Essay: Beyond the Pale, or Crossing Borders with The Books of Jacob, Hythe Digital Poetics 3.7

There is no spoon

Olga Tokarczuk’s 1000-page opus Księgi Jakubowe was originally published in Polish in 2014, winning the Nike Award and selling 100,000 copies in its first year of publication. Jennifer Croft’s 2021 translation arrives on the heels of Tokarczuk’s 2018 Nobel Prize, receiving a shortlisting for the 2022 International Man Booker Prize; a win would be the second for the Tokarczuk/Croft partnership. The novel’s title conveys less in English than for Polish readers, as the false Messiah Jacob Frank is a major figure in the nation’s history. Living from 1726-91, Frank’s life bridges the partition of Poland; quite literally, as he was imprisoned in Częstochowa, near what became the new eastern border. Placing his long imprisonment at the centre of her long book, Tokarczuk explores Frank as a border-dweller; as a Jew who converted to both Islam and Christianity; as a Messiah who numinously embodies the Divine in the material plane; and as a patriarch whose thirst for power clashes with his body’s queer and trans desires.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given this radical approach, despite – or because of – its success, the book was also met with an overtly hostile reception in some Polish nationalist circles, leading to a sustained online harassment campaign against the author. Ron Charles, in his Washington Post review of the book in translation, mentions that these violent threats related particularly to Tokarczuk’s brilliant examination of the ‘blood libel’ fallacy. The novel exposes this persistent, dangerous myth that claims the use of Christian children’s blood in making matzoh for Passover, as an intentional disinformation campaign knowingly executed by Church fathers, which the novel’s subject, Jacob Frank, queasily uses to leverage his and his followers’ security. Frank’s disturbing weaponisation of the blood libel – which he knows to be false, and knows that Church leaders know to be false, against Orthodox Jewish neighbours who disapprove of his cult – is one of the many contradictory, chaotic and sometimes chilling actions taken by this unscrupulously charismatic leader, who was known in his day as the Messiah.

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Published online 20 May 2022.