Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk was a youthful winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2019. She was 57, had a dreadlock, a naughty politics, a vegetarian.
Her novel ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ had recently been turned into the film ‘Spoor’ by Agnieszka Holland, a piece of existential and ecological fear.
Tokarczuk (pronounced To-KAR-chook) was not among the laureates who sometimes seem to back the Swedish Academy in the crypt for a final viewing. Her career was and is at full gallop.
Her novels – often both pensive and mythical in tone – are slowly making their way into English. In addition to ‘Drive Your Plow’, these are the philosophical and often dazzling ‘Flights’, about traveling and being between stations. It won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.
Tokarczuk’s most ambitious novel – the Swedish Academy called it its ‘magnum opus’ – has long been said to be ‘The Books of Jacob’, first published in Poland in 2014. It’s here now. At nearly 1,000 pages, it is indeed magnum format.
Even the subtitle (rare, on a novel) is a mouthful. The first third reads: “A fantastic journey across seven frontiers, five languages and three major religions, not counting the minor sects.”
If you feel like you’re about to step into a mudroom sword-and-sandal epic, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. If you detect a blissful dill-scented note of satire, you wouldn’t be wrong either.
Set in the mid-18th century, The Books of Jacob centers on a charismatic, self-proclaimed messiah, Jacob Frank, a young Jew who travels through the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires, attracting and repelling crowds and authorities in equal measure.
Frank is based on a real historical figure; the author has clearly done her research. Tokarczuk closely follows the twists and turns of Frank’s fate as he converts to Islam, then Catholicism and gradually becomes a Proto-Zionist.
Convicted of heresy, he spends many years in prison. His ideas are important, as they say, if they are true.
However, noting that “The Books of Jacob” is about the annoyed wanderings of a cult leader is like noticing that Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” is about two men who go for a walk.
“The Books of Jacob” is an unruly, overwhelming, wildly eccentric novel. It’s sophisticated and bawdy and brimming with folkloric humor. It handles everything it bumps into at both face value and ad absurdum. It’s Chaucerian in his brio.
This Jacob, he is a specimen: muscular, tall, with dimples. His profuse beard gleams in the sun. He is as graceful as a red deer. He is enigmatic and earthy, a singer of dirty songs.
He heals the sick and restores lost things. A comet follows him in the sky. The hens he touches lay eggs with three yolks.
A fat nimbus of borderline comic sexuality swims around him. Women would stare at his genitals in astonishment.
He is later said to have two penises. Handy, looks like he can pull one in when two seem like a handful. He can get women pregnant by looking at them, as Jim Morrison (I think) said he can do.
Several other characters orbit around him. There are continuous rows of wives and lovers and misfits and buttinskies and various adherents.
Two supporting characters are particularly important. One is Nahman, a rabbi who becomes Jacob’s Boswell. Strangely, Nahman’s wife and Jacob despise each other.
Then there’s Yente, an elderly woman, on the brink of death, who swallows an amulet and becomes essentially immortal. She watches the action as if she were sitting atop a minaret, serving, as Tokarczuk said semi-jokingly in an interview, as a sort of “fourth person narrator.”
This massive novel gives way to a landslide of incidents and commentary. There are plagiarism scandals and difficult toenail clippings. There are misanthropic doctors and bishops with gambling debts. Blood stains are annoying.
The usefulness of Latin is under discussion, gout is suffered, colds are taken care of, big breasts are fetishized, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is drunk. At a key moment, a character may wander off and weed the oregano. It’s such a book.
Tokarczuk can be very funny. Jacob asks, in front of an audience, “Why does the spirit love olive oil so much? Why all this anointing?” Jennifer Croft’s sensitive translation is in line with the author’s many registers; she even makes the puns click.
The comedy in this novel, as in life, mixes with real tragedy: torture, betrayal, imprisonment, death.
Dark themes emerge. Jews are hunted, chased through the landscape. Early indications of the Holocaust are felt.
The author pays great attention to the fate of female characters. Inequalities are always sharply displayed. “How did it come to be,” one character thinks, “that some have to pay while others collect?”
“The Books of Jacob” feels modern in the sense of an end to an old order. End time feels closer than ever. People hear “the clatter of the angelic arsenal.” Jacob makes his grateful followers feel like someone has a handle on what’s going on.
The density of this novel is satanic; his satire deftly; academics will tug at the themes for decades, as if they were threadworms. The author’s enthusiasm never wanes, even when a reader’s does. She bulldozes the sprawl forward.
Yet the characters remain distant. “The Books of Jacob” rarely touches the emotions. No page, for me, turned itself. A word from “Finnegans Wake” came to mind: storm log.
I don’t want to discourage. As with certain operas, I’m glad I had the experience – and just as glad it’s over.