Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob

I will not be stingy with truth. And because the truth is often bound to be difficult and makes us squirm in our comfortable seats, the question is not whether you will like this. The question is whether you can swallow it — the nature of flawed leaders, of spiritual shepherds who are wolves to their own flock, of society, of human beings, of real characters.

This is what Olga Tokarczuk conveys to me right from the first of seven books in The Books of Jacob.

She thrusts us into 1752 Poland where there is a growing animosity towards the Jews and the longing for a messiah is intensified. But only in the second book do we meet the messianic figure: Jacob Frank who asks, “What do we want some sage for?” Jacob whose sexual perversities are now being slowly divulged to the reader. Jacob who ridicules his most earnest followers while they, in the goodness of their hearts, concoct half-truths and falsehoods about him to glorify him; because he is seemingly authentic in everything he does; and although repulsive, he is charming.

All these, eerily juxtaposed with current events in the Philippines: the FBI issuing a poster of church leader Apollo Quiboloy’s warrant of arrest for fraud, coercion, and sex trafficking; a dictator’s son who is a tax code offender leading the presidential polls; the former being an open endorser of the latter.

With an increasing throng of followers, this charismatic Jacob Frank preached the idea that the notion of sin no longer applies. There was no room for conventional morality in his philosophy. “We are to trample all the laws because they are no longer in effect…”

There is no more morality — a common refrain among leaders and their supporters today who justify wrongdoing and do not wish to face accountability! 

I was wrong. Olga did not thrust us into events over two centuries ago with this opus. She brings us to the present. This is us. This is us. Because isn’t morality dead to us unless and until the injustice is done by those we dislike, and then we cry foul and demand morality and justice?

This colossus — a lyrical galaxy of darkness and light, weakness and strength, of comets and plagues set in some of the most exciting places I have actually been to, of beautiful passages about literature and how it somehow makes solid the ground beneath us despite this chaotic world, of history and its excruciating details — is not exactly about Jacob. It is about society and how we create the tapestry of history with our actions and our choices… and it seems like we never learn.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

The main motivation for reading this book was in knowing that it recounts the transit of Chopin’s heart back to Warsaw while his body was interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Every classical musician knows this strangely romantic story of how his homesick heart finally returned home; but naturally, I also wanted to read it narrated by a Nobel winner.

Flights turned out to be an unexpected reading experience. It is a literary collage written the way the author describes postcards nowadays: “Postcards of landscapes, panoramas of old ruins, postcards ambitiously prepared so as to show as much as possible on that flat surface, are slowly being replaced by photographs focusing on details.  This is no doubt a good idea, because they relieve tired minds. There is too much world, so it’s better to concentrate on particulars, rather than the whole.”

And so she does. These details and particulars in question are the mind, the soul, psychology, the physical brain, the heart, and the entire human body; which, ironically, also turns out to be “so much world.” It is a travel book with emotional itineraries and mental maps. A special trip around, or more accurately, inside the world. But in its entirety, it is an unusual research on pain, and a unique meditation on traveling, space, time, and movement.

The literary phases of my life have always been geographic, I now realize. Even my shelves are organized based on geography. Russia on the topmost shelf, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom on the succeeding tiers, and so on… and there’s the presently expanding Fertile Crescent and Silk Route section. Tokarczuk being Polish might seem like a veering away from my current authors of choice, and yet, the undeniable influence of the Arabian Nights is still lurking in this masterpiece. Even though I have a feeling that this book will ultimately settle down in the Eastern European section beside Kundera, this one feels like it belongs to each and every section.

As it is with masterpieces, this one transcends geography and other borders.