The Books of Jacob
Translated into English by Jennifer Croft
In the mid-eighteenth century, as new ideas begin to sweep the continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following.
In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires, throngs of disciples in his thrall as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumours of his sect's secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs.
In The Books of Jacob, her masterpiece, 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk writes the story of Frank through the perspectives of his contemporaries, capturing Enlightenment Europe on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
"It is a dauntingly ambitious piece of work ... a visionary novel ... Tokarczuk is wrestling with the biggest philosophical themes: the purpose of life on earth, the nature of religion, the possibility of redemption, the fraught and terrible history of eastern European Jewry. With its formidable insistence on rendering an alien world with as much detail as possible, the novel reminded me at times of Paradise Lost. The vividness with which it’s done is amazing. At a micro-level, she sees things with a poetic freshness. ... The Books of Jacob, which is so demanding and yet has so much to say about the issues that rack our times, will be a landmark in the life of any reader with the appetite to tackle it." —The Guardian
"Tokarczuk, unafraid and ambitious, creates a very fallible messiah, yet makes it seem reasonable and human to believe in his divinity. That is a kind of literary miracle." —The Times
"‘The Books of Jacob is a spellbinding epic, one of the great literary achievements of the decade" —Simon Schama, The Financial Times
‘With a backdrop that combines anti-Semitic persecution, the disintegration of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Enlightenment, it is a text that begs to be read on the same terms as War and Peace.’ —Telegraph
“Everything about The Books of Jacob, including Tokarczuk’s generous, comfortable style, is vast but meticulously detailed…this novel has already been compared to Paradise Lost, if that’s any clue to how big its English-language reception will be.” —Vulture