Interview translated by Kamila Slawinski.
The Seattle Times spoke with Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk about her immersive and visionary 1,000-page novel that follows the extraordinary life of Jacob Frank, a Polish Jew who believed himself to be the Messiah and commanded a great religious movement in the 18th century.
What did you see in the story of Jacob Frank? What do Jacob’s disciples see in him?
Jacob Frank is a complicated character who escapes unequivocal judgement. His supporters remembered him as a handsome man while opponents remembered him as an ugly hunchback. No one knows for sure what he looked like, we can only guess. The controversy surrounding him and the enormous influence he wielded on people of all social classes prompted me to fill in the gaps in his biography. His followers saw in him not only an inspired mentor, but also a chance to improve their social status: most Frankists came from the lower middle class of Podolia. Jacob might have been admired for his rise above the rules of society. He is a character in perpetual transformation, especially after the trauma he suffered in Częstochowa prison. From a guide and influential leader to the masses, he has become a cynical political actor, driven by his own ambitions. He fell into hubris, became the favorite of an emperor and even an adviser to Marie-Thérèse [ruler of the Habsburg Empire]. He stood above the law and his direct connection to the deity guaranteed that he would be obeyed. His disciples believed his words and his truth: religion is like a pair of shoes which facilitates the march towards the goal which is God. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sandals or galoshes: it’s the result that counts. The many characters in “The Books of Jacob” allow Jacob Frank to be described through the words of others, both his enemies and his relatives.
Jacob is a Sephardi Jew who lives far from his ancestral home. He is a stranger to Judaism, and he and his followers are strangers to Catholicism, even after their baptism. Nahman ben Samuel, a rabbi close to Frank who recorded his teachings, writes that “only outsiders can truly understand the way things work.” How does the experience of the foreigner animate this novel?
There is a conflict between the familiar and the foreign. Rabbi Nahman’s description of what a prophet should be is a good example. A prophet should dress differently; he must come from a foreign country; he should come across as eccentric; he has to stand out but at the same time show enough charisma for the masses to follow him. It is of the utmost importance that its history remains enigmatic, its pedigree secret, its origins mysterious. A prophet must be exotic, but at the same time familiar. This exoticism transforms the way others see the world, and allows them to see a problem or phenomenon from a different angle.
This conflict can also be seen in the penchant for polemics dear to the Frankists. While accepting new religions, they never felt completely assimilated. Bishop Dębowski approaches Judaism in the same way. When a Catholic servant reads the Old Testament aloud as a Christian, the bishop perceives it as pleasant, illuminated by the light of the New Testament. Meanwhile, when he searches for the same book himself with Judaism in mind, he feels strange and lost, and the pages seem to be steeped in darkness. Once familiar, God suddenly becomes alien and different.
There is another way in which an outsider’s experience is present in the novel. During assimilation, the Frankists changed their names several times. A good example is Jacob’s associate, Shlomo Shorr, who becomes Franciszek Wołowski. While it seems to many that as a nation Poland is homogeneous and the myth of its monolithic and Catholic tradition persists, a glimpse into the annals of history proves that we were a multicultural society. Multiple name changes or religious conversions are identity transformations that can also be seen as an identity journey. Jacob Frank himself is a kind of traveler, a wanderer. Not only does it keep moving; it constantly reinvents itself.
In your Nobel speech, you said you were “happy that literature has miraculously retained its right to all sorts of eccentricities, phantasmagoria, provocations, parodies and madness”. What is the place of transgression and heresy in your work?
In the context of creative writing, transgression refers to the multidimensional quality of literature, its refusal to adhere to molds that produce cookie-cutter narratives with little or no variety. “The Books of Jacob” is somehow transgressive because it rebels against your typical Flaubertian historical romance. I’m adamantly opposed to seeing books as commercial products that are eerily similar and follow almost identical structures. In literature, the goal should be to create syncretic works, which draw from a variety of cultures – or completely original and eccentric works which present new points of view. The downside of a transgressive genre is that it can be at odds with commercial success. This carries an inherent risk of not meeting the expectations of the majority of readers who may not want to be surprised.
Frank, who I have studied in depth since the 1990s, appealed to me specifically because of the weirdness and unconventionality that surrounds him. He was a heretic by birth, he contested the established order with his preconceived ideas or his dogmas; he was a perpetual boat rocker, which gave him a new perspective. Heretics are defiant; they dare to express their opposition.
In the prologue, Yente, a dying grandmother, receives an amulet with a piece of paper inside: a prayer to temporarily keep her alive. She swallows it, consuming every word and achieves some sort of immortality and divine position. Jacob’s words, even vague, take on such profound meaning that they inspire an entire religion. Father Chmielowski writes his books in Latin, a language he says has a greater capacity for nuance than Polish; he hopes that his books will be in every home and will encourage the peasants to come out of their condition. The words have a supernatural and viral quality in this novel. What is the role of language in “The Books”?
Language directs perspective and, as such, always makes a value judgment; it assesses reality by choosing what will be described or discussed. By using Latin, Father Chmielowski tries to reach the peasants with a language that does not suit them. Instead of adapting his register to the situation he intends to influence, he chooses a discourse with which he himself is comfortable, fixed and rigid.
Words have enormous power; in Yente’s case, she becomes suspended between the undead and the undead. She took the words at face value, she ingested them so that they existed within her. Yente becomes a storyteller who organizes facts and allows us to make sense of developments and connect them, both for me as I write and for my audience as they read. Language also dictates identity; the example here is the aforementioned change of first and last name, change of identity and change of religion. Words of a certain nature introduce real-life transformations, as when Jacob Frank was called the Jewish Luther. Yet I firmly believe that the novel operates primarily on images that are “projected” into the reader’s head during the reading process. In this sense, language is just a tool to create powerful and memorable images.