The protagonist of Olga Tokarczuk’s magnificent new novel, Jacob Frank, was a real historical figure, though all but forgotten. Yet Frank was a fascinating and enigmatic man whose fortunes are connected with many places in Europe and beyond. It’s hard to believe that lots of novels haven’t been written about him, or lots of films made—but the reality is that Jacob Frank is known only to a few scholars. He lived in the eighteenth century, when history began to speed up, as the French Revolution approached, and the currents of the Enlightenment were on the rise. The mystical religiosity of this Jewish heretic, considered the last Messiah, while it may seem particular to its day, also contributed to the demolition of the old structures and divisions between Jews and practitioners of other religions. In the mid-eighteenth century several thousand of his followers, under the auspices of the Polish king and nobility, converted to Catholicism. It was not their first conversion: they had already become Muslim, too.
A mystic and a politician, charismatic and debauched, a charlatan and a religious leader, Frank was an ambiguous character, very difficult to pin down. Tokarczuk’s great epic, written in a somewhat Baroque style, abounds with colorful characters, while Jacob is always portrayed through the eyes of others, always just beyond our grasp. Perhaps it was this ambiguity that caused history to be so unkind to him. Or maybe he was inconvenient to everyone? To the Jews he was an apostate, the precursor to an identity-destroying assimilation, which is hard to reconcile with the global history of Judaism, although it is a part of it. For the Catholics, Frank served as a reminder of their anti-Semitism. For the many assimilated descendants of the Frankists (as his followers later came to be known) he represented a display of their origins and of the circuitous routes of their assimilation.
Frank was born in a small village in Podolia, in other words today’s Ukraine, to a family of followers of another Jewish heretic, Shabbetai Zevi. He grew up among Ashkenazi Jews in what is now Romania, traveling to Turkey as a merchant, then returning to the eastern territories of Poland to spread word of his faith and recruit new followers. He taught that all the religions up until then had been insufficient, just stages on the road to true awareness. His conversion had nothing to do with accepting traditional Catholicism, but was rather a road he believed would lead him further on. It was a rebellion against ossified religion and social habits. Persecuted by Orthodox rabbis, he fled Poland and began to preach in Smyrna and in Thessaloniki. He tried to set up a commune; as the prevailing customs amongst his followers were pretty promiscuous, he dreamed of a small Jewish state, to be established on Polish or Austro-Hungarian territory.
Poland was host to great public debates between the Frankists and the Orthodox Jews. The moderators in these debates were Polish bishops, who became Frank’s protectors. But none of this was well-intentioned—the Frankists were used against Jewish society in an attempt to ascribe ritual murders to Judaism. Not long after Frank’s baptism he was accused of heresy and spent thirteen years imprisoned in the monastery at Jasna Góra, the famous Polish sanctuary housing the holy icon of the Virgin Mary. In examining this painting, Frank discovered in it Shekhinah, the manifestation of God in female form. When freed by the Russian army he set off for Brno in Czech Moravia. He aroused interest at the Austrian imperial court, and also had his own court, with an army and servants, drawing Jews and a variety of curious onlookers from all over Europe. He died in Offenbach, near Frankfurt, in a mansion, to which apparently cartloads of gold were delivered by his followers.
Tokarczuk takes us on a journey through different places, times, and religions. It is a journey readers will not want to return from, and one which will remain etched in their memory for a long time after. It restores Frank to Poland, the Jews, Europe, and to all those who might otherwise assume on reading this novel that the whole thing is made up. But this is Polish history told otherwise, with a place in it for Jews, women, and the metaphysical longings and desires that don’t fit in traditional works. Along with a wealth of wonderful stories generated by the author’s unusual imagination.
Translated by Jennifer Croft
Above the entrance hangs a handmade—and rather poorly done—sign:
And then Hebrew letters.There is a metal plaque on the door, with some symbols next to it, and Father Chmielowski recalls that according to Athanasius Kircher, the Jews write the words “Adam, Chava, Chuts, Lilith” on the walls when a wife is due to give birth, to ward off witches: “Adam and Eve may enter here, but you, Lilith, evil sorceress, go away.” This must be that, he thinks. And a child must have been born here recently, too.
He takes a big step over the high threshold and is wholly submerged in the warm fragrance of spices. It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, for the only light inside is let in by a single little window, cluttered with flower pots.
Behind the counter stands an adolescent with a barely sprouted mustache and full lips that tremble slightly at the sight of the priest, and then attempt to arrange themselves into some word or other. The priest can tell the boy is taken aback.
“What is your name, son?” the priest asks, to show how sure of himself he feels in this dark, low-ceilinged little shop, and to encourage the boy to talk, but he does not respond. So the priest repeats, officially, “Quod tibi nomen?” But this Latin, intended to be an aid to communication, now sounds too formal, as though the priest had come to conduct an exorcism, like Christ in the Gospel of Saint Luke, who poses that very question to the possessed man. But the boy’s eyes bulge, and still all he manages is a “buh, buh” sound, and then he bolts back behind the shelves, bumping as he goes into a braid of garlic bulbs hanging on a nail.
The priest has acted foolishly. He ought not to have expected Latin to be spoken here. He now takes a harsh look at himself. The black horsehair buttons of his cassock protrude from beneath his coat. That must be what has scared the boy off, thinks the priest: the cassock. He smiles to himself as he recollects Jeremiah, who also almost lost his head, stammering, “Lord God, for I cannot speak!”: “Aaa, Domine Deus ecce nescioloqui!”
So from now on the priest will call the boy Jeremiah, in his head. He doesn’t know what to do, since Jeremiah has gone off. So he looks around the store, buttoning his coat up. It was Father Pikulski who talked him into coming here. Now it doesn’t really seem like it wassuch a good idea.
No one comes in from outside, for which the priest mentally thanks the Lord. It would hardly be your ordinary scene: a Catholic priest, the dean of Rohatyn, standing in a Jew’s shop, waiting to be helped like some housewife. Father Pikulski had advised him to go and see Rabbi Dubs inLwów, saying how he used to go there himself, how he had learned a lot from him. And the priest had gone, but old Dubs seemed to have had enough by then of Catholic priests pestering him with questions about books. The rabbi was unpleasantly surprised by the priest’s request, and what Father Chmielowski wanted most he didn’t even have, or at least he pretended not to have it. He made a polite face and shook his head, tut-tutting. When the priest asked who might be able to help him, Dubs just waved his hands and looked back like someone was standing behind him, giving the priest to understand that he didn’t know that, either, and even if he did, he wouldn’t tell. Father Pikulski explained to the deanlater that this was a question of heresies, and that while the Jewsgenerally liked to pretend they didn’t suffer from the problem of heresies, it did seem that for this particular one they made an exception, hating it head on.
Until finally Father Pikulski suggested he go and visit Schorr. The big house with the shop on the market square. But as he said this, he looked at Chmielowskiwryly, almost mockingly, unless Chmielowski was imagining it, of course. Perhaps he should have arranged to get those Jewish books through Pikulski, despite notliking him very much. Had he done so, he wouldn’t be standing here sweating and embarrassed. But Father Chmielowskihad a rebellious streak, so he’d come. And there was something else that wasn’t very smart, a little word play that had intruded upon the matter—who would have believed that such things had any impact on the world?—for the priest had been working diligently on one particular passage in Kircher,on the great ox Schorrobor. So perhaps the similarity between the two names was what had brought him here, Schorr and Schorrobor. Bewildering are the determinations of the Lord.
Yet where are these famous books, where is this figure inspiring such fear and respect? The shop looks likea regular stall—yet its owner is supposedly descended from the renowned rabbi and sage, the venerable ZalmanNaftalkiSchorr. But here are garlic, herbs, pots full of spices, canisters and jars containing all stripe of seasoning, crushed, ground, or in its original form, like these vanilla pods or nutmeg seeds or cloves. On the shelves there are bolts of cloth arranged atop hay—these look like silk and satin, very bright and attractive, and the priest wonders if he might not need something, but now his attention is drawn to the clumsylabel on a sizeable darkgreen canister: “Herbate.” He knows what he will ask for now when someone finally comes out—some of this herb, which lifts his spirits, which for the dean means that he can continue working without getting tired. And it aids in his digestion. He would also buy a few cloves to use in his evening mulled wine. The last few nights were so cold that his freezing feet had not allowed him to focus on his writing. He casts around for some sort of chair.
Then everything happens all at once. From behind the shelves there appears a sturdily built man with a beard wearing a long woolen garment and Turkish shoes with pointed toes. A thin darkblue coat is draped over his shoulders. He squints as though he’s just emerged from deep inside a well. That Jeremiah peeks out from behind him, along with two other faces that resemble Jeremiah’s, rosy and curious.And meanwhile, at the door opening onto the square, there is now a scrawny, winded boy, or perhaps a young man, for his facial hair is abundant, a light-colored goatee. He leans against the doorframe and pants,you can tell he must have run here as fast as he could. He openly surveys the priest and smiles a big, impish smile, revealing healthy, widely spaced teeth. The priest can’t quite tell if this is a derisive smile or not. He prefers the distinguished figure in the coat, and it is to him he says, with extraordinary politeness:
“Kindly forgive this intrusion, noble sir…”
The man in the coat looks at him tensely, but after a while the expression on his face slowly changes, revealing something like a smile. The dean realizes all of a sudden that the other man can’t understand him, so he tries again, this time in Latin, pleased and certain he has now found the right tack.
The man in the coat slowly shifts his gaze to the breathless boy in the doorway, who steps right into the room then, pulling at his dark-colored jacket.
“I’ll translate,” he declares in an unexpectedly deep voice with a little bit of aRuthenian lilt to it, and pointing a large finger at the dean, he remarks excitedly upon the fact that Father Chmielowski is a real live priest.
It had not occurred to the priest that he might need an interpreter—he simply hadn’t thought of it—and now he feels uncomfortable but has no idea how to get out of this situation—the matter, after all, being a delicate one, and yet one which is now becoming public, and before you know it, the whole marketplace would be brought in. He would certainly prefer to get out of here, out into the chilly fog that smells of horse dung. He is beginning to feel trapped in this low-ceilinged room, in this air that is thick with the smell of spices, and on top of it all there is some person off the street now poking his nose in their business.
“I’d like to have a word with the venerable Elisha Schorr, if I may be permitted,” he says. “In private.”
The Jews are taken aback. They exchange a few words. Jeremiah vanishes and only after the longest and most intolerable silence does he reemerge. But evidently the priest is to be permitted, because now they lead him back behind the shelves. He is followed by whispers, the soft patter of children’s feet, and stifled giggling—as though behind these thin walls there were crowds of other people peeking in through the cracks in the wood, trying to catch a glimpse of Rohatyn’sdean wandering behind the scenes in the house of a Jew. And it turns out, furthermore, that the little store on the square is no more than a single enclave of a much vaster structure, a kind of beehive: rooms, hallways, stairs. The whole home turns out to be larger, built up around an inner courtyard, which the priest just glimpses out of the corner of his eye through a window when they pause a moment.
“I am Hryćko,” pipes up the young man with the slender beard. And the priest realizes that even if he wished to retreat now, he could not possibly find his way back out of this beehive-house. The thought makes him perspire, and just then a door creaks open, and in the doorway there stands a trim man in his prime, his face bright, smooth, impenetrable, with a gray beard, a garment that goes down to his knees, and on his feet woolen socks and black slippers.
“That’s the Rabbi Elisha Schorr,” whispers Hryćkoexcitedly.
The room is small and low-ceilinged, sparsely furnished. In its center there is a broad table with a splayed book atop it, and next to it in several piles some others—the priest’s eyes prowl their spines voraciously, trying to make out their titles. The priest doesn’t know much about the Jews in general, and he only knows these Rohatyn Jews by sight.
Suddenly the priest is struck by how nice it is that both of them are of only moderate height. With tall men he always feels a little ill at ease. As they stand there facing one another, for a moment it seems to the priest that the rabbi is also pleased that they have this in common. Then he sits down, smiles, and gestures for the priest to do the same.
Translated by Jennifer Croft