Revue Les Livres de Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk – a magical mystical visit | Fiction in translation

ohlga Tokarczuk became better known to English-speaking readers with the 2010 translation of Primordial and other times, a multigenerational fable about life in the 20th century in a Polish village ruled by four angels. But it was the declining speech Flights, a mixture of memoir and inventions on the theme of travel and the body, published in his native Poland in 2007, but only translated into English 10 years later, amid the trendy Anglo-American impatience with the romantic standards, which did the most to make a name for itself on both sides of the Atlantic, where its 2018 Nobel Prize was generally greeted with enthusiasm instead of the ‘who? »Which tends to be reserved for famous Europeans who are celebrating.

Readers of Flights May have been surprised when Tokarczuk’s Nobel Lecture moved away from the self-fictional vogue in favor of the empathic virtues of omniscient storytelling, but she is clearly not a writer to pin down. Drive your plow over the bones of the dead, the next of her books that was translated (she published 18 of them), was an existential noir written quickly to keep her in the background while she was involved in researching her latest version, a sprawling historical-theological picaresque which was first published in Polish in 2014 and is now heroically rendered in English by Jennifer Croft.

Set during the second half of the 18th century, comprising about 300 short segments in the present tense with very functional subheadings (“What Elżbieta Drużbacka writes to Father Chmielowski in February 1756 from Rzemień on the Wisłoka”, say, or “During this time… ”), he alternates between dozens of characters in several central and eastern European states to tell the story of Jacob Frank, an elusive Jewish mystic hailed as the Messiah by a dissident sect in what is today the ‘Ukraine. We follow a growing group of adherents to his new religion, a mix of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as they embark on a cross-border hunt for territory in which to live free from persecution – Jews. like Roman Catholics, whose clergy gladly accept his dangerously (and treacherously) inflated claims about what lies within the Talmud.

Olga Tokarczuk: “tells the story with a sufficiently light touch”. Photography: Leonardo Cendamo

Part of the novel is told through the retrospective testimony of Jacob’s classmate Nahman, a tobacco-dealing rabbi who serves as his not always reliable repairman. Jacob’s late grandmother, Yente, also shows up occasionally to oversee events as his body crystallizes in a cave where, in the future, a group of Jews will hide from the Nazis. As Jacob’s power grows, his extravagant sense of seigneurial privilege over his adherents also increases – not only tap sex, but breast milk as well – meaning he’s rarely above it. of any suspicion. With over a third of the novel to go, he’s imprisoned as a heretic, with many twists to come.

It reads like the craziest invention, but it isn’t, and while the author’s lack of grip in the novel can be taxing, its sweeping sweep is even more difficult, as characters develop over 50 years of action. Most unsettling of all is the passivity of the book’s voice, a sort of straight face that leaves judgment and intention radically open to interpretation. Tokarczuk tells the story with a touch light enough that you wouldn’t know if Frank was a radical thinker, whose doctrinal provocations were of historical significance, or simply a con artist whose tricks got out of hand. Uncertainty becomes a common gag: Rumor has it that Jacob is a Russian tsar, that he has two penises and even that he is dead, taken for a decoy.

You suspect that the indeterminacy of Tokarczuk’s work, as well as his public criticism of his government’s populist ethnonationalism, is adding to the controversy surrounding him in Poland. This particular novel challenges the permanence of borders as well as other classifications of culture and belief, which means that there is probably something that not everyone likes; abroad the stakes may not be as high, but they are still high. Panorama of the first Europe of the Enlightenment which is coupled with an open study on the mysteries of the charism, it is perhaps above all – and rightly so – a gargantuan act of faith, a novel in which your reading has hardly started when you turned the last of its 900 pages.

Jacob’s books by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, is published by Fitzcarraldo Publishing (£ 20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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