Review: A Nobel Prize winner’s massive historical epic is an irreverent epiphany

A woman wearing a purple hoodie poses
Olga Tokarczuk’s “The Books of Jacob,” now available in English, helped the author win the Nobel Prize.
(Lukasz Giza)

On the Shelf

The Books of Jacob

By Olga Tokarczuk
Translated by Jennifer Croft
Riverhead: 992 pages, $35

If you buy books linked on our site, The Times may earn a commission from, whose fees support independent bookstores.

The false 18th century Messiah Jacob Frank “will always be remembered as one of the most frightening phenomena in the whole of Jewish history,” as Gershom Scholem put it. Approaching with curiosity rather than condemnation, Polish author Olga Tokarczuk made Frank and his followers the subject of her 12th work of fiction, the gargantuan novel “The Books of Jacob,” which convinced the Swedish Academy to award her the 2018 Nobel Prize in literature.

Originally published in Polish in 2014 and now translated into English by Jennifer Croft, the novel is a product of immense research and brilliant imagination. At nearly 1,000 pages, covering 50 years and as many characters, it’s a historical epic comparable to “War and Peace,” though not nearly as straightforward. With its disorienting reverse page order and dozens of maps, illustrations and documents, “The Books of Jacob” offers a reading experience that is literally incomparable.


The story begins in 1752 in Podolia (then in Poland, now in Ukraine), when Frank’s grandmother Yente swallows a written spell meant to delay her demise, suspending her between life and death. Tokarczuk ingeniously tells the story from the all-knowing perspective of Yente’s spirit. At the time, Jewish thought was dominated by Talmudists, orthodox scholars of rabbinic law. But with the widespread popularity of the “Zohar” surged a strong undercurrent of Kabbalists, linguistic alchemists who penetrated the esoteric meaning of scripture to gain mystical wisdom. Out of this ferment arose millenarian fever and the Rabbi Sabbatai Tzvi, who claimed to be the Messiah and violated the Torah commandments. Ultimately, he went to Istanbul and converted to Islam, the most transgressive thing a Jew could do.

For the record:

2:31 p.m. Feb. 8, 2022An earlier version of this article misidentified Sabbatai Tzvi’s hometown of Smyrna as Smyra.

It’s easy to forget how deeply the Ottoman Empire once extended into Europe, but at one time the Turks ruled some of Poland. Tokarczuk beautifully captures its robust diversity in the novel, which made her enemies of Polish nationalists proselytizing a homogenous version of their past. That history helps explain why Sabbatai’s successor, Jacob Frank, dressed in Turkish fashion throughout his life, wearing curved shoes and a tall fez. Born Yankiele Leybowicz, he settled in Sabbatai’s hometown of Smyrna, where he was called “Frank,” the Turkish word at the time for European. Rather than adopting Islam, however, Frank led thousands of Jews to convert to Catholicism — the central event of Tokarczuk’s novel.

A year after scandal canceled the award, Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish author, and Austrian writer Peter Handke are given the Nobel Prize for literature.

Oct. 10, 2019

Through a bizarre philosophy that wove Kabbalah, Gnosticism and Sabbatai’s ideas with worship of the Divine Mother, Frank believed he was achieving tikkun olam, the Jewish ideal of repairing the world. Yet he taught that salvation is found through sin, encouraging Jews to work on the Sabbath, eat pork and commit adultery; he made concubines of his followers’ wives and daughters and sucked milk from the breasts of mothers. Indeed, rather than Jesus or the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Hasidism), Tokarczuk’s Frank more resembles Rasputin — a charismatic, sex-obsessed con man. Yet his “believers” claim he is a healer, the reincarnation of Sabbatai Tzvi and the embodiment of the Holy Spirit. They even perceive a halo over his head.

At a time when plagues ravaged populations and comets were taken as omens in the sky, Jews believed the Messiah would appear as a warrior, wiping sultans and kings and emperors off the face of the Earth. The Temple in Jerusalem would rebuild itself and all Jews would return to the land of Israel. The dead would be resurrected and followers of the Messiah would never die. Yet as “The Books of Jacob” progresses, none of these things happen; the halo fades, and we see Frank for the charlatan he is. Rather than bring heaven to Earth, all Frank really wants is land and power — his own earthly kingdom.

"The Books of Jacob," by Olga Tokarczuk
(Riverhead Books)

How did this megalomaniac manage to fool so many people into not only giving him their money, daughters and wives, but their souls? Simply because, as Tokarczuk emphasizes, Eastern European Jews were “always afraid” — of lords, peasants and Cossacks; of injustice, hunger and cold. Barred from owning land or practicing most professions, their lives and possessions taken at whim, Jews lived in a state of desperate uncertainty. Jacob took away their fear and, as Tokarczuk writes, “the absence of fear is like a halo that radiates a heat that can warm up a chilled and frightened little soul.”


Moreover, their devotion paid off materially; after converting to Catholicism in mass baptisms, Frank’s followers take on Polish names and prosper as gentiles, with several even entering the nobility. Frank himself becomes a baron and lives in a castle. Ultimately, then, the story is not about the apocalypse but assimilation and the transition to modernity.

After translating a Nobel Prize winner’s work, Jennifer Croft tells her own story in ‘Homesick.’

Nov. 15, 2019

The subtle focus on this transition resonates with Tokarczuk’s earlier books, only a few of which have been translated into English. Her delightful novel “Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead” is about an astrology-obsessed woman who rails against the local hunters, policemen and other chauvinists. The unclassifiable “Flights” is a frustratingly fragmented work of philosophical musings, vague character sketches and incoherent scenes. Binding such disparate books together are Tokarczuk’s strong ethics and her celebration of intuition; with these tools she re-enchants the world. “The Books of Jacob” furthers this project by enabling readers to feel what it’s like to be fully in thrall to mysticism.

Along the way, she writes many dazzling, transcendent passages, whose beauty Croft preserves. Take, for instance, this scene in which Jacob and his followers watch a gold statue of the Virgin Mary being placed on a cathedral:

“The sun jolts out from behind the clouds, completely unexpectedly, since the sky has been cloudy since morning, and one of its rays hits the statue, and all that Gdánsk gold starts to gleam like a kind of second sun, and suddenly the square in front of the cathedral in Kamieniec shines with a fresh and joyful light, and the Virgin, who is running in the sky, is pure goodness, like someone who alights among people to give them hope — that everything will be good. Everyone sighs ecstatically at this powerful show of pure light. The Holy Virgin. People squint and kneel before this obvious evidence of her miracle.”

Yes, there’s a miracle in these pages. It’s not about the Virgin Mary or the false Messiah Jacob Frank, however, but the way Tokarczuk can make a period so distant from us in every way feel so completely alive. In an era of cynicism about both spirituality and the capabilities of written fiction, that might be miracle enough.

Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard University. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other publications.


Bethanne Patrick’s February picks include two Nobel Prize winners, tales of Hollywood then and now, a new African fantasy epic and much more.

Jan. 28, 2022