The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk: Extraordinary novel searches for meaning

Jennifer Croft translates Nobel laureate’s examination of the philosophical questions that arise around a central messiah

Olga Tokarczuk’s novel concerns itself with the mystical beliefs of 18th-century Jews living in central Europe. Photograph: Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times

Olga Tokarczuk’s novel concerns itself with the mystical beliefs of 18th-century Jews living in central Europe. Photograph: Maciek Nabrdalik/The New York Times

Having written several novels that vary greatly in both style and subject matter, it was reasonable to expect that Olga Tokarczuk – winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2018 – would look to fresh themes and intentions when she began writing The Books of Jacob.

But few would have predicted that she would write a novel of more than 900 pages (with the pages numbered backwards), which concerns itself with the mystical beliefs of 18th-century Jews living in central Europe, the factionalism that develops between them, and the burgeoning transition from spiritualism to materialism of a central messianic character who is, at various times, a Jew, a Muslim, a Catholic and a devout believer in his own exceptional transcendence.

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