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Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk releases 'The Books of Jacob'


"The Books Of Jacob" by Olga Tokarczuk is a colossal work - an epic, a fable, a history, sometimes a satire, always a magnum opus. It tells the story of Jacob Frank, an 18th century religious leader - or heretic or charlatan, or all of the above - who draws adherents and alarms authorities in a movement that sweeps through the villages of Poland, Ukraine, Galicia and the Habsburg Empire. It is the first Olga Tokarczuk novel to appear in English since she won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. It's translated by Jennifer Croft. And Olga Tokarczuk and Jennifer Croft join us now. Thank you both very much for being with us.

JENNIFER CROFT: Thank you so much for having us.

OLGA TOKARCZUK: Thank you so much.

SIMON: Olga Tokarczuk, I'm worn out with superlatives just from introducing you. How did you come across the words and the world of Jacob Frank?

TOKARCZUK: That was a little bit by accident. Once, I found out somewhere in the small bookstore a book written by the disciples of Jacob Frank. It's so called (speaking Polish) in Polish because it was written in Polish, which means, Jennifer?

CROFT: The book of the Lord's words.

TOKARCZUK: Yes. I was really fascinated by this story, by the figure of Jacob Frank. In the beginning, I thought that it will be small essay about the story of him.

SIMON: (Laughter).

TOKARCZUK: But then I realized...

SIMON: A thousand pages later, yeah.

TOKARCZUK: Yeah. But then I realized that only one literary form can really deal with this subject, and it was novel.

SIMON: What attracts people to Jacob Frank? - people, crowds, whole towns.

CROFT: He's such an interesting case because you get these diametrically opposed reactions to him. So you have some people saying, you know, he's fluent in every possible language, and he's the most articulate, magical speaker anyone can imagine. And then you have other people saying, this man doesn't speak any language at all. He is completely illiterate. He can't say anything that makes any sense. So you have this incredibly charismatic person who's also such an enigma. And that only increases his charisma because as he travels from town to town, people are hearing these differing things, and everyone comes out to see for themselves who this man is.

SIMON: He's also - let me put this decorously - famously virile, isn't he?

CROFT: He had a lot of sex. Jacob Frank had a lot of sex, it seems like from Olga's research (laughter).

SIMON: Olga, tell us about Yente, one of the narrators. She swallows an amulet on her deathbed. And that just keeps on going. The words somehow nourish her. Tell us about how this character came to you.

TOKARCZUK: For me, it was, in the beginning, the very technical character because I couldn't manage with the richness of the story, and I desperately needed a kind of new voice to look from the different point of view. So I invented this character to help me, to tell the story. And she's very special. She's a little bit magical. So she knows everything. She can be in every single position. She can be in every single situation. And sometimes she became a very independent voice. So my only role was just to listen to her. I know that it sounds a little bit like metaphysical figure, but, in fact, she was.

SIMON: Yeah. No. I mean, there are people hearing this who will say, but wait, you created her. You wrote her words.

TOKARCZUK: Yeah. But it's much more complicated who creates whom. I used to think about her like she is an author of not only the book but also me - very, very complicated position, very complicated situation.

SIMON: Is it important to you to have women characters that are often overlooked in histories of a period like the Enlightenment?

TOKARCZUK: Yeah, I think so. Of course. In fact, I did a kind of revindication of an entire story to find those new points of view on this story but also trust them. So from the female point of view, you can always see the things which are not present in archives, in documents, in the history written by men, of course. So I work hard to find out such characters, like Katarzyna Kossakowska. She was a supporter of Frankist in this book, and she was also a very important character in Polish history, a little bit forgotten. And there was mention somewhere in the documents that Jacob Frank had women guards. So I started to think, wow, those women had to be very strong and very eccentric, very important. Who they were, in fact? So then I based on this one sentence in the documents creating Gitla.

SIMON: When "The Books Of Jacob" was published in Poland, some people didn't like it. Some people didn't like it a lot. I've even read that you were threatened.

TOKARCZUK: Yeah, because the people are accustomed to the very conservative view on Polish history - very patriarchal, I would say. So some of us in Poland, we forgot the situation from 18, 17 century when Poland was a big, huge kingdom - quite weak but quite broad - and full of many languages, very multi-ethnical. And I think that those people who didn't like the book, they also don't like this vision, this multicultural vision of Poland. So I was very happy to have possibility to recall the past situation.

SIMON: I've got one last question. Has the world learned - do we learn every day we have to be skeptical of charismatic leaders like Jacob, like fill in the blank?

TOKARCZUK: In a way, we need charismatic leaders. I mean, situation in Poland, so many peoples, 38 million is waiting for charismatic leader who will have a position to recognize what is good and what is bad and just to lead us somewhere to the better times. But for the other side, I don't know, really.

Jacob Frank could do things which are completely unbelievable in his time because he led his own people from the lowest class of the society to the highest level - highest, really, level of being. So it was an incredible act of emancipation in the feudal Polish society. So the story about Jacob Frank is the story about this kind of small revolution.

SIMON: "The Books Of Jacob" by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft - thank you so much for being with us.

TOKARCZUK: Thank you so much.

CROFT: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.