The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, Translated by Jennifer Croft (Books 2022, 29)
I am unreasonably happy about having finished this before the end of the year. I started reading it at the start of the year. In fact, possibly before the start of the year, since it was a Christmas present.
Of course, I’ve read 28 other books while intermittently dipping into this behemoth, something I alluded to once or twice.
It’s a historical novel set in the middle and end of the 18th century, telling the story of Jacob Frank, a Polish Jew who led a cult, or alternative religious community if you prefer. He converted to Islam, then to Catholicism, taking his followers with him on the second of those changes. But they remained ‘true believers’, treating Frank as the true Messiah.
It took me so long to read partly because it’s so long, and certainly not because it was uninteresting. In fact it’s surprisingly compelling, considering the subject matter. But it is complex. Not least because of all the Polish place names and names of people. The latter is compounded when they get baptised into the Catholic church. They take on new names, so now most characters have two sets of names.
I got a surprise when I first picked up the book to find that it’s numbered backwards. Chapter 1 of Book 1 starts on page 892. The story ends on page 27. (There are some notes and blank pages after that.) At first I thought I might have to read it ‘backwards’, but no: the story proceeds in the direction I’m used to. It’s just the numbering.
I wondered if this was a reference to the direction of Hebrew writing, and Tokarczuk’s note at the end confirms that it is,
as well as a reminder that every order, every system, is simply a matter of what you’ve got used to.
Which is fair enough. I quite liked knowing how many pages I still had to go, with having to subtract. Especially as I got near the end.
Coincidentally, in the last couple of weeks I read this in ‘Shift Happens’, a newsletter about a book about keyboards:
(in Poland and parts of Europe, books have their tables of contents at the end, and so will mine).
Which isn’t the case here, but I thought it was an interesting slightly-connected idea.
It’s a huge work, in more ways than one, and also an incredible example of the translator’s art.