November 2021

Arts & Letters

Speaking in tongues: ‘The Books of Jacob’

By Alice Whitmore

Olga Tokarczuk. © Sophie Bassouls / Sygma via Getty Images

Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s latest novel in translation turns on the nature of language itself

In October 2019, when Olga Tokarczuk was named winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, Jennifer Croft was several years into her translation of Księgi Jakubowe, the book lauded by the Nobel committee as Tokarczuk’s “magnum opus”. Vast and peculiar, the novel was a national bestseller on its publication in 2014, and in 2015 it was awarded the Nagroda Literacka „Nike”, Poland’s most prestigious literary prize. Its appearance in English has been awaited with near-religious fervour – after all, this is the first of Tokarczuk’s works to pass through Croft’s hands since the 2018 Man Booker International Prize–winning Flights. Now, after seven years of careful transfiguration, The Books of Jacob is finally making its way into the world.

At close to a thousand pages, Tokarczuk’s epic historical novel has the heft and magnitude of a holy book, or an Odyssey. It makes a near-mythical landscape of 18th-century Europe (territories that translate to present-day Ukraine, Poland, Greece, Turkey, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic) and narrates, via a swirling system of richly detailed stories, thousands of moments in the lives of its many characters, all of whom orbit – whether briefly or perpetually, with hostility or with the blind devotion of apostles – the real-life religious sect leader Jacob Frank.

Frank, whose Kabbalistic teachings and mystic rituals saw him hailed as the Messiah by some and cursed as a heretic by others, led an extraordinary life: raised Jewish, he travelled Europe as a merchant, proclaimed himself the successor to the messianic rabbi Sabbatai Tzvi, converted first to Islam, then Catholicism, was cursed by Polish rabbis, spent a decade imprisoned by the Roman Catholics in the Jasna Góra Monastery, and lived out his twilight years in opulence as a baron in Germany, where he died in 1791. It is hard to imagine a more perfect pairing of writer and subject: Frank is complex, contradictory, his presence at once all-consuming and impossible to pin down; Tokarczuk is brilliant, sensitive, encyclopaedic, like a writer dreamed of by Borges. Together with Croft they form a kind of trinity, three figures combining to form one indivisible body.

Language and translation are at the heart of everything in this novel, which hinges on Frank’s bold attempt to shatter and rewrite the laws of Judaism. Tokarczuk’s fascination with Frank and the world in which he lived stems, as much as anything, from her fascination with the power of words. As she notes in a recent interview with The New Yorker: “So much of Jewish culture is geared toward language, toward the word, the engine of the word and the depths of the word, its multiplicity of meanings and its openness to interpretation.” Tokarczuk reminds us that the ability to express oneself through language is not a fixed, automatic process, but rather one that must be constantly renegotiated, and laboured over with great care.

The novel’s very first dialogue, which takes place in the Ukrainian city of Rohatyn between rabbi Elisha Shorr and Catholic priest Benedykt Chmielowski, stumbles over language. Chmielowski is writing what will come to be the first Polish-language encyclopaedia, Nowe Ateny (or New Athens), and his ambitious vision has stirred him to stray beyond the bounds of Christian knowledge. He is particularly keen to delve into the rich world of Hebrew literature; “not having the language himself”, however, he “cannot really gain access to that wisdom”. He seeks out Shorr, a local rabbi known to possess an important collection of Hebrew books, but when the two scholars meet they find themselves unable to communicate. Their conversation must be passed, stiltedly, through the mouth of a teenage interpreter named Hryćko (later, his name will change to Hayim, one of many such shifting monikers in this story). In an attempt to ingratiate himself with the rabbi, Chmielowski presents him with a book – he hopes that, through their shared love of knowledge, the two men might come to understand each other, “despite being unfamiliar with each other’s languages or customs, unfamiliar with each other in general, their objects and instruments, their smiles, the gestures of their hands that carry meaning”. If people could read the same books, Chmielowski reasons, “they would inhabit the same world”. The text he selects is itself loaded with meaning: Athanasius Kircher’s Turris Babel. Opening the cover, Chmielowski reveals an illustration of a round Earth and, rising from it as if to spear the moon, “the long, slender cone of the Tower of Babel”. This biblical structure, he says through Hryćko, could not possibly have been as tall as is commonly thought, for such a tower “would disrupt the whole order of the cosmos”. His optimism proves naive – Shorr does not trust this strange priest or his strange theories, and Chmielowski’s mission ends in failure. Disappointed, and suspicious of his young interpreter (surely “the boy is inserting his own words as he translates”), he leaves the rabbi’s house and disappears into the Rohatyn marketplace, which has all the wildness and chaos of Babylon.

Some 200 pages later, when Jacob Frank first meets his future disciple Nahman Samuel ben Levi of Busk (later known as Piotr Jakubowski), language again rises like a fog between them. For a time, the two men “seek a common language”, trying Hebrew, Yiddish, Turkish and Ladino (a language the Jews “brought with them from Spain when they were exiled”). Finally, they settle on “a mixture, not worrying about the provenance of words”. This kind of hybrid, opportunistic language follows Frank across eastern and central Europe. His speech is vulgar – in every sense of the word – and improvised, always mutating in response to the lands and tongues he and his followers encounter. It marks him as a stranger wherever he goes, since “in every language Jacob speaks you can detect a foreign accent”. The result, Tokarczuk writes, is “something like challah with raisins” – the phrase bringing to mind Gary Shteyngart’s description of Russian-inflected English studded with “foreign words like raisins shining out of a loaf”. The mutability of Frank’s language is writ large in his teachings – tellingly, his acolytes are referred to as “changelings”. These Frankists, as history will call them, wander Europe in search of a safe place to worship their Messiah, shape-shifting from Jews to Catholic neophytes, shedding clothing and mother tongues as they go. Frank himself even sheds his skin at one point, miraculously “moulting like a snake”. These metamorphoses are recorded verbally – and symbolically – in the changing of names. Frank rebrands himself often. As a child, he is Yankiele; as a young man he is Jacob Leybowicz. Only after his wedding in Nikopol, Ukraine, does he begin to go by Jacob Frank. “Frank, or Frenk, means foreign,” Tokarczuk explains, and this is “what Jews from the west are called in Nikopol”. For Frank, foreignness is a quality to be embraced, even cherished, “for it gives enormous power”; it allows one “to glide like a spirit among others who are distant and unrecognisable”, awakening “a particular kind of wisdom – an ability to surmise, to grasp the things that aren’t obvious”.

Only one character in The Books of Jacob undergoes a more radical transformation than Frank himself: the novel’s panoptic narrator, Yente. In the New Yorker interview, Tokarczuk says Yente appeared in her imagination “spontaneously and almost fully formed”, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. Yente, the fictional grandmother of Frank, is dying when we meet her; she has travelled to the home of rabbi Elisha Shorr for a family wedding, but now, the night before the party, she has fallen gravely ill. Shorr attempts to delay her death so the festivities can continue – he fashions her a wooden amulet and places inside it a tiny piece of paper inscribed with the Hebrew word Hamtana: “waiting”. When she is alone, Yente opens the amulet and swallows the spell. From then on, suspended in some mystical caesura between life and death, she sees “everything at once, all times swirled together, and on top of that, people’s thoughts”. She takes in both the exquisite detail and earthy sameness of the world: in cold gardens “cabbages struggle to coil, potatoes swell, carrots cling to their beds”, and pantries house “cucumbers quietly pickling in great, gloomy barrels”; meanwhile, a crowd of people gathered in the Lwów cathedral remind her of mushrooms – “all sorts of honey fungus growing in clusters” – and the planet itself could fit in her hand, “like a freshly shelled green pea”. Most importantly, perhaps, Yente sees that the world and everyone in it are changing at every moment. With the past and future now folded into an eternal present, “everything can be seen flickering and ceaselessly transforming – how beautifully it pulsates”. From her vantage point somewhere above the Earth, Yente “watches names peeling off the people who have carried them”, a sight that “might be alarming, as the sight of disposable things, of transient and fleeting beings, always is, but Yente sees at the same time many things that repeat. Yente herself is repeating.” These invisible repetitions are what connect us – mysteriously, rhythmically – across time and space. In Tokarczuk’s words, they are what “launch the phantom trains of thought between things that are naturally strangers”. What bind us together are not the common names we give things, but the experiences held deep in the earth of our bodies and other, non-human landscapes.

When language is untethered from the myth of its own permanence, beautiful things become possible. Literature, for example. And translation. In a 2019 essay titled “How Translators Are Saving the World” (also translated by Croft), Tokarczuk argues that the creation and dissemination of literature across languages is one of humanity’s most powerful tools in the struggle against social and spiritual impoverishment. “There is no worse affliction,” she writes, “than the loss of a person’s private language, its replacement with the communal one.” Communal or “collective” languages, she explains, are like “trodden routes, while individual languages perform the functions of private paths”. The only remedy for the loss of a person’s private language is literature, since the act of reading allows us to “behold … other visions and to be reassured that our world is only one of many possible worlds and that we are surely not confined to it forever”. Tokarczuk has the poet Elżbieta Drużbacka – the first major Polish woman writer, and one of the most delightful characters to grace the pages of The Books of Jacob – draw an eloquent connection between this notion of “private language” and the properties of language itself. In a letter to the priest Chmielowski, she writes:

I believe that to express in language the vastness of the world, it is impossible to use words that are too transparent, too unambiguous – that would be like drawing a pen-and-ink sketch, transferring that vastness onto a white surface to be broken up by clean black lines. But words and images must be flexible and contain multitudes, they must flicker, and they must have multiple meanings.

Words, like the realities they attempt to describe, are shifty, unreal things. Just as the world we perceive is only one of many possible worlds, so does each word hold within it many possible meanings. Yente knows this – even as a young girl she is versed in the magic of language. Influenced by the teachings of her Kabbalist father, she learns to read meaning into everything around her: “in the milk that has spilled into the shape of the letter samech, in the imprint of a horse’s hoof in the shape of the letter shin”. The mystical relationship between signifier and signified sends the whole world vibrating with possibility. The power of the word lies not in the authority of the sign but in its ability to dissolve and reshape itself, like Shorr’s spell dissolving inside the body of Yente, where it promptly “splits in two: substance and essence”. The distance between these two elements is what makes literature possible – it is what makes both Księgi Jakubowe and The Books of Jacob possible. In the words of Drużbacka/Tokarczuk/Croft: “Maybe the whole art of writing, my dear friend, is the perfection of imprecise forms.”

Alice Whitmore

Alice Whitmore is a writer and literary translator living on Eastern Maar country. Her translation of Mariana Dimópulos’s Imminence was awarded the 2021 NSW Premier’s Translation Prize. She is the translations editor at Cordite Poetry Review and an associate editor at Giramondo.

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