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Olga Tokarczuk: Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob)

This monumental work – nearly a thousand pages long – tells the stories of Jacob Frank and Benedykt Chmielowski, two eighteenth century Polish religious leaders, the first, of course, Jewish, and the second Catholic, as well as many other historical characters of that period.

Frank was what was known as a false Messiah. That is, he claimed to be a real Messiah and, specifically, to be the reincarnation of Sabbatai Zevi, a false Messiah of the late seventeenth century. Chmielowski was a priest and is best known for having written the first encyclopedia in Polish and much of his story is about his efforts to do this, involving, in particularly, his efforts to get hold of books, a rare commodity in those days, which involved him in contacts with the Jewish community.

We open with Chmielowski as he tries to expand his sources. He wants, effectively, to create an encyclopedia which would be a compilation of all existing works. To do this he realises that the Jewish intellectuals often have books which he would not normally see and so he contacts Elisha Shorr, a historical character who will play a fairly important role in this book as a supporter of Jacob Frank. Shorr does not speak Polish so Chmielowski uses a local lad as an interpreter, which leads to some confusion. He offers Shorr Athanasius Kircher‘s Turris Babel, and gets, in exchange, what he thinks is the Sefer ha-zohar but turns out not to something else.

We then meet Katarzyna Kossakowska née Potocka, a grande dame who is travelling round but who is also interesting because of her travelling companion, Elżbieta Drużbacka, a poet, who is one of the several interesting, educated women Tokarczuk introduces. She will maintain an interesting correspondence with Chmielowski. Both women will make several appearances in this book.

One aspect of this correspondence is on a topic dear to Tockarzuk, language. Drużbacka complains to Chmielowski that he uses too flowery a language in his use of Latin. We will see references to language later in the book, for example when talking about Jacob Frank. We learn that at least part of Jacob’s success is due to the fact that he does not speak like the wise men, using long and complicated sentences but, rather speaks clearly and briefly, the language spoken in the markets.

The focus of this novel is, as the title tells us, on Jacob Frank and his heresy. We first see the issue of heresy in Rohatyn, where Elisha Shorr lives and where Chmielowski, Katarzyna Kossakowska and Elżbieta Drużbacka visit. The Jewish community is split between the traditional Talmud-reading Jews and the heretics. We also meet the Jewish doctor, Asher Rubin, opposed to both. We also meet a Jewish woman who will play a fairly important role, Yenta, daughter of Majer from Kalisz. She will have various roles but will also show the suffering of the Jews. Her mother was gang-raped by Cossacks, though she survived and went on to have thirteen children, of which Yenta was the last. Anti-Semitism, including pogroms, persecution, expulsion, arbitrary punishments and exclusion, is a key theme of this novel. In particular, the idea that Jews capture Christians, particularly children and young women, to take their blood, seems to be widespread and features a lot in this novel, including an explanation of why some Christians think that this happens.

Our first real meeting of Jacob is with Nahman Samuel ben Levi of Busk. The two are travelling together (and arguing). Nahman Samuel ben Levi will go on to tell Jacob’s tale in this book and will be a loyal disciple.

It starts with Sabbatai Zevi, with various people claiming to be his successor. Nahman is writing his life, while following Jacob. We get a lot of detail about Jacob but, basically, his early life did not suggest that he was going to become a Messiah. He was born Jakób Lejbowicz to a poor family. His father was an adherent of Sabbatai Zevi.

As Tokarczuk points out more than once it is not entirely clear why he became the Messiah. As a young man he seems to have cheated some people out of money. He was keen on marrying Hannah, which he did. However, when he was a young man he travelled around as a travelling salesman. He spent time in the Ottoman Empire, became a Turkish citizen and will later seem to convert to Islam, though it was claimed, this was only for self-protection and it was only an image of Jacob that converted, not the real person. At one time, he seems keener on having a nice house and buying a nice present for his wife than on anything else.

However he soon becomes close to the Sabbateans, as the followers of Sabbatai Zevi are known. He seems to be a good speaker and he soon attracts a following but that also means he attracts enemies and we see some of those. Indeed, as he travels around what we now know as Turkey and Eastern Europe, he will be praised and attacked and, on some occasions, expelled and, later, imprisoned.

We know that historically he went to Poland (presumably why Tokarczuk chose him as a subject) but, initially, he was reluctant to go, not least because he did not speak Polish but Nahman encourages him to do so. He initially has other problems as, because of an epidemic, he is not allowed to enter the country. His welcome is mixed, not least because he is opposed by many traditional Jews.

We continue to follow the fairly complicated saga of Jacob and his supporters. He travels around, welcomed in some places, condemned in others. His main opposition comes from Jews who do not support his heresy and often run after him shouting Trinity, as it seems that part of his heresy is accepting the trinity of God. We will later see a detailed account of what the heretics believe, including rejecting the Talmud (full of unbelievable blasphemies against God).

Jacob is banished by the conventional Jews for his heresy but receives some support from the Christians, including Chmielowski and also from the Polish poet Antoni Kossakowski, also known as Moliwda, the name of a Greek island where he lived, who acts as a sort of roving ambassador. Even the king seems to support the heretics against the other Jews. Things change and the heretics are obliged to convert to Catholicism, which they do (including Jacob), claiming it as a temporary remedy. Some of them will later say that their economic situation has improved considerably by becoming Catholics. Jacob is later arrested and imprisoned for being a heretic.

In the meantime, we have been following a variety of other issues We have a couple of epidemics, including a serious typhus one, a push to get the heretics granted their own state and lands, Jacob’s various miracles and the influence of the bogomils and the various ill-treatments the Jews suffer.

Jacob is sent to the monastery of Częstochowa to be imprisoned but seems to have a fairly comfortable existence there, receiving visitors. He stays there for thirteen years. He feels that it might be a good idea to create a greater rapprochement with the Russians and sends a mission to Russia which fails dismally. However, it is the Russians that free him, when they invade Poland. He is off again, this time to Brno (in the modern-day Czech Republic). He and his daughter, Eva, become involved with the royal court (Brno is in the Hapsburg Empire at the time)and it is Eva who will take over from him when he dies. Eva manages to save the town of Offenbach from the invading Napoleonic army and is later visited by the Tsar.

We follow a host of characters, from Gitla who seems to become Jacob’s servant but also mistress, whose father keeps looking for her to the bishop who runs up huge gambling debts, from Mordekhaï ben Elie Margalit Tsevi, known as Reb Mordke, an intellectual and supporter of Jacob to various other false Messiahs. Indeed, there is a cast of hundreds, some historical and some fictitious. It is difficult for us to always keep up with who they are, not least because of many of the heretical Jews change their names during the course of the book from their Jewish names to Polish names.

In particular, while the main characters are men – Benedykt Chmielowski and Jacob Frank – women play a key role role. Hannah, Jacob’s wife, Gitla, Yenta, Eva, Katarzyna Kossakowska and Elżbieta Drużbacka are just some of the women who have a considerable influence on events in this novel, showing that, while men may be the ones in the history books, women were playing an important role behind the scenes.

I can only say that this is an amazing book. How Tokarczuk kept track of all of her characters and managed to carry out detailed research is astounding. She does give a detailed bibliography, mainly but certainly not entirely Polish. I have said before that I really do enjoy long books like this as you can become completely immersed in a different world and feel involved in something outside your normal sphere and comfort zone. This book, in fact, kept me distracted as the coronavirus was just starting to get really serious and we were all being asked to self-isolate. This book did include a couple of epidemics as well, of course, as numerous deaths, so it is not necessarily a book to cheer you up.

Tokarczuk is superb at telling a first-class and complex story, at creating convincing but interesting characters, at showing the role of women in a male society and at working out fascinating and often highly unlikely relationships between her characters.

Jacob is a complex person. He may consider himself a Messiah but his love of the good life, of money and of the opposite sex, do not exactly conform to the stereotype of what a Messiah should be. His views, while remaining primarily Jewish, do veer in some way towards the Christian. Indeed, for a Jewish Messiah, being converted to both Islam and Christianity, seems rather odd.
Benedykt Chmielowski is fairly focussed on his encyclopedia – his story alone would make for an interesting novel – but does get caught up in the Jacob story. However, there are many, many others, some of whom I have mentioned only in passing and others not at all, who play a key role in the book as Jacob acquires and sheds supporters and confidants (and enemies) at a steady rate.

An almost one thousand page Polish novel about religious heresy in eighteenth century Poland and neighbouring states may not be to everyone’s taste but if you enjoy a complex novel with a historical background, if you enjoy novels of ideas and novels where women who might normally be hidden in the background come to the fore and, above all, if you enjoy superbly well-researched, well thought-out and brilliantly written novels, then I can thoroughly recommend this one

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Wydawnictwo Literackie
First English translation 2021 by Fizcarraldo
Translated by Jennifer Croft