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The Books of Jacob
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B+ : monumental, though its central figure remains elusive
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
The Jacob of the title is Jacob Frank, an eighteenth-century historical figure, born as Yankiele Leybowicz but adopting the name of 'Jacob Frank', author Olga Tokarczuk suggesting:
Frank, or Frenk, means foreign. Nahman knows Jacob likes this -- being foreign is a quality of those who have frequently changed their place of residence. He's told Nahman that he feels best in new places, because it is as if the world begins afresh every time. To be foreign is to be free.Despite the title, Jacob isn't at the fore of the novel much of the time. Instead, Tokarczuk presents a sweeping panorama, with Jacob a dominant if often not actually center-stage figure. The novel teems with characters, short sub-chapters following myriad strands of stories woven together in a colorful, loose tapestry. The characters -- Jacob, above all -- travel widely, and The Books of Jacob is a story filled with constant re-connections along their many different and also overlapping ways. A central theme is a searching for place -- literally so, as one of Jacob's great ambitions is for his people (variously defined, over the course of his life) to be granted their own territory, land of their own. It is a novel of impermanence, from the shifting and indistinct borders of the times to the various identities, with border-crossing Jacob switching languages and expediently changing his name, religion, and allegiances as the situations warrant.
One character who makes for some stability, binding the novel together, is Jacob's grandmother Yente, "the one soul capable of seeing from above, and of following the tracks of all these restless beings". Brought to a wedding as the novel opens, old Yente is soon too sick to actively participate; she lies there, on, essentially, her deathbed -- yet does not then fully die. Her family doesn't quite know how to deal with the strange situation -- as, for example, when one woman comes and takes her head in her hands:
"Yente ? " she asks quietly. "You alive ?"But even as Yente hovers over the entire story, she too is often very much in the background. Tokarczuk reminds of her continued unusual presence, but does not push her to the fore either; she is not a dominant spectral über-witness (as many novelists might have been tempted to use such a figure). (The lingering practically-but-not-absolutely dead figure also makes for some comic relief along the way, as the family has difficulties figuring out how to handle this continuing situation.)
Another figure accompanying Jacob's story much of the way is Nahman Samuel ben Levi, a determined writer -- "he can't stop himself. It's like an itch that goes away only when he begins to scratch out the chaos of his thoughts into sentences". Interspersed throughout the novel are excerpts from his writing, a collection of what he titles: 'Scraps', a "free-form manuscript", providing yet more perspective of Jacob, and the times and events in general.
Significantly, Jacob isn't thrilled by Nahman's writing exercises: "Jacob had insisted that his words not be recorded", and while Tokarczuk does have him at the center of quite a few of the episodes, including quoting him directly, much more often we learn only of what he has done and said second-hand, often at a considerable distance. Even when close by, a more typical approach of Tokarczuk's is one such as where she has Jacob's daughter overhear him from another room:
Eva, who is sitting in a deep armchair and playing with the tassels of the curtain, can just make out the voice of her father from the living room, who is telling the story in an animated way of how he was released by the Russians. She hears him embellishing the events, perhaps even lying about them. In his version, it all sounds very dramatic, and he comes off as a hero -- an attack, shots, the old soldiers dying, blood, monks covered in debris. In reality, it was all much less theatrical.Though a charismatic leader, a man whom people follow and are devoted to -- indeed, who is seen as a messiah -- Jacob is strikingly leery of words, and reliance on them. Coming from a Jewish tradition that places so much emphasis on the written word and its interpretation, Jacob has turned a very different way; he is a man of action. He's not wordy -- or scholarly. By the time he's thirty, he's already done very well for himself ("trading silk and precious stones"), but:
Jacob never talks like the tzaddikim do, in long, complicated sentences brimming with rare and precious words, always harking back to quotes from the Scriptures. He speaks concisely and clearly, like someone who earns his living at the market or drives a cart.Beyond even that, as he tells Nahman:
Words come and go. A person's got to have an army. We, too, must act, and not just speak. Did our forefathers not chatter, nor pore over written words enough ? What did all that talking do for them ? What came of it ? It's better to see with your eyes than write down a bunch of words.The characters are a polyglot lot, moving more or less easily both geographically and linguistically, though at one point Jacob argues against going to then-Poland because: "I don't understand the Polish language". Jacob is an outsider, even (or especially) in his own nominal homeland, but that is an identity he also embraces: one of the best revealing observations about him is that: "in every language Jacob speaks you can detect a foreign accent".
He does pick Polish up as well, and later also tries to learn to read in the language -- apparently a quite arduous undertaking, with Tokarczuk amusingly slipping in, in this written-in-Polish novel:
It's hard to grasp what's going on when you are reading in Polish. As a language, it's quite strange.There are other reminders in the novel that writing, generally, is suspect -- as, for example, even as the novel, and the picture of Jacob readers form, rely greatly on Nahman's 'Scraps', Tokarczuk warns:
Nahman's stories are not always to be believed -- even less so when he writes them down. He has a propensity for exaggeration. He detects signs in everything; in everything he seeks and finds connections. What happens is never quite enough for Nahman -- he wants what happens also to have some heavenly, definitive meaning.Tokarczuk's novel is more cautiously documentary, trying to avoid too blatantly reading into things -- even as that is unavoidable, given what she presents. It's presumably one of the reasons she keeps something of a narrative distance from Jacob: clearly, many of the characters are in complete thrall to the magnetic, larger-than-life personality, and this is one way of trying to maintain at least some objectivity.
Jacob is a fascinating historical figure, born a Jew but then shifting among the Abrahamic religions, and founding his own distinct schools thereof. Sometimes his conversions seem more matters of expediency -- turning to Islam when he seeks Turkish protection; getting baptized (twice) when he is in Catholic lands -- but he also seems to have a vision of his own, not least in: "uniting the three religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity". There's a constant adaptation to the unsettled Central and Eastern European situation, tugged at in different directions by dominant powers Austria and Turkey, along with Russian and Polish interests. As is amusingly suggested at one point: "Not too Jewish, not too Christian, that would be the place for them" -- but it's a hard place to find.
Jacob takes on a messianic role -- and is more successful in it than most, at least in attracting a following (and irritating the various authorities). At one point someone points out that: "They say you're some kind of heretic, not like Luther, but like a Jewish Luther, and that we ought to keep our distance", while an obituary describes him ruling his sect with: "tremendous panache. He was worshipped almost as another Dalai Lama". While even among those closer to him there are occasional rumblings -- "Jacob is a con man" --, on the whole his followers remain almost slavishly devoted (including in financing some of his follies).
Jacob ranges far and wide across the Europe of the time. If not entirely a chameleon, he nevertheless proves very adaptable to changed circumstances. When it is convenient and safer, he becomes: "Ahmed Frenk, and he has a Turkish passport. He is untouchable"; while at another time he changes the names of his close followers to those of the Apostles (which later leads to some awkward questions -- though he twists himself out of them quite well). As he explains to his re-named followers:
But do not get too attached to your new names. Nor to the country, nor to the language, although you have to speak it. Names must come before nations do; the sound that creates them corresponds to a certain accord of the universe. That is your real name. The names we carry on the street, on the other hand, around the market, traveling in a carriage on a muddy road, or those others use to call us -- all that is just tacked on. Those names are useful like the clothing you put on to go to work. They come and go, like anything. Here one minute, gone the next.Jacob's life involves much such coming and going, and various ups and downs -- though he tends to be able to make the best of things, with considerable help from his devoted supporters. Stations in his life include a long imprisonment in a monastery -- though ultimately a rather comfortable one -- as well as establishing what amounts to a noble court in Brünn, and then an extended stay in Vienna, where he tries to make his case to royalty and Joseph II takes Jacob's daughter Eva as a lover (though he does not let himself get too attached).
The colorful supporting cast is given much room to shine on its own, and Tokarczuk does well with it, whether in brief portraits of, for example, a man who accumulated stunning debts, leaving him: "bankrupt, maybe the most bankrupt person anywhere in Europe" to Father Chmielowski and his "thesaurus stultitiae -- a collection of foolish little things", the New Athens he is so proud of, gathering: "all of the knowledge of mankind" in his volumes, a sort of accompaniment-book that keeps coming up throughout the novel. (If not taken seriously by all, it does have its supporters, too -- one of whom observes: "Everyone is reading it. It is our silva rerum. Do not find fault in books. The books themselves are innocent".) There are many historical figures who appear; many are lesser-known nowadays, but there are also cameos by figures such as Casanova and Sophie von La Roche.
Jacob is continually inventing and re-inventing himself. When he gets baptized, and shaves his beard, his wife, Hana, does not even recognize him. Later, Nahman reports of hearing that: "there had been rumors among the true believers that the real Jacob had died in Częstochowa, and that the one who was now sitting before me had replaced him". Jacob remains a slippery figure, even as Tokarczuk's portrait of him is closely based on the historical record that she clearly carefully researched.
Nahman, keeping his own record of Jacob and his experiences, faced a similar conundrum in dealing with the curious figure:
Jacob always says: No traces, keep everything a perfect secret, no one can find out who we are and what we do. Even though he actually makes quite the ruckus, with his strange gestures and the odd things that come out of his mouth. He speaks so enigmatically that it's hard to figure out what he means. That's why people stay together for a long time after he leaves, trying to interpret for themselves and one another the words of this Frank, this foreigner. What did he say ? In some sense, each can only understand it all as best he can, in his own way.Writing in the present tense gives an immediacy to the lives that unfold in The Books of Jacob -- even as the central one, Jacob's, is so often only part of the story at some remove. The short and very varied episodes making for an engaging read, though the novel does wind and wend on at great length across these many characters, places, and events. Jacob remains something of a mystery-man, but many of the secondary characters are particularly well captured -- as is the general sense of the times, and its mixing of people, religion, commerce, and language. It is a fascinating picture of a world that is both very rule-bound -- permissions have to constantly be sought, the proper papers on hand -- and yet in which a great deal of personal freedom is clearly possible
The Books of Jacob is certainly a grand achievement, but Jacob Frank remains an elusive figure, a character perhaps too rich to be adequately captured in this (or any other ?) way.
- M.A.Orthofer, 23 January 2022
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Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was born in 1962. She was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature.
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