The Books of Jacob 
by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft.
Fitzcarraldo, 892 pp., £20, November 2021, 978 1 910695 59 3
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Hebrew​  is written from right to left: could you get a feel for it by numbering the pages of a book backwards, as in Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob? At least, you might think, you would know how many pages you had left to read without having to subtract; but there you would be wrong, as doing this has the effect of eliminating the very idea of a last page, which has turned out to be the first! Perhaps, then, it simulates the Messianic countdown itself: the time of waiting for the end time, or for Apocalypse, ‘a king on a white horse, riding into Jerusalem wearing gold armour, perhaps with an army, too, with warriors who would seize power alongside him and bring about the final order of the world’. Unless ‘the coming Messiah is a suffering, aching Messiah, trodden down by the evil of the world and the misery of people. He might even resemble Jesus [the very thought is an abomination to believers], whose mangled body hangs in Korolówka from crosses placed at almost every crossroads.’ Wrong! Wrong! The third Messiah is nothing like that – did I mention he was the third? Yet another misunderstanding!

But as for Hebrew, our interest in it is preceded by that of Father Chmielowski, a passionate bibliophile and the author (he is a real historical personage) of the first great Polish chrestomathy, New Athens (from which Jacob Frank will learn his Polish), a chapbook of the most interesting thoughts and sayings of the past, to which he has decided to add the wisdom of the Jews, so far closed to him. The learned rabbi, Elisha Shorr, to whom Father Chmielowski proposes an exchange of precious volumes turns out, however, to have given him not the Zohar, but merely a children’s book (later on, Father Chmielowski, incapable of bearing a grudge, or indeed much else, will shelter the old rabbi’s considerable library from harm during the persecutions). Yet he will have had the instructive privilege of entering Rabbi Shorr’s labyrinthine warren of a town house, peopled by the most obscure members of a far-flung clan reassembling from distant parts to celebrate a momentous wedding. Does Father Chmielowski’s path ever cross Jacob’s? I cannot remember; but at least during that same visit he performs a kindness for a stricken Polish noblewoman (another real historical person) who will be of much service to the Messianic clan in future years.

It is at this wedding that Shorr and his intimates first get news of the appearance of a new Messiah in Smyrna, in those same Ottoman lands where the first Messiah, Sabbatai Sevi, began his mission. We are finally also indebted to this wedding party for the unfortunate mistake to which we owe The Books of Jacob. The Nobel committee was clever indeed to slip their prize to the person whose name appears on its cover, before anyone had had the chance fully to appreciate who Olga Tokarczuk is. For The Books of Jacob takes its place alongside the great postmodern meganovels by Pynchon or Perec, Bolaño or García Márquez; and it may be said to rival even New Athens itself, of which the equally historical poet Elżbieta Drużbacka says: ‘This volume is so strangely magical that an endless reading is permitted in which one picks and pecks here and there, always finding interesting matters which furnish multiple pretexts for reflexion on the immensity and complexity of the world, in the awareness that there is no way of knowing it in its entirety, but only by bits and pieces, little details and modest elements of comprehension.’

At any rate it is during the wedding party that an aged grandmother from a distant branch of the family has inconveniently taken it on herself to enter her death throes. This is more than an inconvenience, as the whole wedding will have to be postponed, at great expense. The elders consult as to which is preferable, a wedding or a funeral. Rabbi Shorr unwisely decides to postpone the decease by means of a magic amulet, which the dying woman, who has her own brand of wisdom and cunning, promptly swallows. She, Yente, our all-seeing eye, then enters the condition of the undead, her living corpse secretly transferred from one hiding place to another (one of them, a grotto and a place of pilgrimage, will later be visited by her own grandson Jacob Frank), while her spirit, separating itself from that undead body, rises to circle the earth like the Sputnik of later centuries and sees all that we are to witness, from Frankfurt to Smyrna, from Warsaw to Mount Athos, and in particular those chateaux and peasant villages of Podolia and the multitudinous roads on which weary Jewish merchants travel to ply their trade.

The centre of it all, however, the happiest and most fulfilled time of the Messianic adventure, is the village of Ivanie, a small group of huts deserted after the plague and situated on the Dniester:

Yente sees how Ivanie has a particular status in the hierarchy of being. The village isn’t firmly planted on the ground … homes stooping over like living things … The words pronounced in Ivanie – great and powerful words – transgress the world’s boundaries. Behind them lies a completely other reality … like holding silk embroidered in 56 colours up to grey fustian – incomparable … like some strange living body revealed by a wound, like the juicy pulp that escapes from under broken skin.

That’s how the Shekhinah [the female principle of the Kabbala] comes into the world.

But this space – momentarily transformed into the longed-for dwelling of Jacob’s followers – is not to be confused with Utopia, which we also visit, courtesy of Moliwda and the bogomils. Ivanie means land: ‘We’re not allowed to buy land, settle down permanently. They chase us off in all directions’; ‘A man who does not have a piece of land is not a man.’ And this is the drive behind the sham conversions: to get the Polish aristocracy, to get the Church, to give the community their own land on the aristocrats’ great estates; this is the deeper promise of Jacob, the drive behind the longing for the Messiah, however personal the fascination he exerts, his charisma, may seem.

We need to pause for a moment over this word, ‘charisma’, which, in a sociological petitio principii, Weber borrowed from the religious tradition in order to explain another religious phenomenon which, however, it only served to name. Even less helpful will be the word ‘populism’, which, once the name of a revolutionary movement, has today, with the help of Le Bon and Freud, become synonymous with the pseudo-concept of totalitarianism applied indiscriminately to phenomena of left and right alike. Yente does not make judgments of this kind: she has no lessons for us; her all-seeing eye simply registers history.

As for Jacob’s charisma, we have our own testimonies. Is that of Nahman of Busk reliable? He is to be sure Jacob’s ‘prophet’, in the sense in which the various Messianic figures of history (often themselves not aware of their vocation) have needed a prophet of their own: John the Baptist for Jesus, Aaron for Moses, Nathan of Gaza for Sabbatai Sevi, the innumerable éminences grises throughout history, if not, indeed, the powers behind the thrones. Nahman is not exactly an éminence grise, but he does bear witness to Jacob’s Messianic awakening: ‘When I look at him, I see that there are people who are born with something that I cannot find the words for, something that means that others respect them and hold them in the highest esteem … He has only to enter any space, be it the most decrepit shed or the holiest chamber, and all eyes turn to him at once, pleasure and appreciation on everyone’s faces, although he has not yet done or said a thing.’ Even children feel it: ‘These words make an enormous impression upon Hershel. From that moment forward, he wants to be like Jacob. And being close to Jacob evokes in him some incomprehensible excitement, produces a warmth that flows all through his small body, so that the boy feels safe and powerful.’

Can this be physical, sensual even? This was murmured of Sabbatai Sevi: ‘They also said in great secret – which nonetheless travelled faster than it would have had it been a slightly lesser secret – that the Messiah was a woman [the Shekhinah is what’s meant here]. Those who had been close to him had glimpsed his feminine breasts. His skin, soft and rosy, smelled like a woman’s skin.’ Jacob’s physical attractions are not of this kind. But let’s hear from an enemy:

The man who emerges from the carriage is tall and well built, and to his height is added a slim Turkish hat, which feels like an organic element of his stature. Dark, wavy hair pops out from under his hat, softening somewhat the emphatic features of a rather harmonious face. His gaze is insolent – so it seems to Pinkas – and he is looking slightly upward, so that you can see a bit of the whites at the bottom of his eyes, as though he were about to faint. He casts his eyes around the people standing about by his carriage and over the heads of the rest of the crowd. Pinkas sees the movement of his prominent, nicely shaped lips. He is saying something to the people, laughing – and now his even white teeth gleam. His face gives the impression of youth, and his dark beard seems to conceal even more of that youth, maybe even dimples. He looks both authoritative and childlike. Pinkas senses how this person might appeal to women, and not only to women, but also to men – to everyone – for he is extremely charming. This makes Pinkas hate him even more.

From this I propose that we divert our attention to the testimony of the fascinating figure Moliwda, a gentile and Polish nobleman who has seen the world and ends up as a kind of ambassador from the true believers (whom we may also begin to refer to as the ‘anti-Talmudists’) to the higher authorities of Crown and Church:

Moliwda used to wonder whether Jacob could feel fear. Eventually he decided that Jacob would not recognise the feeling, as though he’d simply been born without it. This gives Jacob strength: people can sense that absence of fear, and that absence of fear in turn becomes contagious. And because the Jews are always afraid – whether it’s of a Polish lord, or of a Cossack, of injustice or hunger or cold – they live in a state of extreme uncertainty, from which Jacob is a kind of salvation. The absence of fear is like a halo that radiates a heat that can warm up a chilled and frightened little soul. Blessed are those who feel no fear.

Still, that Jacob is not yet an event, his story not yet historical; the historians, interested only in facts and causes, have no place here. We are in what, by analogy to the fog of war, may be called the fog of history: only gradually do world-historical events and the institutions they leave behind them begin slowly to emerge, in shadowy outline. To be sure, History bursts into Podolia as an effective presence with the great Cossack pogroms of 1648 and gradually seeps away again when the apostasy of Sabbatai Sevi – the first Messiah’s forced conversion to Islam in 1666 – drains the villages of their Messianic hope. For world history is itself imaginary: it is the distant horizon of legendary events unfolding beyond the immemorial daily life and rounds of peasants whose time is incompatible with it. It is a distant frieze of events with a time of its own, some distant privileged time that flows uninterrupted on and on, as in that magnificent passage from Hebel which Walter Benjamin so admired:

In the meantime the city of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake, and the Seven Years’ War came and went, and Emperor Francis I died, and the Jesuit Order was abolished, and Poland was partitioned, and Empress Maria-Theresa died, and Struensee was executed. America became independent, and the united French and Spanish forces were unable to capture Gibraltar. The Turks locked up General Stein in the Veteraner Cave in Hungary, and Emperor Joseph died also. King Gustavus of Sweden conquered Russian Finland, and the French Revolution and the long war began and Emperor Leopold II went to his grave too. Napoleon captured Prussia, and the English bombarded Copenhagen, and the peasants sowed and harvested. The millers ground, the smiths hammered, and the miners dug for veins of ore in their underground workshops.

In Podolia itself, however, time is not yet historical, as Yente knows: ‘She had thought time flowed! Now she finds it funny. lt’s obvious that time spins around like skirts whirling in a dance.’ Nor are the inhabitants of this non-historical world to be judged like literary characters – round and flat, high and low, the great and the anonymous. As in few other novels, they all think all the time; stubbornly they all have their opinions on everything and anything, and are prepared to argue them vociferously at a moment’s notice.

But we must be clear: this is a world of merchants (the peasants are Polish), a world of caravans and markets: ‘chaotic trails, unpleasant to the eye. Zigzags, twisting spirals, lopsided ellipses – the record of travel for commerce, pilgrimage, on merchants’ expeditions, visits to families, homesickness, and flights. There are many bad people around, some of them really very cruel.’ A world, too, of chaotic enumeration: ‘The crowd gleams with its different colours, chatting in different languages, arraying astonishing goods for sale: fragrant spices, vivid carpets, brightly coloured rugs, Turkish delicacies so sweet you’ll grow dizzy with pleasure, dried dates and raisins of every sort, beautifully dyed leather slippers stitched with silver thread.’ We must not forget either that Jacob is himself a merchant, though a lazy and self-indulgent specimen: ‘Jacob never sits in the office, but rather at a little table having tea, dressed lavishly, like a Turk, in a blue-green Turkish caftan and a dark-red Turkish cap. Before they get down to business, they always have to have two or three little glasses of tea … Jacob gives audiences of sorts … After just a few days of working in Abraham’s warehouse, it has become the most popular place in all of Craiova.’

But this is daytime! This is business! It is the matter of leisure we must look into, the matter of entertainment and relaxation, amusement, distraction, which we, in our day and age, sometimes call mass culture. For Jacob’s contemporaries, the merchants, what we have to understand is that mass culture is theology. The endless, innumerable disputations over pipe and wine, the interminable hair-splitting of arguments that can become passionate in an instant: all this is diversion, down to the very shape of the letters whose kabbalistic meanings can be contemplated for hours. Here socialising is called study and gossip prophecy, news of the most recent marriage no less riveting than that of the coming Messiah or the authority of some new rabbi whom one must visit as soon as possible. Wisdom is as widely distributed as beards, and one must search for it everywhere along the rivers and roads of south-east Europe, from Poland to Turkey, which carry letters full of matrimonial and theological gossip as far away as Spain, all the while unevenly tolerated in the German lands and the Ottoman Empire in languages ranging from Hebrew and Turkish to Polish, German, Ruthenian, Yiddish, and in kingdoms from the loosely ruled Poland of the feudal aristocracies to the Ottoman Empire, which peacefully shelters all conceivable religions and heresies in its bosom, for a price (Jacob grows up there). Sabbatai Sevi emerged there as well, in the midst of an extraordinary reawakening of Jewish and in particular kabbalistic speculation. The sultan presides over all this with amused tolerance until he is informed of Sabbatai’s more impertinent claims, at which point he confronts Sabbatai with the ultimate existential choice, to die or to don the turban; after which this former Messiah once again enjoys a surprising measure of personal freedom.

Alongside this historical experience of defeat suffered by world Jewry, there persisted a current of Sabbataianism willing to see conversion as an act of spiritual aggrandisement (Sabbatai’s successor Baruchia also converted but, like Jacob, to Christianity). Yet it is not exactly to some Trinitarian doctrine in the three reunited Mosaic religions that they are attracted, so much as to Jacob’s person. Their stories reflect not some abstract theology but rather the desire for land and the ferocious civil war within Judaism stimulated by the quest for patronage.

Are we not to presume some general worldview which, apart from the sacred books themselves, might qualify as what we call religion? Why not? It might be, at the very least, that ‘to create the world God had to withdraw from Himself, leave within His body a blank space in which the world could take up residence.’ And it might also be that the gleamings of the Shekhinah must be sought for in mud and excrement. As for God, ‘every now and then [he] wearies of his own luminous silence, and infinity starts to make him a little bit sick. Then, like an enormous, omnisensitive oyster, his body – so naked and delicate – feels the slightest tremble in the particles of light, scrunches up inside itself, leaving just enough space for the emergence – at once and out of nowhere – of a world.’ (Schelling also had such visions.) Or, contrariwise, ‘the spirit circles around us like a wolf around those trapped in a cave … It seeks the smallest hole to get through to those weak figures living in the shadow world.’

‘Why does the spirit like olive oil so much?’ Jacob asks, in response to these theological visions. ‘Why all that anointing? Is it to make it slippery, so it will be easier for it to go inside of matter?’ This palpable obscenity proves we have understood nothing of the Messiah or of Jacob himself, whose mission is virtually innocent of such theological niceties. We have been approaching this figure in a spirit of reverence, with hushed voices, as in church, as though he had a religious task or mission. What we have failed to understand is that the Messiah is come, not to fulfil the Law but to destroy it! Not to perfect it but rather to abolish it altogether. We have been trying to imagine the wrong kind of world: this is not the utopian world of Thomas More (or even that of Moliwda); it is the world of Sabbatai Sevi’s blasphemies and orgies, his vilification and repudiation of the Talmud, his public consumption of pork, his disregard – indeed, cancellation – of the most sacred Jewish holidays, his pronunciation out loud of the sacred name of God on all occasions.

Thisis the very quintessence of transgression, the promotion of a Bataille-type mysticism to the very centre of social life, the injunction to destroy order itself, absolutely. The scandalous violence of this Messianism marks the end not only of the Law but of Judaism itself, and signals the return to the lost innocence of Eden and the time before the Law. Sabbatai’s psychotic outbursts in some sense formalise and lend authority to Jacob’s anti-Talmudist programme. The regrouping around the person of Jacob of the ‘true believers’ (that is, the remaining Sabbatians), the return to Poland, the imprisonment of Jacob, his arrival in Vienna: these are not biographical facts but rather truly historical and collective convulsions occasioned by a figure who remains, as Moliwda concludes, ultimately inscrutable.

A new History emerges within Judaism itself, a struggle between the establishment rabbis and the disciples of Sabbatai, whose remnants reassemble around the figure of Jacob and, crossing their own Rubicon into Poland, begin to stage public disputations with the Talmudists (which is to say, the ‘real’ Jews) and convert en masse to Christianity under the wavering patronage of the great prelates and a monarchy enfeebled by the death of King Stanisław and the incursion of the Russians. Now as Podolia itself comes to have a history we can begin to speak of historical ‘facts’ and properly historical (that is, Western) inquiries: how to explain Jacob Franks’s success at court; had his beloved Nahman betrayed him, like Judas, in order to fulfil the prophecy; did his mission change after Częstochowa, substituting the preaching of ecumenicism for the drive for land, etc? Do these Jews in fact still want land? No doubt – ‘a man who does not have a piece of land is not a man’ – but land on the estates and under the protection of the nobility and the Church, indeed of the king himself. (For this is no Zionist argument for the state of Israel so much as it is the celebration of Poland itself, ‘paradisus Judaeorum’.)

But just as Jacob is not the beginning of this book – following Aristotle’s reminder that a life is not a complete event – so it has no ending. It simply deteriorates like life itself: the movement follows Jacob into the West, the Germanic and French languages first of the Viennese court and Jacob’s own ‘court’ at Bruenn, and then of Offenbach near Frankfurt, with its emergent stock market; Frankism sinks into history (the West being somehow History for these Eastern Europeans), and the movement dissolves, though incompletely, as with any intense and innovative movement. ‘Strange deeds’ become ceremonies, Jacob a kind of prince whose death is ritually celebrated as if he were a Polish archbishop. As I have noted already, the book itself has no ending, but breaks off as it approaches page one. By then a Jacob who has at least belonged to us for a time will have turned into a name and a fact in the history books, with a movement to be chronicled behind it.

Some historians, meanwhile, will wish to assess whether Jacob’s politico-religious programme changed significantly after his imprisonment. Gnostic apologists for Judas will excuse his betrayal by Nahman of Busk in the light of the latter’s conviction that the Messiah must sink to the bottom of society and share the sufferings of its dregs. Liberal moralists will wish to read Tokarczuk’s foregrounding of Jacob’s insistence on the identity of the three Mosaic religions as a not-so-disguised plea for tolerance in an authoritarian Poland. Linguistic mystics will answer, with Nahman, that curses follow names and that it is no small thing to behold the revolutionary transformation of Shlomo Shorr into Franciszek Wołoski, of Nahman of Busk into Pietr Jakubowski, indeed of Jankiel ben Yehuda Buchbinder into Jacob Frank himself. Historians, as they consider Gershom Scholem’s dialectical view of the significant role played by Frankism in the emergence of modern Judaism, may or may not share his judgment on Jacob Frank as ‘unscrupulous and depraved’. Poststructuralists and adherents of Bataille will revel in Jacob’s ‘strange deeds’ and celebrate him as an early exemplar of transgression; some readers will be troubled by this ‘populism’, while others will conclude, with Moliwda, that Jacob is inscrutable.

The glimpse of an old and prosperous Jacob in Offenbach, checking his investments on the newly established Frankfurt stock exchange, may well lead Messianists sadly to conclude that he was, after all, just another fraud and conman, merely the most recent of false Messiahs. Yet hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays virtue, and it is no small thing to found a movement that sweeps across whole landscapes, languages and generations. Even the false Messiah glows with that Messianism on which we warm our hands. Never mind! What is important here is that Olga Tokarczuk has learned to do the impossible: to write the novel of the collective.

The Messiah is something more than a figure and a person – it is something that flows in your blood, resides in your breath, it is the dearest and most precious human thought: that salvation exists. And that’s why you have to cultivate it like the most delicate plant, blow on it, water it with tears, put it in the sun during the day, move it into a warm room in the night-time.

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