Genre: Adult Historical Fiction
Year Release: 2022
Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: antisemitism, child death, rape, pogroms, prejudice, discrimination, vomiting, death of a parent
Ambitious is not a big enough word to describe the majesty of this novel. At a whooping 955 pages, this book is not just about Jacob Frank. Tokarczuk paints a mosaic of eighteenth century Europe centering the rise and fall of a messianic cult leader Jacob Frank. Starting in a village in what is now Ukraine and stretching across Poland and Lithuania, this story isn’t just about Frank, but about the people around him as well, from priests to rabbis to princes to village folks and so much more.
Vast in scope, yet this work is simultaneously personal and deeply human, showcasing every possible perspective of class and religion in one narrow slice of Europe.
From what I’ve read of the antagonistic relationship between Tokarczuk and the current right-leaning political regime in Poland, I can definitely see how this book pissed off a bunch of conversative leaders, more so when it won the Nobel prize in Literature. It depicts an ethnically and religiously diverse Poland, focusing on the coexistence and cultural exchange between Catholics, Jews, and Muslims within Polish lands pre-Partition. It’s thorough and specific, focusing on the commonalities and points of differentiation in ways that are realistic that range from comedy to tragedy, plus the decline from liberal to more conservative ways of navigating the world. The way the tone shifts towards tragedy is palpable, and very much an indictment of current attitudes in Poland today.
What I enjoyed most about the novel is that amid all the geopolitical conflict and religious disagreement, this is a novel focused on the messiness of individuals. There’s that adage about how every character is a hero in their own story, and that simplifies so many of the stories here to an insulting degree. But it is what kept me sticking around with this tale, especially as the tides of disposition shift with regard to Jacob Frank. What’s also fascinating is how rarely his own perspective shows up in the chapters. Almost true to the style of the New Testament, it’s different writers writing about Frank, with little of Frank’s input about himself. The effects of his teachings, evolving beliefs, and shifting responses are evident in the changes in those people’s lives, with the “true” perspective being an almost dreamlike telling of an older woman, Yenta, from the afterlife. It’s almost speculative in its presentation, adding a level of whimsy to an otherwise very grounded story.
As someone who speaks the native language, this translation is also impressive. There are a fair number of place names that had been kept in tact, and listening to it on audiobook was a bit of an adventure. It’s clear that both narrators are more familiar with Russian which has different phonetics, but I don’t think that would distract readers unfamiliar with either language.
A book one should really take their time with in ways that are not entirely attributed to the length, but also to depth and breadth of characterizations, factions, and beliefs found within.