The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk [8/10]

The Books of Jacob,” a 2014 novel recently and superbly translated by Jennifer Croft, is not for the faint-hearted. Over its thousand-plus pages teeming with hundreds of names and places, set in 18th-century Poland, Austria, and Turkey, in boggy towns and lush cities, Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk adopts a presidential omniscient stance but feels free to use letters, snippets, a ghost, different tenses, and so on and so on. Sometimes it seems like every page is just too dense to carry on, but after early slowness, I warmed to the sheer flood of detail and poetic descriptions. The Jacob of the title is Jacob Frank (although he ends up using many names), a charismatic prophet who seems to want to unite the region’s disparate religions—Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic—into a pantheistic mishmash of portent and vagueness. And Jacob Frank is no Christ wannabe, he’s a handsome, gnarly, trickster character echoing all those cult leaders we have come to know over history. Like many of them, he uses charisma and sex and human nature to dominate his flocks, which in some years grow into mobs. Over the decades of his surprisingly long life, the prophet morphs and relocates, ducks and weaves, always using up his disciples. After my initial bafflement, I learned to relax into the compendious, earthy yet intellectual detail, and by the end, I was quite moved by a sense of having participated in something approaching holiness (even as Frank’s grubby behavior obviously disqualified such an emotion). The Books of Jacob is a welcome avalanche of a book, definitely worth the reading effort.

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