The magnum opus of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk – a novel that has taken seven years to translate and has brought its author death threats in her native Poland – is to be published in English.
The Books of Jacob, which will be released in the UK in November, is the Polish author’s first novel to appear in English since she won the 2018 Nobel prize for literature for what judges called “a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.
Running to more than 1,100 pages, The Books of Jacob tells the story of Jacob Frank, a controversial Polish-Jewish religious leader and mystic who founded the Frankist sect in the 18th century. Fighting for the rights and emancipation of the Jews of eastern Europe, Frank encouraged his followers to transgress moral boundaries. The Frankists were persecuted in the Jewish community for their beliefs, including salvation through orgiastic rites. Subsequently, Frank led his followers to be baptised by the Roman Catholic church. But for continuing to act as their leader, the church imprisoned him for heresy for more than a decade, only for Frank to declare, when he emerged, that he was the messiah.
Tokarczuk’s English publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, said that the book tells Frank’s story “through the eyes of both his supporters and those who reviled him”, and “paints an intricate picture of a divisive yet charismatic man who spent his life battling against oppression and dogma”.
The novel was described as Tokarczuk’s “magnum opus” by the Swedish Academy, which selects the Nobel laureate each year.
Published in Poland as Księgi Jakubowe in 2014, the novel won Tokarczuk Poland’s most prestigious literary award, the Nike, in 2015 and became a bestseller. But after she angered rightwing patriots by saying that Poland had committed “horrendous acts” of colonisation at times in its history, she was subjected to abuse and even death threats, with her publisher hiring bodyguards to protect her for a time.
“I was very naive. I thought we’d be able to discuss the dark areas in our history,” she told the Guardian in 2018.
This week, Tokarczuk said she was “very happy that at last, after many adventures and years of anticipation” that the book was set to appear in English.
“For someone who writes in a so-called ‘minor language’, being published in English is like being launched into outer space. Once it happens, the work becomes available everywhere and to practically anyone,” she said. “I hope that as a result my local, true story set in the 18th century will become a universal tale about crossing borders and the spirit of rebellion that’s always smouldering within humankind.”
Her translator, Jennifer Croft, said the book “has been considered by most to be Olga’s magnum opus, and I share that view”.
She first saw the novel in 2014, and says it was “quite a long translation process”. “Olga was very specific about the sensory aspects of the world she was depicting and, as always, careful to include the details of food, clothing, and other quotidian elements that make a world a world,” she said. “I loved learning about these as I got to know each of the dozens of important characters in the novel whose stories I found so touching and illuminating.”
The Books of Jacob will be published in the US by Riverhead in February 2022.