Interview translated by Kamila Slawinski.

The Seattle Times chatted with Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk about her immersive, 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 large religious movement in the 18th century.

“The Books of Jacob: A Novel”

Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, Riverhead Books, 992 pp., $35

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What did you see in the story of Jacob Frank? What do Jacob’s followers see in him?

Jacob Frank is a complicated character who escapes univocal judgment. His supporters remembered him as a handsome man while the opponents recalled an ugly hunchback. Nobody knows for certain what he was like, we can only guess. The controversy that surrounded him, and the enormous influence he held over people from all social classes has provoked me to fill in the blanks in his biography. His followers saw him not only as an inspired mentor but also as a chance to improve their social standing: most of the Frankists hailed from the small-time bourgeoisie of Podolia. Jacob might have been admired for his ascension above rules of society. This is a character in a state of perpetual transformation, especially after the trauma he endured in the Częstochowa prison. From an influential guide and leader to the masses, he turned into a cynical political player, driven by his own ambitions. He descended into hubris, became an emperor’s favorite and even an adviser to Maria Therese [ruler of the Habsburg Empire]. He stood above the law and his direct connection to divinity guaranteed that he would be obeyed. His followers believed his words and his truth: religion is like a pair of shoes that facilitate walking towards the goal that is God. It doesn’t matter if these are sandals or galoshes: the result is what counts. The many characters in “The Books of Jacob” allow for describing Jacob Frank through the words of others, both his enemies and kinsmen.     

Jacob is a Sephardic Jew who lives far from his ancestral home. He is an outsider in Judaism, and he and his followers are outsiders in Catholicism, even after their baptism. Nahman ben Samuel, a rabbi close to Frank who recorded his teachings, writes that “only foreigners can truly understand the way things work.” How does the experience of the foreigner drive 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 should come from a foreign land; he should come across as eccentric; he should stand out but at the same time show enough charisma so that the masses follow him. It is of utmost importance that his story remains enigmatic, his pedigree secret, his origins mysterious. A prophet has to be exotic, but at the same time, somehow familiar. This exoticism transforms the way others see the world, and allows them to see an issue or a phenomenon from a different angle.

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This conflict can also be observed in the penchant for controversy so beloved by the Frankists. While accepting new religions, they never felt completely assimilated. Bishop Dębowski approaches Judaism in a similar way. When a Catholic servant reads the Old Testament out loud as a Christian, the bishop perceives him as agreeable, one illuminated by the light of the New Testament. Meanwhile, when he himself reaches for the same book with Judaism in mind, he feels strange and lost, and the pages seem to be permeated by darkness. Once familiar, God suddenly becomes foreign and different.

There is one more way in which the experience of a foreigner is present in the novel. When assimilating, the Frankists change their names multiple 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 homogenous, and the myth of its monolithic and Catholic tradition still persists, a glimpse into annals of history proves that we used to be a multicultural society. Multiple name changes or religious conversions are transformations of identity that can also be seen as a journey of identity. Jacob Frank himself is a traveler of sorts, a wanderer. Not only does he keep moving; he constantly reinvents himself. 

In your Nobel speech, you said that you are “pleased that literature has miraculously preserved its right to all sorts of eccentricities, phantasmagoria, provocation, parody and lunacy.” What is the role of transgression and heresy in your work?

In the context of creative writing, transgression refers to literature’s multidimensional quality, its refusal to adhere to molds that produce cookie-cutter narratives with little or no variety. “The Books of Jacob” are, in a way, transgressive because they rebel against your typical, Flaubertian historical novel. I am a strong opponent of seeing books as commercial products that are eerily similar and follow almost identical structures. In literature, the goal should be to create works that are syncretic, that draw from a variety of cultures — or completely original, eccentric ones that present novel points of view. The downside of a transgressive genre is that it may stand at odds with commercial success. It comes with an inherent risk of not meeting the expectations of the majority of readers who may not want to be surprised.

Frank, whom I studied in depth since the 1990s, has attracted me specifically because of the strangeness and unconventionality that surrounds him. He was a natural-born heretic, he contested the set order with its preconceived notions or dogmas; he was a perpetual rocker of the boat, which allowed him a fresh perspective. Heretics are defiant; they dare to voice their opposition.

In the prologue, Yente, a grandmother in the throes of death, is given an amulet with a scrap of paper inside: a prayer meant to temporarily keep her alive. She swallows it, consuming each word and attains a sort of immortality and a Godlike vantage. Jacob’s words, even when vague, take on such profound meaning that they inspire an entire religion. Father Chmielowski writes his books in Latin, a language he contends has a greater capacity for nuance than Polish; he hopes his books will be in every home and inspire peasants to rise from their condition. Words have a supernatural, viral quality in this novel. What is the role of language in “The Books”?

Language directs perspective and, as such, always carries a value judgment; it evaluates reality by choosing what will be described or discussed. By using Latin, Father Chmielowski attempts to reach out to the peasants with a language that is not suited for them. Instead of matching his register to the situation he intends to influence, he chooses a discourse he himself is comfortable with — one that is frozen and rigid.

Words hold enormous power; in the case of Yente, she becomes suspended between unliving and undead. She took the words quite literally, she ingested them so they exist inside her. Yente becomes a narrator who organizes the facts and allows us to make sense of the developments and tie them together, both for me as I write and for my audiences as they read. Language also dictates identity; the example here is the aforementioned change of first and last names, change of identities, and change of religion. Words of certain nature introduce real-life transformations, like when Jacob Frank was called the Jewish Luther. Still, it is my firm belief that the novel operates predominantly on images that are “projected” inside the reader’s head in the process of reading. In that sense, language is but a tool for creating powerful, memorable images.