Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob (2014)

OH MY GOODNESS GOOD LORD.  Yes, I've been reading this book on and off for...months.  I thought I was past lollygagging around like that, but in this case, not.  Well, I finally finished it.  It seemed like a good book to read; the wikipedia entry describes it thusly:

The Books of Jacob is a 912-page novel divided into seven books. It begins in 1752 in Rohatyn and ends in Holocaust-era Korolówka. Its title subject is Jacob Frank, a Polish Jew who claimed to be the messiah. The novel combines dozens of third-person perspectives of those connected to Jacob Frank.

It sounds like the sort of maximalist thing I have traditionally enjoyed.  Also, for whatever it's worth, Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize in 2018.

Well, Jacob Frank was the creator of a heretical, apocalyptic quasi-Jewish sect, which is also sort of part-Christian.  He's an interesting figure, and I'd never heard of him 'til now, so, hurrah.  What can I say about the plot of this book?  It describes his life, from a ton of first-and third-person perspectives, as well as featuring a number of additional narratives that seem to have little bearing on anything.  There's also Jacob's grandmother, Yente, who is dying but instead becomes kind of unstuck in time and witnesses much of the action.  Don't pay attention to the above description where it says that it "ends in Holocaust-era Korolówka;" this is technically true, but ninety-five percent of it takes place in the eighteenth century.  That other stuff only briefly comes up at the end.  It's really not that kind of book.

Right.  So Tokarczuk's research is impressive.  It's easy to see how it took her seven years to write.  And sometimes, fair play, you do feel that sort of sweeping historical panorama that you enjoy.  Substitute "I" for "you."  But the big problem I had with the book, which never resolved itself, is: what's the purpose of it?  A lot of this fictionalized history is pretty dry, and Jacob himself is a very unlikably autocratic character (also, at several points, he and his followers weaponize anti-Semitic tropes against traditional Jews) so just the bare facts of the case aren't really enough.  There needs to be some sort of punchline: what's Jacob's deal?  What's the purpose of the Frankists?  These questions are never answered, and indeed barely addressed.  Sure, there's some discussion of their mystical beliefs, but it never leads to anything.  At a certain point it's just a big ol' bowl of alphabet soup of barely-defined characters doing their thing.  There are some narratives that threaten to become interesting, but then they just dissolve into nothing.  A very frustrating book, I must say.


Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

Yaaaay! Poland!

4:22 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

It DOES have that going for it, yes.

12:11 PM  

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