A stopped clock hung prominently in the Wrocław apartment where I was trying to finish translating Olga Tokarczuk’s monumental latest novel, The Books of Jacob, in time for my 31 December 2019 deadline. It was the studio’s only artwork. Jet lag and anxiety made it hard for me to sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time and, whenever I opened my eyes, I would see those gargantuan hands and think, ‘How can it already be so late?’ No matter that the clock’s face read 5:25, an eternal neither-day-nor-night. I never saw that. I only ever saw the time I thought it might be – there or in New York or London or Los Angeles – an hour so advanced I could never possibly catch up with, let alone accomplish, my slippery task: the re-creation in English of a 1,000-page masterpiece of historical fiction, buzzing with present-day relevance, by an author who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize.
Olga’s 12th book, The Books of Jacob, is, without a doubt, her magnum opus. Published in Polish in 2014, it followed on the heels of Flights (2007), her inventive ‘constellation novel’ – as the author described it – which I translated, and her feminist eco-thriller, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Olga was always a critical and popular success in Poland, one of those rare writers who manages to balance dazzling literary feats with consummate accessibility, deftly navigating new narrative structures and even genres while maintaining an inviting, easy-going style. Like a number of her previous works, The Books of Jacob was a national bestseller for months. Then, in 2015, shortly before the elections that installed the right-wing Law and Justice party in Poland, when tensions in the country were exceptionally high, Olga received Poland’s highest literary prize, the Nike, and everything changed.
Instantly, and for the first time, Olga became notorious in circles of people who did not read her books. She, her publisher and I were inundated with death threats, rape threats and every possible variation of racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic abuse. The basis for the mounting controversy was the perceived political content of The Books of Jacob; the basis for that perception was a televised post-prize interview in which Olga said, among other things: ‘We have come up with this history of Poland as a tolerant country […] Yet, we committed hideous acts as colonizers, as slave owners and as murderers of Jews.’
The Books of Jacob begins in 1752 in Rohatyn, in what is now western Ukraine, and winds up in a cave near Korolówka, now eastern Poland, where a family of local Jews has hidden from the Holocaust. Between mid-18th-century Rohatyn and mid-20th-century Korolówka, in a swirling succession of third-person accounts, Olga escorts her readers across present-day Turkey, Greece, Austria and Germany, as well as different territories of Poland and Ukraine, capturing the spirit and climate of each location in rich description and in the enactment of the interesting customs particular to each place.
The novel is divided into seven books: ‘The Book of Fog’, ‘The Book of Sand’, ‘The Book of the Road’, ‘The Book of the Comet’, ‘The Book of Metal and Sulfur’, ‘The Book of the Distant Country’ and ‘The Book of Names’. Together, these seven sections tackle love, hate, birth, death, sex, the sacred, prejudice, exile, torture, class, language, languages, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 so influential on Voltaire, Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, Halley’s Comet in 1758, seen as an omen of the end of the world, plague outbreak, alchemy, Kabbalah, friendship, parenthood, Talmud-burning, blood libel, geopolitical machinations, gender, serfdom, the earnest search for truth, the cynical manipulation of perception, medicine, transcendence, power and more, always subtly, carefully, in keeping with Olga’s intellectual project, which – despite the wild controversy her televised statement provoked – isn’t one of timeliness so much as timelessness.
To my mind, Olga’s discourse hinges upon a couple of questions. First, whether human beings, who are inevitably fragile and flawed, can (and should) be forgiven mistakes and bad actions by those who get to know them, possibly (or probably) aided by narratives like novels and works of non-fiction. In other words, is empathy, fuelled by an understanding of the progression of another person’s struggles over time, enough to allow the wounds of the past to fully heal? Like other European writers of her generation, Olga does seem to have faith in the power of story to reconcile. As Lars Saabye Christensen says in his recent novel Echoes of the City (2019), translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett: ‘Memory is sorrow. History is reconciliation.’ Lexically, Olga emphasizes the ‘delicacy’ of the characters who populate her books but, structurally, she permits paragraphs and pages to wash over them until they seem less breakable than honed, smooth and perfectly integrated into the honed smoothness of all those with whom they have interacted, for better or for worse, over the course of the text.
If narrative can fill in where human beings are found lacking, the next key questions of Olga’s project still loom large: who gets to tell those stories or those histories and how can she, bogged down in time and fragility, know what she knows?
As I was translating Flights, and then The Books of Jacob, and then her Nobel Prize acceptance speech – committing to memory Wikipedia entries on modes of transportation and anatomy, historical hats and hairstyles – Olga’s own feelings about information and the internet evolved. In 2007’s Flights, she dedicated a section to Wikipedia:
As far as I can tell, this is mankind’s most honest knowledge project. It is frank about the fact that all the information we have about the world comes straight out of our own heads, like Athena out of Zeus’s. People bring to Wikipedia everything they know. If the project succeeds, then this encyclopedia undergoing perpetual renewal will be the greatest wonder of the world. It has everything we know in it – every thing, definition, event and problem our brains have worked on; we shall cite sources, provide links. And so we will start to stitch together our version of the world, be able to bundle up the globe in our own story. It will hold everything. Let’s get to work! Let everyone write even just a sentence on whatever it is they know best.
At that time, Olga’s only caveat had to do with the capacity of language to organize knowledge and information; the section goes on to suggest an alternative to Wikipedia that somehow represents the chaos of ‘everything we don’t know’. ‘For the vastness of these contents’, she writes, ‘cannot be traversed from word to word – you have to step in between the words, into the unfathomable abysses between ideas. With every step we’ll slip and fall.’
Olga has noted that the idea to write The Books of Jacob began not with Jacob Frank, charismatic cult leader, but rather with Benedykt Chmielowski, priest and author of the very first Polish encyclopedia, published between 1745 and 1746. Less sexy at first glance, perhaps, but Chmielowski’s compendia of knowledge, available to all, were the building blocks of the Enlightenment, their guiding principle the same as that of Western democracy: he who knows acts wisely, in accordance with his knowledge. Cataloguing information was another reaction to the hunger for structural change that propelled the Frankists to rebel against the laws of the Talmud, then convert to Catholicism, try for noble titles and then rebel against those, too. Many of the Frankists sought to deepen and expand their understanding, not through wider reading à la Chmielowski, but rather through mystical experiments such as prophesying and Kabbalah. Olga’s novel weaves together these separate but related efforts from the perspective of a third party who effortlessly knows all: the matriarch Yente, in limbo between life and death, looking down upon all of Olga’s characters and, in the end, Olga herself.
Olga delivered her Nobel acceptance speech in Stockholm on 7 December 2019. In it, she noted: John Amos Comenius, the great 17th-century pedagogue, coined the term ‘pansophism’, by which he meant the idea of potential omniscience, universal knowledge that would contain within it all possible cognition. This was also, and above all, a dream of information available to everyone. Would not access to facts about the world transform an illiterate peasant into a reflective individual conscious of himself and the world? Will not knowledge within easy reach mean that people will become sensible, that they will direct the progress of their lives with equanimity and wisdom?
When the internet first came about, it seemed that this notion would finally be realized in a total way. Wikipedia, which I admire and support, might have seemed to Comenius, like many like-minded philosophers, the fulfilment of the dream of humanity – now we can create and receive an enormous store of facts being ceaselessly supplemented and updated that is democratically accessible to just about every place on Earth.
A dream fulfilled is often disappointing. It has turned out that we are not capable of bearing this enormity of information, which instead of uniting, generalizing and freeing, has different-ated, divided, enclosed in individual little bubbles, creating a multitude of stories that are incompatible with one another or even openly hostile toward each other, mutually antagonizing.
Furthermore, the internet, completely and unreflectively subject to market processes and dedicated to monopolists, controls gigantic quantities of data used not at all pansophically, for the broader access to information, but, on the contrary, serving above all to programme the behaviour of users, as we learned after the Cambridge Analytica affair. Instead of hearing the harmony of the world, we have heard a cacophony of sounds, an unbearable static in which we try, in despair, to pick up on some quieter melody, even the weakest beat. The famous Shakespeare quote has never been a better fit than it is for this cacophonous new reality: more and more often, the internet is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.
Now it would seem that the so-called information superhighway has driven all of us ‘in between the words, into the unfathomable abysses between ideas’, though not in the productively mystical mode Olga had entertained in Flights. Her professed disappointment verges on despair: the question of who gets to tell all our necessary stories is now more vexed than it ever was before. Now understanding is bogged down in time and fragility and the internet, deafened by the roar of trolls with their death threats and rape threats and anti-Semitic abuse, by wilful misinformation, by marketing and propaganda.
Many of us, in Wrocław or New York or London or Los Angeles, or anywhere in the world, now wonder how it can already be so late. The climate has changed. We let that happen. Obsessed with our own history, regardless of its source, we have ignored the planet that makes us capable of stories at all.
I turned in my translation of The Books of Jacob 12 days late. Afterwards, I was overcome by a sense of loss: this magisterial creation that belonged to me alone for all those years, in all those different places – the thing that has kept me company no matter what – was gone. Then I realized that, on the other side of the globe, Olga was hard at work on her next novel, and I moved on. Yet, I was unable to shake the sense of belatedness that is, perhaps, the only truly timeless element of literature, though I hope Olga and others will keep trying to identify more.
Main Image: The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, 1755, copper engraving. Courtesy: New Kozak Collection, Prague
Jennifer Croft is the author of Homesick (Unnamed Press, 2019) and Serpientes y escaleras (Snakes and Ladders, forthcoming from Entropía this year). In 2018, she and Olga Tokarczuk were awarded the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Tokarczuk’s Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017).
First published in Issue 209