A Reader’s Guide to Reading “The Books of Jacob” With and Against the Riverhead Reader’s Guide

The length of The Books of Jacob, the newest novel by Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft’s translation from the Polish, is the book’s first notable quality. The review copy I received in the mail flopped around uncomfortably in my hands like a fish’s carcass; throughout the months that I carried it around, I felt its weight physically and mentally, acutely conscious that I had agreed to a project that I subsequently regretted.  The length of the book was briefly mentioned in the reviews I skimmed, but they spun it as evidence of Tokarczuk’s brilliance by using phrases like “epic” and “magnum opus,” which seem very authoritative. These are terms that capture the loftiness of Tokarczuk’s literary endeavour, which she likened to the “dream of lofty viewing points and wide perspectives” in her 2018 Nobel Prize lecture.  I wasn’t entirely convinced that she had carried out her own task when I finally squeaked past the finish line.

 The first chapter of The Books of Jacob takes place in Rohatyn in the 18th century, which is currently in western Ukraine but was under Polish administration at the time. A diverse group of locals gather in Rohatyn on market day, including several of the novel’s major characters: a scholarly Catholic priest, a tough-minded noblewoman, and a self-taught poet.  They establish a growing number of links, bringing an ever-growing cast of people into the novel’s world, which quickly develops into one that is transnational, transdenominational, even transhuman (insofar as it goes beyond a human-centric perspective), and trans-historical.  For instance, two parts in the novel’s last book trace the evolution of Jacob’s skull and the collection known as New Athens across time.

 Jacob Frank, the novel’s powerful yet elusive centre of gravity, serves as the crucial link holding this patchy network together. He is said to be the next prophet, and he has a magnetic presence that captivates almost everyone he meets. He alternates between acting like a helpless lamb and acting like a terrible tyrant who punishes his followers arbitrarily, even deciding which of them can have relations. Although they also experience periods of impressive proximity to state power, such as when Jacob and his daughter Eva are in close consort with Emperor Joseph II of Austria and Maria Theresa, their struggles—which include vile anti-Semitic rejection by the Catholic church, subsequent acceptance within its ranks, and ultimately being followed by charges of heresy leading to a 13-year imprisonment in a monastery—are 

Every character—aside from Jacob himself—might be regarded as a minor character due to the novel’s vast size. The reader’s preferences determine which ideas stick. Gitla, a promiscuous Polish lady who thinks she is a princess and was formerly Jacob’s most passionate lover, stood out to me as one of them. She is eccentric and obstinate:

She always wears odd apparel and maintains a constant state of chaos. She spent the entire summer walking through the soggy fields outside of town, reciting poetry and going alone to the cemetery. She always carried a book with her. According to her aunt, that is what happens when a girl is taught to read. This is the result of what Gitla’s negligent father did. Many bad things happen because of educated women. And there is sort of evidence for that. Who in the world goes to a graveyard for recreation?

It’s difficult to pinpoint why I liked this passage given that it doesn’t represent a literary milestone in terms of portraying a quasi-hysterical, free-spirited woman. Perhaps I found it amusing that her guardians have serious concerns about her interests in grasslands, poetry, and death, which are oddly attributed to her education. Nevertheless, it left an impact on me, and when Gitla later reappeared, penniless and without a trace of her former vivacity, I was curious as to what exactly had sapped her life energy. 

Elbieta Drubacka, a lady-in-waiting and poet, is another figure. She has a lengthy correspondence with a Catholic priest about things like the “perfection of imprecise forms” and her love of colloquial language. Later on in the book, she writes fewer letters, and the few that are repeated are excuses for being too preoccupied with caring for or eventually mourning the death of her daughter.  Reading is a practise in observing how their traces enter the historical-fictional archive in both circumstances. Similar to browsing a family tree online, one is left wondering at the bits of information that pop up yet accepting the gaps. In fact, the gaps—if you can even call them that—are so vast that it’s amazing they aren’t so big as to swallow the remaining glimmers whole.

 The microhistory that comes to mind when reading The Books of Jacob is not a book, but rather Emma Rothschild’s An Infinite History, which began rather haphazardly with the life of a lady in rural France in the 18th century and unravelled the lives of her descendants over the centuries.  Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg is credited with developing the concept of microhistories. At the core of his most famous work, The Cheese and the Worms, is another historical heresy: in 1583, a miller from northeastern Italy was brought before the Inquisition for his cosmological belief that the world was created out of chaos “just as cheese is made out of milk,” with angels occupying a place in the universe similar to worms in cheese. A “science of the lived,” defined by Ginzburg and Carlo Poni as “a history that is full of individuals and stories and is not necessarily a history of the great and the renowned,” is what they pushed. 

A passage from Tokarczuk’s 2009 murder mystery Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead perfectly sums up her idea, which is not dissimilar but wrapped in mysticism: “It’s evident that the grandest things are contained in the smallest.  In her storytelling, she pays meticulous attention to these “smallest” details, such as rumours about a bishop’s declining mental acuity, roll calls that are repeated at ceremonies and gatherings, notes on Jacob’s medical conditions, such as lactose intolerance, which results in a hernia that excites his servants into thinking he has “two members,” and an inventory of the miniature domestic items that go into Jacob’s daughter’s dollhouse. 

Despite its focus on the minute, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a pared-down story with a small town setting, told by a lady whose narrative style is exclusion, bigotry, and an unwillingness to humanise those she dislikes.  Contrarily, The Books of Jacob presents a maximalist fictional world with so many characters, languages, civilizations, faiths, artefacts, and events spread throughout a time period up to the Holocaust that it is only natural for the author to become focused with how to best narrate it all. In such a universe, the narrator takes on the role of a curator whose job it is to select artefacts from the historical cabinet of curiosities and arrange them intelligently so as to provoke thought, emotion, or revelation. 

How deeply that question permeated Tokarczuk’s writing was evident in her Nobel Prize talk from 2019, “The Tender Narrator. I’ll start by liberally quoting from it here. She described the state of literary output today as “equivalent to a choir made up of soloists, voices striving for attention, all travelling similar routes, drowning one another out,” with a lot of first-person narrative and a core concern with a “authorial self.  Even if it excludes a wider perspective, Tokarczuk remarked, “We have found that this type of individualised point of view, this voice from the self, is the most genuine, human, and honest. 

How should our story be written and organised to be able to raise this enormous, constellation-like form of the world? In a pose, Tokarczuk. The prospect of discovering “the foundations of a new story that is global, complete, all-inclusive, anchored in nature, full of situations, and at the same time understandable” intrigued her.  At this point in the discussion, Tokarczuk grew looser and less literal, expressing her belief in the existence of This “fourth-person” narrator supposedly transcends this realm of reality by going beyond third-person omniscience. All of this seems fanciful and abstract, but Tokarczuk uses the narrator she developed for The Books of Jacob. This story’s narrator, Yente, is an elderly woman on the verge of death who was foolishly brought to Rohatyn for a relative’s wedding. Her name means “she who spreads the news and she who teaches others. She gains the capacity to view “all from above” after ingesting an amulet, entering a state of existence where she is neither fully living nor fully dead. The book is filled with chapters that discuss what Yente can see, recall, and sense.The reader is only informed of the inhuman connections, observations, and foresight that Yente is capable of detecting without really telling the story. This results in some weird, mystical reporting that almost seems extraterrestrial. For instance, once a religious proclamation is made when a comet passes by, the passage that follows appears:

There is no language to describe the radically different reality that lies behind [the words pronounced]. Yente, whose perspective is not shared by anyone else, is reminded of a bursting—a softness, a stickiness, a fleshiness, with many facets and dimensions, but without time. Gold, silky, warm, and warm.  It resembles some bizarre living body that has been exposed by a wound or the juicy pulp that comes out from under skin that has been broken.

 The narrator makes a gesture at an unarticulated concept of interconnection, wholeness, and conscience when he declares that”It” refers to this “completely different world” that only Yente can access; “there is no terminology to explain it. Trusting a storyteller whose primary quality is insight that defies language is counterintuitive. This configuration has a refraction effect, which means that a narrator must be used to describe the “fourth-person” narrator’s powers. Who is the narrator, exactly? An explanation appears at the end of the book, when a character experiences the dual presence of Yente and “someone entirely”:

Someone was compassionately watching them, including her and the office, as well as all of the brothers and sisters who were dispersed throughout the world and the onlookers in the streets.  This person is detail-oriented. Here, Tokarczuk indulges in some fun irony by allowing her characters to confront their creator (or alternatively, their witnesses, i.e. readers). But the narrator’s fixation on limitless recurrence clouds the novel’s cosmology, or to put it another way, its narrative logic.

 Who, Tokarczuk wondered in her acceptance address for the Nobel Prize, was able to pen the “amazing sentence,” “And God saw that it was good? Tokarczuk, though, is hesitant to completely give in to this fourth-person narrator. She clings to a few other narrator characters. The most dedicated follower of Jacob is a diligent historian named Nahman, a learned and passionate man who falls in love with Jacob and who covertly records his words and actions despite Jacob’s stated prohibition.  Readers can read his works, which he refers to as “Scraps,” in their entirety as primary source papers formatted in a distinct font. Jacob is unbreakable in himself:His prophetic influence is passionately attested to by the individuals in the narrative, but from the viewpoint of a historical reader who has only heard about him through testimony, his charisma seems mysterious.  Presidents, popes, and prophets are never sympathetic figures, and he is not one of them. (Even their agony is sublimated, which is categorically different from how we suffer; there is no higher purpose to our suffering.) Jacob doesn’t start to make sense to me until Nahman, Jacob’s tireless right-hand man who would sacrifice anything for him, and figures like Nahman do: he is someone whose presence is the reason for the creation of several other characters. 

A Polish priest who is compiling the first Polish encyclopaedia and whose quest to obtain Jewish texts initiates the entire narrative as well as a poetess who challenges him on whether or not human experience might not be viewed from a completely different perspective are the other two narrator characters.  The priest is a very fallible figure whose naive reliance in textual authority stops him from being appropriately wary of made-up anti-Semitic accusations, despite Tokarczuk admitting her personal affection for him and his dedication to the work of human knowledge. 

Reading a story told from their points of view does not limit us as much as it gives us a sense of investment that is synonymous with the human experience. These narrators, with their blind spots and biases, are the people who live in this world. The result is a narrator who refuses to acknowledge that she is narrating and who is situated in a position that is both everywhere and nowhere in The Books of Jacob because Tokarczuk is torn between her love for the entangled, partial, flawed kinfolk of the earth and her desire for a God-like

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