Friday, August 19, 2022

WITMonth Day 19 | The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk | Review

Note: This review contains mild spoilers for The Books of Jacob, and references to the real-world figures described within the novel.

I first learned of The Books of Jacob in reference to the English-language translation by Jennifer Croft, whose work on Flights I had quite enjoyed (and whose other translations I have also liked quite a lot). But the first edition of it I considered purchasing was actually the translation into Hebrew, which came out before the English. I ultimately decided to wait, and then wait again for the US hardcover edition to come out. If I was going to read a massive, almost-1000-paged book, I wanted it to be a comfortable reading experience. Hardcovers are ridiculously heavy, but they can be placed flat on a surface and their pages easily propped up. Plus, they're prettier.

So it came to be that I had already heard a lot of opinions about The Books of Jacob before I ever began it, from fellow English-language book bloggers and "casual" Hebrew-language readers alike. The consensus was that the book is massively impressive, immersive, and interesting. And yet I came into the reading extremely skeptical. While I had quite enjoyed Flights when I read it several years ago, my experience reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones) was anything but. I found that novel to be tedious and wholly overrated. Almost everything about it irked me, even in the parts where I could again recognize Tokarczuk's literary talents. Against all odds, I found a novel so beloved by so many other readers to be thoroughly mediocre. (When has that ever happened to me?? Not on a bi-weekly basis, surely not.) What guaranteed that this wouldn't be the case with The Books of Jacob?

Once I began reading this massive book, though, my concerns began to morph a little. And by the time I was well on my way, I realized that my concerns were much more about what the novel was about than what the novel was. And they were really more about myself than anything else.

There are a few things that make The Books of Jacob fairly remarkable. Beyond its size, its status as a massive opus from a Nobel-prize winning (woman!) author, and its stylistic quirks (all of which I'll discuss momentarily), The Books of Jacob is one of the first books I've ever read, I think, that so clearly focuses on religious Jewish life without having been written from within that community. Jewish stories are often narrowly limited in terms of their scope, particularly as written by non-Jews. And even when there are representations of Jewish life or Jewish characters, they are often stripped of their faith and traditions. There really aren't that many books today about Judaism.

The Books of Jacob is... not quite that either, because The Books of Jacob is only nominally about Jews. It's a book about Jacob Frank, a messianic cult leader in the 18th century who was born to Jewish followers of the earlier messianic cult leader, Shabbtai Zvi (this spelling is per the Hebrew convention; there are many alternate spellings). I was familiar with Shabbtai Zvi before reading The Books of Jacob, but had never heard of Jacob Frank himself - until well into reading The Books of Jacob, I had not realized that he was not a fictional leader but based on a real historical figure. This did little to temper my hesitation, to be perfectly honest. The problem - and this is certainly not Tokarczuk's fault! - is that I myself (as most of you probably know) am Jewish, and more importantly, observantly, deeply anti-mystical Jewish. I grew up in a tradition that firmly rejected precisely the sorts of religious leaders who could ultimately become someone like Jacob Frank. From almost every perspective, the traditions, behaviors, and choices carried out by Frank's followers within The Books of Jacob are anathema to my life.

Suffice to say, I had to grit my teeth a lot throughout this book. But it was not always a bad thing.

It was an odd feeling, no doubt. Tokarczuk very clearly lays out the premise of her story and the narrative she wishes to share. This is a story of a particular cult leader and a particular religious denomination, through the lens of that group. While Tokarczuk does, on occasion, give the perspective of the "Talmudists" who reject Sabbatean/Frankist ideology as heretical, I kept wondering how this novel reads to someone unfamiliar with the nuances of Jewish faith and tradition. Most of those reading this novel are likely not Jewish. While Tokarczuk is never judgemental in her perspective (one way or another; this is actually somewhat remarkable, I must say), it does feel like the reader is supposed to look upon Frank and his followers in a skeptical light, at the very least. It's hard not to. The reader is privy to all of his flaws and to the trickling effect of his actions. But does a non-Jewish reader recognize just how much of Frank's decisions and actions go against even the Jewish traditions from which he claims to emerge?

There are other aspects that left me wondering whether the text was truly explicit enough. Unsurprisingly, The Books of Jacob includes a lot of antisemitism. Some of it is voiced by point-of-view characters; some of it is merely referenced. But it's constantly there, humming under the surface. There is a recurring discussion of blood libel, in particular, with the Frankists using that ancient and terrible antisemitic trope to try to discredit their Talmudist opponents and strengthen their own position in relation to the Christian authorities. The same leveheaded, non-judgemental approach that Tokarczuk employs throughout the novel began to feel extremely uncomfortable. Does Tokarczuk believe that her readers - particularly her Polish readers, coming from a country where antisemitism never really left and where there is a profound refusal to acknowledge a responsibility for antisemitic violence - can read these casual explorations of blood libel and know for certain that the Frankists are the ones who are lying? I mean, yeah, probably, but I could not shake off my own discomfort throughout those sections. The cruel and casual antisemitism of so many different characters, the almost cheerful pogroms incited... they all reminded me of my own family's Jewish history in Poland. That history is pockmarked with violence, culminating in the Holocaust. Even knowing that Tokarczuk herself surely does not mean to perpetuate these harmful myths, reading them on the page was painful and difficult. I cannot pretend otherwise.

Yet even with these personal doubts and discomforts, I could barely set this book down. For all its size, for all its breadth, for all its sprawling massive messiness as it alternates between dozens of different characters (many of whom end up having two names - Jewish and Christian), for all its feeling of being oddly incomplete and also somehow way longer than any book reasonably could be (though it's hardly the first long book I've ever read, and also hardly the longest...)... The Books of Jacob is good. It's good in how it shifts its focus at just the moment where you start to feel exhausted by the current narrative thread. It's good in how it makes you hate and care for a dozen different characters, the vast majority of whom emphatically do not deserve to be appreciated as characters. It's good in how the writing does, against all odds, maintain a very distinct external narration (alongside the explicit in-story external narration; the two somehow feel distinct) and a cool detachment from a thoroughly engaged text. It's good in how it travels, both as a literal narrative and as a figurative one, starting as one sort of story and ending up as a thoroughly different one. Like in Flights, Tokarczuk does an excellent job of showing that there is more than one perspective, experience, or narrative to a given story (in this case, an individual). It's a good novel and a good translation and a worthy piece of fiction, despite its flaws. I could not possibly recommend this strange, expansive novel to every reader, but certainly if you've seen The Books of Jacob and contemplated reading it, I would say you should. You'll find the pages flipping by rather quickly...

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