[Riverhead; 2022]

Tr. from the Polish by Jennifer Croft

At first glance, few genres would seem to have less to do with one another than the novel and prophecy. Poetry and prophecy? That feels like a better fit — for certainly there have been poets that decided their verses could level cities, just as there have been prophets who assumed that every word they said deserved to be memorized by kindergarteners. For the novelist, however, such confidence is harder to come by. There have been exceptions. D.H. Lawrence wrote, “Ah, my darling, when over the purple horizon shall loom / The shrouded mother of a new idea, men hide their faces.” This is in a poem, to be fair, although as anyone who has slogged through Kangaroo can tell you he goes on, and on, explicating his “new ideas” with an earnestness whose fit with the novel’s more human-sized conventions is precarious. It’s like watching someone try to build a birdhouse with Thor’s hammer. Surely there must be better ways to prophesy! Or, to take the other handle, surely there must be better, more human things for the novel to concern itself with. But one of the characteristics of prophets is that they do not concern themselves with imperfect things — which is probably yet another reason why, in the fractal, inherently human medium of the novel, they tend to run into problems.

It is this apparent misfit of prophecy with the restless life of fiction that provides much of the energy in Olga Tokarczuk’s new novel The Books of Jacob, which is not a prophecy itself so much as a meditation on the ways that prophecies are realized, or more often not realized, in our less-than-ideal world. Its subject is a real-life miracle cult that arose in late 18th-century Poland around Joseph Frank, a man whose particular combination of self-confidence, luck, and lack of scruple elevated him quickly through the thick miasma of Jewish settlement life. As is so often the case with prophets (not to mention the books that typically get written about them), his most lasting desire as soon as he had cleared himself of his origins was to erase them completely. However, it is one of the more noticeable features of Tokarczuk’s tentative and capacious form that it does not let him do this — or at least it does not let us do this with him. On the contrary, it lingers over the world of Jacob and his followers like a group of old women gossiping over a dinner they are preparing.

Indeed, in many places, the battered world of Jewish shtetl life appears to be lending its shape to Tokarzcuk’s narrative itself, nudging what might have been a straightforward rise-and-fall story into something that twists unexpectedly, doubling back on itself with the insistence of a dog chasing a scent. Its swerves and sudden tugs can be bewildering at first, even disorienting, but after a while we start to sense a pattern in them, as if they were dictated by a hidden center. The feeling of immanence and expectation is one that the characters in the book feel too, although often in a way that moves them to reject the very world that has given rise to it. A good example of this is the character of Nahman Samuel ben Levi, a passionate but very theological minded man who ends up one of Jacob’s longest and most ardent disciples. As a self-described “born messenger,” Nahman takes it upon himself early in the book to write a chronicle of the Frankists — a chronicle that he begins before he even meets Jacob, when Nahman travelled the Polish countryside for the messiah who he believed was about to appear:

In Mięzybóż all were as attentive to words as we were; thus the town itself seemed wayward, will I, nill I, insubstantial, as if in the contact with the word, matter hid its tail between its legs and cowered, ashamed. The muddy, cart-trod road appeared to go nowhere, while the little cottages set along it and the house of learning — the only one with a wide wooden porch of rotted, blackened wood, into which we bored holes with our fingers — seemed to belong to dream.

The world of rural Poland is a kind of dream to Nahman, a “world of lack” made insubstantial by God’s departure. But it is also, as Tokarczuk’s patient detailing reminds us, the very real world of the European Jewish diaspora of the 18th and 19th centuries. This is a hermetic but fully functional universe, whose inhabitants seem to exist in a state of almost constant vibration, like a forest of bombarded antennae. Given their intense instability, it makes sense to us that they try to reinforce their shelters however they can, lining their imaginative burrows with everything from trade-routes to the treelike intricacy of scholastic Judaism. It also makes sense that, no matter how tightly they batten down their hatches, they are still unable to shake a deep apprehension — the knowledge that everything, including themselves, could be blown away at any second. The combination of vulnerability on the one hand and a sort of bone-level resilience on the other is a paradoxical one, but Tokarczuk achieves a harmony by utilizing a pair of devices that are not normally seen together in contemporary fiction. She combines, first, the modernist trick of breaking her story up into kaleidoscopic smaller fragments, and second, a narrative voice whose warmth and intimacy curl around these fragments like a nest cupping its eggs. The fusion should be awkward, but in Tokarczuk’s patient prose, translated superbly by Jennifer Croft, it turns out to be a natural fit, making us wonder why it hasn’t been attempted more often. On the contrary, the post-Flaubertian novel has so often separated authority and personality, as if these were two chemicals that would explode if mixed.

Again, Lawrence seems to be the obvious exception here. But Tokarczuk’s chunky, perpetually interested voice bears no resemblance to his bullying certainties. If anything, her storytelling reminds us more of the patient needlework of Lawrence’s own great predecessor and inspiration, George Eliot, who in books like Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch used the novel’s capaciousness to move her readers past their judgments into a humanism scrubbed free of straightjacketed categories. In a similar way, Tokarczuk’s voice refuses to hold the Frankists at arm’s length, preferring to keep us at their elbows, no matter how strange the things asked of them:

Jacob tells her to go to the gentiles’ shop — higher up there is a village of goyim — to get some Christian bread. Sobla declines. Someone else fetches the bread, and Jacob starts to pass out pieces of it, and some are so in awe of him that they receive it, committing sacrilege. His behavior is bizarre, too; he suddenly stops to listen as though hearing voices only he can hear. He says nonsensical things in some strange language, repeating, for instance, ‘ze-ze-ze,’ and trembling all over. What that is supposed to mean, Sobla has no idea — no one knows, but his disciples take it seriously. Moshe from Podhajce explains to Israel that what Jacob’s chanting is just ‘Ma’asim Zarim, Ma’asim Zarim,’ that he’s talking about the ‘Strange Deeds” — in other words, that from which it would be necessary to begin. Foreign deeds, bizarre, strange things, incomprehensible at first glance, that would seem very odd indeed to the uninitiated — though the initiated, those closest to Jacob, would understand. They now have to do everything that was one prohibited.

With their hesitancy and football-huddle intimacy, descriptions like this one help us imagine the Frankists’ experience as something round and complex: a path of doubt and confusion, as opposed to simply a way to eat white bread and have sex with other people’s spouses. They refuse to paint Jacob’s followers in the satanic day-glo they might have earned in, say, the Prestige Television version of the story. This decision sounds like it would be anticlimactic, but actually it turns out to be a very effective method of storytelling, luring us onward without ever giving us an excuse to pull ourselves out of the boiling water of the Frankists’ transformations. The novel’s straight-faced lack of hysteria becomes more important as its story begins to coalesce even more tightly around the hypnotic and occasionally repulsive figure of Jacob Frank himself, who Tokarczuk wisely describes as much through distancing snippets and after-the-fact glimpses as she does through straightforward presentation. Here again her formal choices feel both intuitive and congenial to the novel form itself, since they allow her to paint a portrait of Frank that avoids specious psychologizing while at the same time not underselling the accomplishment of the man at the center of things, who after all did give his followers something more than empty promises and browbeatings.

So what did he give them? The question lingers around the edges of The Books of Jacob, not because Tokarczuk refuses to answer it but because she answers it so well. She allows the Frankists to answer, in ways that always make their situation feel surprisingly poignant:

Yente’s father, who saw with his own eyes the First, that is Sabbatai, brought the Messiah home on his lips into their home and passed it on to his favorite daughter. The Messiah is something more than a figure and a person — it is something that flows in your blood, resides in your breath, it is the dearest and most precious human thought: that salvation exists. And that’s why you have to cultivate it like the most delicate plant, blow on it, water it with tears, put it in the sun during the day, move it into a warm room in the nighttime.

The Messiah mentioned in this passage is Sabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century Turkish Sephardic Jew who many of the Frankists and Jacob himself admit to be his great predecessor. At the same time, he is also Jacob himself. He is any prophet anywhere, meaning anyone who we believe in, not because we think that what he prophesies will come true but because we cannot live in a world that does not include the possibility he represents — as Tokarczuk beautifully puts it, “that salvation exists.” This is a belief that many of the characters in The Books of Jacob begin to question — that we ourselves begin to question, especially as the story of the Frankists enters its inevitable chute-like decline. For after hundreds of pages of walking with these people, we cannot help but desire a certain comeuppance for them as their story nears an end — a slamming of the door, if only to reassure us the world will not end. Life will continue the way it always has, disfigured and disappointing. Though it may feel like our privilege to feel smug about this, one of the most beautiful effects of The Books of Joseph’s last three hundred pages or so is that it constantly nudges us past this smugness and towards a melancholy that makes the Frankists’ fate feel much more like a universal condition, as opposed to just a punishment meted out on a particular group of fools.

Another way to say this: as things fall apart in this book, they get very sad, not melodramatically but gently and irresistibly, like a reminder, as opposed to some new truth. It is a sadness that makes us nostalgic, at least partially, for the joy of a life that knows where it is going and what it is doing — a life of prophecy, as the physician Rudolf Ascherbach reflects at one point late in the narrative. As a converted Jew himself — his original name was Asher Rubin —  Asherbach has memories of the Frankists from their earlier, more optimistic days. These are memories, like so many from his pre-conversion life, he has worked hard to forget. But one night, while attending to a young woman wasting mysteriously away, he has a vision of Hayah Shorr, the charismatic “prophetess” who was one of Jacob’s earliest followers:

That woman who was young then, and must be sixty years old by now, if she is still alive. Perhaps Mrs. Rudnitzky would be relieved by prophecy, by the agile navigation of the darkness of her reason, of its shadows and fogs. Perhaps that is also a good place to live. Maybe that is what he should advise her husband: “Mr. Rudnitzky, your wife ought to start to prophesy, for that will help her.”

Unlike Lawrence, but like Tokarczuk herself, Asher’s meditation is humane, meaning resolutely interested in seeing human beings as valuable in and of themselves, rather than as means to an end. Seen through his Chekhovian lenses, prophecy, for all its destructive potential, begins to look essential, “the dearest and most precious human thought.” It satisfies needs that reason cannot touch, putting our conscious minds in communication with our shared and essential human rootlessness at the same time as it widens our experience of the world. In this way, the artifact that it reminds us of most turns out to be, surprisingly enough, the novel itself, which in Tokarczuk’s vital reimagining flourishes as an art uniquely capable of putting the world back together — or if not uniquely, then at least in a way that neither Asher’s reason nor Frank himself could really do. It connects, in other words (“Only connect,” as that other great follower of Eliot, E.M. Forester, famously put it). The Books of Jacob suggests that, no matter how far apart our various spheres of experience may seem, they are, in fact, talking to each other. “So many things remain quietly connected,” as Tokarczuk writes, on the last page of her astounding novel. After reading it, one miracle is that we can believe her.

Josh Billings is a writer, translator, and nurse who lives in Farmington, Maine. 

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.