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From the Omniscient to the Mundane in “The Books of Jacob”

From the Omniscient to the Mundane in “The Books of Jacob”

  • Our review of Olga Tokarczuk's "The Books of Jacob," translated by Jennifer Croft

The first striking feature of The Books of Jacob—the latest book from Olga Tokarczuk and translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft—is its length. The review copy I was mailed flopped around awkwardly in my hands in a manner reminiscent of a fish’s corpse; for the months that I carried it around, I felt its physical and psychological burden, pressingly aware that I had committed to a project that I vaguely regretted. Reviews I skimmed glossed over the book’s length, obligatorily mentioning this fact but then spinning it as a testament to Tokarczuk’s genius with very authoritative-sounding words like “epic” and “magnum opus.” Those are words that match the loftiness of Tokarczuk’s literary project, one which she compared in her 2018 Nobel Prize lecture with the “dream of high viewing points and wide perspectives.” When I finally inched past the finish line, I wasn’t quite sure she had fulfilled her own charge. 

The Books of Jacob begins in 18th century Rohatyn, a city which is now in western Ukraine but which at the start of the novel lies under Polish rule. Market day in Rohatyn draws a diverse crowd from the surrounding region, including some of the novel’s key figures: a bookish Catholic priest, a strong-headed noblewoman, and a self-taught poet. They forge multiplying connections, bringing an ever-expanding cast of characters into the world of the novel, which rapidly becomes a transnational, trans-denominational, even a trans-human (insofar as it transcends a human-centric perspective), and trans-historical one. Two fragments in the last book of the novel, for instance, track the movements of Jacob’s skull and a compendium called New Athens over the centuries.

The novel’s commanding yet elusive center-of-gravity, Jacob Frank, becomes the essential node holding this loose network together. Reputed to be the next prophet, he wields a charisma that keeps virtually everyone he encounters in his thrall. He swings between appearing as an innocent lamb, and behaving as a terrifying tyrant who inflicts arbitrary abuse on his acolytes, dictating even which of them can sleep with one another. Their travails—which involve vile anti-Semitic rejection by the Catholic church, subsequent acceptance within its ranks, only to ultimately be followed by charges of heresy resulting in a 13-year imprisonment in a monastery—are unrelenting, though they also enjoy 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.

By the sheer proportions of the novel, every character—with the exception of Jacob himself—might be considered a minor character. Which ones stick depends utterly on the reader’s predilections. One that stuck for me was Gitla, a promiscuous Polish woman who is convinced she is a princess and is for a time Jacob’s most passionate lover. She is idiosyncratic and headstrong:

“She walks around in an unfaltering state of disarray, always wearing eccentric clothing. All summer she traversed the damp meadows outside town, reciting poems, going to the cemetery by herself, always with a book in hand. Her aunt thinks that’s what happens when you teach a girl to read. Gitla’s careless father did as much, and this is the result. An educated woman is the cause of many misfortunes. And in a way, here is proof of this. What normal person spends her time in a cemetery?”

It’s hard to say exactly why I liked this passage granted that its portrayal of a quasi-hysterical, free-spirited woman is no literary breakthrough—maybe I was tickled by the notion that her penchants for grasslands and poetry and death, bizarrely attributed to her education, are a grave concern for her guardians. Still, it made an impression on me, and when Gitla later resurfaced destitute, a shadowy woman muted of all her initial juvenescence, I wanted to know more about what exactly had depleted her life force. 

Another character, Elżbieta Drużbacka, is a lady-in-waiting who is also a poet. She corresponds at length with a Catholic priest on topics like the “perfection of imprecise forms” and her preference for the vernacular. Later in the novel, her letters thin, and the few that are reprinted are apologies that she is too distracted caretaking or eventually grieving the death of her daughter. In both cases, reading is an exercise in witnessing the remnants of their lives that enter the historical-fictional archive. Much like surfing a genealogical tree online, one wonders at the morsels that turn up but accepts the gaps. Indeed, the gaps—if it’s even appropriate to call them that—are so immense that it’s a marvel that they don’t swallow the surviving glimmers whole.

The Books of Jacob calls to mind not a novel but a microhistory, specifically Emma Rothschild’s An Infinite History, which began rather randomly with the life of a woman in rural France in the 18th century and unspooled the lives of her descendants over the generations. Microhistories were originally theorized and pioneered by Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, and at the heart of his crowning 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 conviction that the world was formed out of chaos “just as cheese is made out of milk,” with angels occupying a place in the world akin to worms in cheese. Together with Carlo Poni, Ginzburg advanced a “science of the lived,” “a history that is full of individuals and stories and is not of necessity a history of the great and the celebrated.”

Tokarczuk’s project is not dissimilar, albeit shrouded in an aura of mysticism, and is succinctly captured by a line from her 2009 murder mystery Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead: “It’s clear that the largest things are contained in the smallest.” These “smallest” things—rumors of the degenerating mental clarity of a bishop; recurring roll calls of everyone present at ceremonies and gatherings; notes on Jacob’s medical ailments, including lactose intolerance, which causes the outgrowth of a hernia that excites his servants into thinking he has “two members”; an inventory of the miniature domestic goods that make up Jacob’s daughter’s dollhouse—are given exacting attention in her storytelling. 

Despite Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’s attention to the miniscule, the novel is pared down, set in a town with few inhabitants and told by a woman whose narrative signature is occlusion, prejudice, and a refusal to humanize those whom she despises. The Books of Jacob, by contrast, proffers a maximalist fictional world encompassing so much—so many people, languages, cultures, religions, artifacts, and events, over a stretch of time that reaches all the way up to the Holocaust—that it is only natural for the writer to become preoccupied with how to best narrate it all. The narrator, in such a world, becomes a curator whose task is to extract objects from the cabinet of curiosities that is history and to display them sensibly next to one another in a way that can induce thought, feeling, or revelation. 

Tokarczuk’s 2019 Nobel Prize lecture, titled “The Tender Narrator,” was a testament to how thoroughly that question riddled her writerly craft. Here I will proceed to quote from it liberally. She identified literary production today as a field crowded with first-person narration that was centrally concerned with an “authorial self,” a situation “akin to a choir made up of soloists only, voices competing for attention, all traveling similar routes, drowning one another out.” “We have determined that this type of individualized point of view, this voice from the self, is the most natural, human and honest, even if it does abstain from a broader perspective,” Tokarczuk said.

“How are we to write, how are we to structure our story to make it capable of raising this great, constellation form of the world?” Tokarczuk posed. She wondered at the possibility of locating “the foundations of a new story that’s universal, comprehensive, all-inclusive, rooted in nature, full of contexts and at the same time understandable.” At this point in the lecture, Tokarczuk became less rigorous and more allusive, pronouncing her faith in the existence of a “fourth-person” narrator who “manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters” and who possesses “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.”

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Ostensibly, this “fourth-person” narrator goes beyond third-person omniscience in her transcendence of this plane of existence. This all sounds abstract and implausible, but Tokarczuk implements the narrator she prototypes in The Books of Jacob. This narrator is Yente (literally “she who spreads the news, and she who teaches others”), an ancient woman hovering on the brink of death imprudently brought a long distance to Rohatyn for a relative’s wedding. Upon swallowing an amulet she develops the ability to see “everything from above,” entering a sort of existence in which she is neither quite alive nor dead. Sections about what Yente can see, remember, and sense litter the novel. Yente never actually narrates; the reader is just told about the inhuman connections she can detect, the observations she can note, the prescience she possesses. This produces some strange mystical reporting that verges on the alien. There is, for instance, the following passage, which appears after a religious pronouncement is made when a comet passes by:

“Behind [the words pronounced] lies a completely other reality—there is no language to express it… Yente, whose vantage point is inaccessible to any other person, is reminded of a bursting—a softness, a stickiness, a fleshiness, with many facets and dimensions, though without time. Warm, gold, light, soft. It’s like some strange living body revealed by a wound, like the juicy pulp that escapes from under broken skin.”

The narrator’s proclamation that “there is no language to express it”—“it” being this “completely other reality” that only Yente can access—gestures toward some understanding of interconnection and unity and conscience that cannot be articulated. It is paradoxical to place faith in a narrator whose main asset is insight that eludes language. The broader effect of this setup is a refraction: a narrator has to be enlisted to narrate the “fourth-person” narrator’s capabilities. And who is this narrator? An answer comes late in the novel, when a character feels the double presence of both Yente and “someone else entirely”: “someone tenderly observing them, her and the office, and all the brothers and sisters scattered all across the earth, and the people on the streets. This someone is attentive to details.” Tokarczuk is being a little playful here, giving her characters permission to face their creator (or alternatively, their witnesses, i.e. readers). But the cosmology of the novel, or put another way, its narrative logic, is muddled by the narrator’s insistence on infinite recursion. 

In her Nobel speech, Tokarczuk mused about narration in the Bible: who, she asked, was able to write the “incredible sentence,” “And God saw that it was good?” Yet Tokarczuk is unwilling to surrender totally to this fourth-person narrator. She holds fast to several other narrator figures. Jacob’s most devoted disciple is an assiduous historian named Nahman, an erudite and passionate man who is in love with Jacob and who secretly transcribes his actions and words even though Jacob has expressly forbidden him from doing so. His writings, which he names “Scraps,” are preserved whole and presented to readers as primary source documents set in a different font. Jacob himself is impenetrable: the book’s characters zealously testify to his prophetic sway, but from the perspective of a historical reader who experiences him only through testimony, his charisma is enigmatic. He is not an empathetic character—presidents, popes, and prophets never are. (Even their suffering is sublimated, which differs categorically from how we suffer; our suffering has no higher meaning). Only through Nahman, Jacob’s prolific right-hand man who would do anything for him, and characters like Nahman, does Jacob begin to mean something to me: he is someone whose being constitutes several other characters’ reason for existence. Two other narrator figures include a Polish priest whose quest to lay his hands on Jewish texts sets the whole book in motion and who is compiling the first Polish encyclopedia and a poetess who argues with him over whether human experience might not be approached in another way entirely. Tokarczuk has confessed her own fondness for the priest and his dedication to the task of human knowledge; despite this, he is a very fallible character, whose naïve faith in written authority prevents him from being duly skeptical of fabricated anti-Semitic charges. 

These narrators, with their blind spots and biases, are the people who inhabit this world, and reading a story told from their vantage points does not constrain us so much as it imbues us with the sense of investment that is synonymous with human experience. In The Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk is torn between her affection for the embroiled, partial, flawed kinfolk of the earth and her aspiration for a God-like omniscience, and the result is a narrator who refuses to admit that she’s narrating, situated in a position that is everywhere and nowhere.

The Books of Jacob
by Olga Tokarczuk, t.r. Jennifer Croft
Riverhead Books
Published February 1st, 2022

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