The Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk was, in 2019, a young winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was 57 years old, dreadlocks, politically naughty, vegetarian.
His novel “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” had recently been turned, by Agnieszka Holland, into the film “Spoor,” a slice of existential, ecological dread.
Tokarczuk (pronounced To-KAR-chook) was not among those laureates that the Swedish Academy sometimes seems to back into the crypt for one last viewing. His career was, and is, at full gallop.
His novels, often pensive and mythical in tone, are slowly making their way into English. As well as “Drive Your Plow,” these include the philosophical and often dazzling “Flights,” about traveling and being between seasons. He won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.
It has long been said that Tokarczuk’s most ambitious novel — the Swedish Academy called it his “magnitude” — is “The Books of Jacob,” first published in Poland in 2014. It’s here. At nearly 1,000 pages, it is indeed magnum sized.
Even its subtitle (rare, in a novel) is a mouthful. The first third reads: “A fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages and three major religions, not counting minor sects.”
If you feel like you’re about to enter a sword-and-sandal epic with a mud room, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. If you spot a dill-scented note of salvific satire, you wouldn’t go wrong either.
Set in the mid-18th century, “The Books of Jacob” is about 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 his research. Tokarczuk closely follows the twists and turns of Frank’s fate as he converts to Islam and then Catholicism, becoming a proto-Zionist along the way.
Convicted of heresy, he spends many years in prison. Your ideas are important, as they say, if they are true.
However, pointing out that “The Books of Jacob” is about the angry escapades of a cult leader is similar to pointing out that Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon” is about two men out for a walk.
“The Books of Jacob” is an unruly, overwhelming and very eccentric novel. It’s sophisticated and raunchy and full of folk wit. He treats everything he finds verbatim and ad absurdum. It is Chaucerian in his verve.
This Jacob, he’s a specimen: muscular, tall, dimpled. His abundant beard shines in the sun. He is as graceful as a red deer. He is enigmatic and earthy, a singer of bawdy songs.
He heals the sick and makes what is lost be found. A comet follows him in the sky. The hens he touches lay eggs with three yolks.
A greasy nimbus of almost comical sexuality swims around him. Women are said to gaze in amazement at their genitals.
Later, it is said that he has two penises. Conveniently, it seems like you can take back one when two seem like a handful. He can get women pregnant by looking at them, as (I think) Jim Morrison was said to be able to do.
Many other characters orbit around him. There are tight ranks of wives and lovers and misfits and buttinskies and assorted parasites.
Two secondary characters are particularly important. One is Nahman, a rabbi who becomes Jacob’s Boswell. Awkwardly, Nahman’s wife and Jacob despise each other.
Then there is Yente, an old woman, on the verge of death, who swallows an amulet and becomes essentially immortal. She watches the action from the top of a minaret and serves, as Tokarczuk quipped in an interview, as a kind of “fourth-person narrator”.
This huge novel leaves room for an avalanche of incidents and comments. There are plagiarism scandals and difficult nail cutting. There are misanthropic doctors and bishops with gambling debts. Blood stains are annoying.
The usefulness of Latin is debated, gout is suffered, colds are caught, large breasts are fetishized, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is drunk. At a key moment, a character might wander around and weed oregano. It’s that kind of book.
Tokarczuk can be a lot of fun. Jacob asks, in front of an audience: “Why does the spirit like olive oil so much? Why all that anointing? Jennifer Croft’s sensitive translation is in tune with the author’s multiple registers; it even clicks on puns.
The comedy of this novel merges, as in life, with the real tragedy: torture, betrayal, imprisonment, death.
Darker themes emerge. The Jews are harassed, chased through the landscape. The first hints of the Holocaust are felt.
The author pays a lot of attention to the fates of the female characters. Inequalities are always in sight. “How did it happen”, thinks a character, “that some have to pay and others get paid?”
“The Books of Jacob” feels modern in its sense of an ancient ending. The end times feel closer than before. People hear “the metallic sound of the angelic armory.” Jacob gives his grateful followers the feeling that someone knows what’s going on.
The density of this novel is Saturnian; his agile satire; academics will tug at your subjects, like pinworms, for decades. The author’s enthusiasm never wanes, even when the reader’s does. She sweeps the expansion forward.
However, the characters remain at a distance. “The Books of Jacob” rarely touches the emotions. No page, for me, turned by itself. One word from “Finnegans Wake” came to mind: Thunder.
I do not mean to dissuade. As with certain operas, I’m glad I had the experience, and equally glad it’s over.