The Books of Jacob

Jacob Frank

The main problem with this book is obvious at first sight: it is just too big! Olga Tokarczuk is a great writer and no doubt deserved her Nobel Prize. I was looking forward to reading this one because I enjoyed her book Flights, a strange, fragmentary, but very readable and amusing meditation on travel and curiosity. The Books of Jacob also has an interesting subject: it tells the historical story of Jacob Frank, the eighteenth century leader of a Jewish cult that picked up on the legacy of Rabbi Sabbatai Tzvi. Tzvi (as Tokarczuk spells him – ‘Zevi’ is a more pronounceable version) was a self-proclaimed Messiah who converted to Islam under duress. Many of his followers, rather than giving up on him, assumed that they were to follow his lead, converting either sincerely or just outwardly. Frank’s followers, somewhat similarly, were instructed to reject the Talmud and undergo Christian baptism, though it seems, according to this account, that they secretly practised scandalous rituals of their own devoted to the principle of purification through sin. The book relates their struggles with the authorities in several countries and with unconverted Jews, the help and indulgence they sometimes got from Christians impressed by the possibility of bringing hundreds of Jews into the church; Jacob’s imprisonment in Częstochowa, his release and last years living like an aristocrat in Offenbach. It seems to be a largely accurate historical account, the main exception being the character Yente. Yente, a sick old woman, is given a charm to wear which will keep her alive until a family wedding is complete, but she swallows it, becoming an immortal spirit who watches the lives of her family thereafter. She could have been a handy way of telling the story, but in fact only gets an occasional mention.

The book is well written, but it tells the story in immense detail, never cutting out episodes or characters that seem relatively peripheral or inconsequential. Many letters are given in full, long letters between minor characters discussing, for example, whether it is better to write in Latin or the vernacular. The letters are highly plausible in terms of characterisation and history, and they were probably enjoyable to write, but they add even more length to a text which is already radically oversized (I think it should have been no more than about a quarter of its actual length). Finishing the book, I’m afraid, honestly becomes a bit of a slog.

The thing is, long books can be easily readable if they are really interesting. What I wanted to know here was what on Earth motivated these serious, thoughtful Jews to accept Jacob as divinely inspired, rejecting their own heritage and ethical standards? Some of the things they do – deliberately triggering a pogrom against their Jewish enemies by accusing them of murdering Christian children for their blood, for example – seem unforgivable. Alas, that core issue remained a mystery to me while more and more detail of events piled up.

I can’t therefore recommend the book – but have a go at Flights if you want to know what’s so great about Tokarczuk.