ISLANDlga Tokarczuk became better known among English-speaking readers with the 2010 translation of Clockwise and other times, a multigenerational fable about 20th century life in a Polish village overseen by four angels. But it was degressively discursive Flights, a mix of memories and inventions with the theme of travel and the body, published in her home country, Poland in 2007, but only translated into English 10 years later, in the midst of fashionable Anglo-American impatience with Romanist norms that have done most to do her name on both sides of the Atlantic, where her Nobel victory in 2018 was generally met with enthusiasm instead of “who?” which tends to be reserved for celebrated European grandees.
Readers of Flights might have been surprised when Tokarczuk’s Nobel Lecture distanced itself from the autofictional mode in favor of the empathic virtues of omniscient narration, but she is clearly not a writer to be retained. Run your plow over the bones of the dead, the next of her books to be translated (she has published 18), was an existential noir written quickly to keep her in funds while she was involved in research for her latest publication, an extensive historical-theological picaresque that first was published in Polish in 2014 and now comes heroically rendered in English by Jennifer Croft.
Set in the second half of the 18th century and includes about 300 short contemporary segments with arch-functional intertitles (“What Elżbieta Drużbacka writes to Father Chmielowski in February 1756 from Rzemień on Wisłoka”, says or “In the meantime …”), it switches between dozens of characters in several Central and Eastern European states to tell the story of Jacob Frank, an elusive Jewish mystic who is hailed as the Messiah by a breakaway sect in present-day Ukraine. We follow a growing group of adherents of his new religion, a mixture of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as they embark on a cross-border hunt for territory where they can live free from persecution – from Jews as well as Roman Catholics, if priests gladly accept his dangerous (and treacherous) juicy claims about what is inside the Talmud.
Part of the novel is told through the retrospective testimony of Jacob’s schoolmate, Nahman, a tobacco trade rabbi who acts as his not-always-trusted fixer. Jacob’s dead grandmother Yente also occasionally shows up to watch events, while her body crystallizes in a cave where a bunch of Jews in the future will hide from the Nazis. As Jacob’s power grows, so does his extravagant sense of overriding privilege over his followers – not just sex on the plate, but also breast milk – which means he’s rarely raised above suspicion. With more than a third of the novel left, he is imprisoned as a heretic, with plenty of twists and turns in store.
It sounds like the wildest invention, but it still is not, and while the novel’s absence of authorship can be cumbersome, it’s still more challenging for its enormous movement as characters slide in and out of focus across the action’s 50-year span. Most destabilizing of all is the passivity of the book’s voice, a kind of inseparable poker face that leaves judgment and intent radically open to interpretation. Tokarczuk tells the story with a light enough touch that you become unsure whether Frank was a radical thinker whose doctrinal provocations were of epoch-making significance, or simply a deceiver whose tricks went wild out of hand. The uncertainty becomes an ongoing gag: Jacob is rumored to be a Russian tsar, that he has two penises and even to be dead, mistaken for a lure.
You suspect the indeterminacy of Tokarczuk’s work, as well as her public criticism of her government’s populist ethnonationalism, contribute to the controversy surrounding her in Poland. This particular novel questions the duration of boundaries as well as other classifications of culture and belief, meaning there is probably something for everyone; abroad the effort may not be so high, but it remains potent. A panorama of early Enlightenment Europe that serves as an open-minded study of the mysteries of charisma, it is perhaps above all – and appropriate – a gigantic act of faith, a novel in which your reading has barely begun since you have turned the last of its 900 pages.
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