The strange effect of this central absence is that the narrative seems to become more vivid as it moves away from the story of Frank and the Frankists. The opening chapter follows the aforementioned vicar through the dank, unlit village of Rohatyn, showing his progress through the Jewish ghetto and into the home of a local rabbi. The episode at the court of Joseph II features wonderful depictions of Imperial Vienna, including a visit to the Emperor’s Wunderkammer Museum: “He leads them among the display cases, where he has collected the bones of ancient animals and giants who obviously once roamed the earth… he takes them to the shelves where human embryos float in a murky liquid inside large jars.
In other places, however, Tokarczuk falters when she gets to the good stuff: the crucial public debate between the Frankists and their Talmudist rivals seems soft, as do Jacob’s scenes in the monastic prison. We know that Jacob is a bit ugly; we know that he is cantankerous and nymphomaniac; we know that his beliefs make him a mixture of holy fool, proto-Zionist and carnival barker; but we still don’t have a good idea of who he is or why his followers (and creator) find him so magnetic. It’s probably on purpose, of course, since the easiest way to preserve mystique is to withhold information, but it feels contrived in such a large book.
Instead of this narrative meat and potatoes, we get prose that feels both more unbuttoned and labored than that of Tokarczuk’s other translated novels. While a writer like Mantel swings into bombast to signify that we are now in the past, Tokarczuk is content to stay laid back, sometimes skating on for years at a time and other times slowing down to describe “peasants in thick felt trousers and sukmanas”. of indeterminate color, disheveled hair, their wives in big creased trousers and fustian scarves, aprons tied around their waists.
The best moments are when the narrator rises in the religious ether, offering a sort of commentary on the metaphysics of the novel’s world: after a Talmudist curses Jacob, she informs us that “there is nothing on this subject “. [curse] it is worrying even surprising. Look – there are many such curses, lesser, weaker, perhaps more insignificant. Many are stalked by these, as they orbit the human heart like slime moons. At first it feels like a metaphysical claim, a way of informing us that the historical world we find ourselves in doesn’t work as we might think, but soon the narrator dives back into the images. The cursed include “everyone to whom someone has ever said, ‘I hope you’re croaking’, when their cart has left the road in the cabbage fields, its wheels crushing adult heads, and the girls cursed by their own fathers because they went into the bushes with a farmhand, and the man with a beautifully embroidered zupan cursed by his own serf”, and so on. The important part is not the abstract reality of curses but the specific list of curses. The chaotic peculiarities of this bygone society are the product not only of worldly historical forces, but also of supernatural forces.