Rym Kechacha reviews The Books of Jacob: a wonderful, huge and complex book that asks the reader to “turn our gaze away from the simple”, and instead embrace flux, transformation, and narrative that “sprawls like a great tree’s roots”.
There is a moment at the beginning of Olga Tokarczuk’s 2014 novel The Books of Jacob (translated by Jennifer Croft) when the eponymous Jacob, an eighteenth century Jewish leader who proclaimed himself the messiah and led the conversion of thousands of Jewish people to Christianity, tells one of his closest friends to stop writing. ‘If a person wants to storm a fortress, he won’t get in by talking. Words come and go.’ But the scribbler doesn’t obey him; ‘His writing…is in essence tikkun, the repair of the world, mending the holes in its fabric so filled with overlapping patterns, squiggles, tangles, trails.’
As I read these paragraphs, I had the feeling of falling through lines of text, of veils of printed words drifting around me only to lift to show more veils, more words, more languages. It was an exhilarating feeling and I got it again and again as I kept reading, usually at parts that had to do with writing. When an elderly woman eats an amulet of words; when a Bishop attempts to explain the numerical mysticism of the Hebrew alphabet to assembled Polish nobility; during a court deposition in which rabbis debate the translation of a single word.
The Books of Jacob is a complex book, one that requires you to immerse yourself in its world before it offers any reward. As the text ducks and loops around the many characters who wander through the narrative, the book becomes like a tapestry where it is almost impossible to snip off the threads. The writing resists the elevation of one protagonist over another; everyone gets woven into an ever greater and more elaborate pattern that starts to repeat and rhyme. There is an honesty to this, a radical kind of realism that is more faithful to the way we experience our lives. This is not a tight, focused novel in which every word is in the devoted service of one story that progresses along a single line from its beginning to its ending. This book sprawls, like a web or a great tree’s roots; like the stories your friends tell you of their own lives that intersect yours, like a mythology of all you know. In some ways, capturing the unruliness of a story too huge to be written down has proven to be Tokarczuk’s literary project.
Tokarczuk won the Man Booker International Prize with Jennifer Croft in 2018 for her 2007 novel Flights. It’s one of what she calls her ‘constellation’ novels, in which the story happens in the friction between fragments. In vignettes and tales and episodes from lives, the reader enters into an act of co-creation with the writer; she provides the skeleton and the organs and we provide the connective tissue. Primeval and Other Times, translated into English by Antonia Lloyd Jones in 2010, takes place over the course of the twentieth century in a fictional Polish village. Like The Books of Jacob, it resists main characters and plot arcs and tidy conclusions. It’s this challenge in structure that draws me to her books, that sense that she is pushing at the borders of how her readers experience a story. Tokarczuk strips away the layers of artifice in how we construct narratives but what she constructs in its place is far less simple. She is utterly uninterested in contorting her writing to fit ideas about three act structure or the Hero’s Journey. She does not show us something neat and tidy, she will not save us with simplicity. She pulls away the walls and shows you how the tapestry goes on and on past the little shelters you have made for yourself and you feel your heart soar and your head spin with it.
The Books of Jacob can be confusing. I didn’t always find it easy to keep track of names or family relationships and after a while I stopped trying. I googled place names only to fall down rabbit holes of hyperlinked information about the territorial fluctuations of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Everything is connected to everything else and when you start tugging on one thread the whole thing moves. The book is set between what is now Poland, Belarus, Austria and Ukraine, with trips into Ottoman Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Again, Tokarczuk gently turns our gaze away from the simple. She erases the dotted lines of borders on the map and asks us to consider something more complex, more real; that flux and transformation are the only constants.
I like using weaving metaphors for storytelling. Tokarczuk’s Nobel lecture (translated into English by Jennifer Croft and Antonia Lloyd Jones) not only uses this metaphor, it is also one of the most powerful pieces of writing about storytelling in the twenty first century I have ever read:
‘I also dream of a new kind of narrator – a “fourth-person” one, who is not merely a grammatical construct of course, but who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters, as well as having the capacity to step beyond the horizon of each of them, who sees more and has a wider view, and who is able to ignore time.’
‘Seeing everything means recognizing the ultimate fact that all things that exist are mutually connected into a single whole, even if the connections between them are not yet known to us. Seeing everything also means a completely different kind of responsibility for the world, because it becomes obvious that every gesture “here” is connected to a gesture “there,” that a decision taken in one part of the world will have an effect in another part of it, and that differentiating between “mine” and “yours” starts to be debatable.’
Perhaps it is hard for a modern person to dissolve that gap between here and there to understand the depth of Jacob Frank’s disciples’ devotion. That they might follow him through poverty, ridicule and the loss of their dearly held heritage because they believed in something bigger than themselves. That lives and deaths might hinge on the translation of a word from the Torah. That people might have had such faith in the concept of a person incarnated on Earth to save us from ourselves.
Does such millenarianism still exist in the secular imagination? I think it does. The idea that one person, however inevitably flawed, might, by virtue of their very presence on earth, guide us out of this tumult that drags us down to our basest levels, still has weight. Someone, somewhere, will do something. Carbon capture, nuclear fusion. We will be saved and it will be so beyond our comprehension that it might as well be divine. And then everything will be all right.
The Books of Jacob is a novel that asks us to consider that it is not alright, but that it simply is. It asks us to drift above the events of the world like Yente, the ‘fourth person narrator’, kept alive by an amulet of words and act accordingly. To accept that we are not the main character and the story does not travel in a line and end when we do. To consider that our every word – thought, spoken or written – might repair the tapestry of the world, or at least a few of its threads.
The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions and is available to order online.
Feature image: Olga Tokarczuk by Lukasz Giza, courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions.