in her choice of words and in her choice of details major or minor,
in her choice of literal depictions that have the power to stand as metaphors,
even in splitting the book accurately in half to give an equal number of pages for the first part and the second part of the story,
in her sense of irony in picking a character who seems to have an inability to identify physical borders and who is obsessed with an actual news report of a rape and murder case that was committed exactly twenty five years prior to the day she was born,
and in her choice of singling out a story of the rape of a Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers in a place where senseless killings occur on a regular basis.
What Adania Shibli does not need to spell out is that a story of violated boundaries is always a story of rape, and vice versa.
This incisive portrait of the Palestinian plight begins as a bullet in motion, without you knowing.
Reading this reminded me of a trip to the National Museum of the Philippines. I went there for the masterpieces, but found myself spending more time, and being most delighted, in a room full of practice sketches by Amorsolo.
Exteriors are sketches, little fragments of writing that feel like ingredients for a larger canvas; and Annie Ernaux is the great artist who guides readers to become keener observers of people, of gestures, of the world beyond the intimacy of the self, of exteriors.
Peruse the sketches more carefully and find priceless lessons on writing and observing. Once in a while, we need an artist to lead us to details we should pay attention to. Once in a while, we need an Annie Ernaux to take our hand.
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.