ambiguous is the figure of Jakub Frank, a mystic and a despot, revolutionary and strategist, quack and sage.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the story of Frank captivated Tokarczuk at this time. There is a sense of a collective urge for self-determination in the air. The Polish account of its past invites new interpretations and leaves room for new, unobvious narratives at the personal level as much as at the level of the entire population with its entangled Polish-Jewish heritage. Tokarczuk emphasizes in interviews that The Books of Jacob is her most ‘pro-social’ project, in which she leaves herself on the side, and writes about other people and for the people.
The Books of Jacob is also a pro-human book full of metaphysics. The search for answers to great questions (nature of evil, God’s interventions in human life) intertwine with poetic descriptions of the details of everyday life. And although the story is set in the 18th century and refers to seemingly esoteric and dark subject, it is nonetheless very important and very relevant today.
contemporary polish literature
The Books of Jacob
Author: Aleksandra Lipczak, November 2014, ed.& transl. GS, April 2015