Extract from an Encyclopaedia
The Books of Jacob
by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft
Published November 2021
Alternative titles: Cavern
‘It is in fact thanks to the pansophy of the Internet,’ writes Tokarczuk in her postscript to The Books of Jacob, ‘that I happened upon the trail of the “miracle” in the Korolówka Cave – the astonishing story of dozens of people’s survival of the Holocaust.’ The story of these Jewish villagers, who sheltered for almost two years in an underground gypsum cave in Western Ukraine to avoid being apprehended by the occupying Nazi forces, ultimately makes it into the final pages of The Books of Jacob. Yet the Korolówka cave is installed as a central motif from the beginning, a hollow space in which many of the novel’s labyrinthine threads come together.
Its figurative value seems largely to inhere in the fact that it is ‘shaped like an enormous alef’, ‘the first letter upon which the world rests’. The villagers of Korolówka indulge in speculation: ‘Maybe somewhere far away in the world under the earth there are also other letters, a whole alphabet, made out of nothing, out of underground air, darkness, the plash of underground streams.’ These caves, both real and imagined, are figures for the Kabbalistic model of negativity which extends throughout The Books of Jacob. ‘Without contraction, there is no creation’, writes Tokarczuk’s translator Jennifer Croft in an essay on translating this book, quoting the renowned scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem. Creation, then, is a ‘kind of exile’.
What I want to argue, though, is that it’s the story of Tokarczuk stumbling across this ‘miracle’ thanks to the universal and encyclopaedic wisdom of the internet that underpins her monumental project. As Tokarczuk explains in the postscript, this experience constituted a kind of ‘trail’, leading her finally to conclude: ‘firstly, that so many things remain quietly connected, and secondly, that history is the unceasing attempt to understand what it is that has happened alongside all that might have happened as well or instead.’ This discovery is a kind of genesis story for the project that would become The Books of Jacob,this brick of a postmodern mega-novel. Furthermore, in situating the story of the villagers sheltering in the cave at the end of a book whose pages are numbered backwards, Tokarczuk effectively installs it at the beginning. It seems an apt place, then, for us to begin: Tokarczuk sitting at her computer, clicking around on Wikipedia and thinking about caves.
mathematics and mechanics
The Books of Jacob is a book about the internet. That is to say, it’s a response to the experience of encountering information online, and realising as a result that ‘many things remain quietly connected’, as Tokarczuk writes in her postscript. This realisation in turn gives rise to the notion of the system as a whole, a kind of totality – everything that has happened ‘alongside all that might have happened as well or instead.’
In an essay translated by Croft and published in June this year, Tokarczuk describes a challenge faced by authors seeking to ‘create a literature for our new times’, capable of mediating our encounter with the ‘great, flickering universe’ via the seeming infinity of the internet. The approach she proposes is coined ‘ognosia’, a ‘narratively oriented, ultrasynthetic process that, reflecting objects, situations and phenomena, tries to organise them into a higher independent meaning; cf: → plenitude.’ Ognosia, Tokarczuk argues, has roots in the discourse of chaos theory, a kind of nonlinear and dynamic systems theory perhaps associated with Mandelbrot fractals, butterfly effects and strange attractors.
Chaos theory, like The Books of Jacob, can be a response to the experience of being online. As Vivian Sobchack puts it in a 1990 essay, ‘A Theory of Everything: Meditations on Total Chaos’, the ‘widespread allure’ of chaos theory has seemed from the beginning to be ‘closely related to its figuration of new, uniquely electronic modes of “being-in-the-world”, a kind of “interface” between humans and computers’ giving rise to the ‘vertigo of dizzying electronic culture in which earlier systems of spatial, temporal and bodily orientation no longer seem adequate.’ Sobchack contends that chaos theory, which involves the ‘computer modelling of idealised virtual worlds’, responds to that vertiginous experience and attempts, like ognosia, to restore a sense of the system as a whole.
We begin again, then, with Tokarczuk before a computer, as she describes herself in the penultimate pages of The Books of Jacob, observed from above by a hovering eye: ‘a sitting figure, her face lit up by some white glow, hair peculiar, attire eccentric.’ As we watch, ‘letters appear out of nowhere from under this figure’s fingers on a bright flat rectangle of light, shining obediently in little rows.’ She is writing, yes, but also contemplating the paradox she identifies in her essay on ognosia: that we find ourselves experiencing ‘for the first time in history’ not only the ‘overwhelming finitude of the world’ but also the infinity of the internet.
‘Sitting at a computer,’ Tokarczuk writes in her essay on ognosia, ‘one really has the impression that man is manoeuvring through an opened trove that can no longer be grasped – not the authors, the titles, the entries. Infinity reproduces itself by itself, spreading, and we attach to it the fragile tools of search engines in order to maintain the impression that we’re still in control.’ As she noted in her Nobel Prize lecture in 2019, this was once the fantasy of pansophic omniscience: ‘universal knowledge that could contain within it all possible cognition’, a ‘dream of information available to everyone’. And yet the internet, which realises this vision totally, is disappointing:
It has turned out we are not capable of bearing this enormity of information, which instead of uniting, generalising and freeing, has differentiated, 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 antagonising.
The ‘complexity and ambiguity’ we experience before these bright flat rectangles of light ‘give rise to all sorts of defence mechanisms’, reflexive responses tending towards denial, repression, conservatism and ‘nostalgia, a return to the past and a clinging towards tradition.’ Tokarczuk is adamant that this is not the path that ognosia will take. We ‘wouldn’t fit into the past’ even if we could get back there, and any attempt to do so would be stupid and embarrassing, a kind of self-deceiving luddite fantasy, or Heideggerian cottagecore; ‘When Greta Thunberg called on us to shut down the mines, stop flying, and focus on what we have, and not on what we could yet get, I hardly think she was advocating for us to clamber back into horse-drawn carts and huts with hearths and smoke holes.’
And yet – doesn’t this describe The Books of Jacob? Is this not a novel simply crawling with horse-drawn carts and huts and hearths, dust and looms and flickering hand-held torches? In what sense, then, does The Books of Jacob constitute what Tokarczuk describes as a ‘redefinition’ of ‘the concept of realism’, a ‘new’ realism ‘that would allow us to go beyond the limits of our ego and penetrate the glass screen through which we see the world’?
Tokarczuk’s contention is that if our contemporary reality is constituted ‘by the media, social networking sites, and indirect relationships on the Internet’, what is needed in fiction is a ‘sort of neo-surrealism’, featuring ‘rearranged points of view that won’t be afraid to stand up to paradox’, subverting ‘the simple order of cause and effect’ and taking inspiration from ‘new scientific theories’ like chaos theory. In The Books of Jacob the agenda of neo-surrealism takes the form of an old woman who cannot die, and who sees everything – Yente, the grandmother of the eighteenth-century self-proclaimed Messiah Jacob Frank.
Yente’s fate is sealed in the prologue, from the first (or final) page, when in an act of defiance she swallows a scrap of paper hung around her neck by a Rabbi. This scrap is a Kabbalist charm, intended to stave off Yente’s impending death for the duration of a family celebration – a matter of convenience. Once swallowed, the charm lodges in Yente’s oesophagus, and the ‘specially prepared black ink dissolves slowly’, the ‘letters losing their shape’ as the essence of the word is absorbed by her body’s tissues. This absorption underway, Yente, in her new state as matter carrying the essence of word, finds that ‘she can easily slide out of her body and be suspended over it’, ‘gliding along on the drafts of air, on the vibrations of sound, passing without difficulty through wooden walls and doors.’
To accompany Yente, as she moves through the world of the novel, evokes more than anything else the sensation of being online, ‘surfing the web’. She floats along in the wind, is pulled by certain forces or intensities in particular directions, riding air currents and feeling the force of strange and powerful tides. In her essay on ognosia, Tokarczuk reflects on the aptness of this metaphor:
Surfing in search of some bit of information, I have often had the feeling that I was swimming in a vast ocean of data that was furthermore constantly in the process of self-formation and self-comment. Whoever was the first to term such an activity ‘surfing’ was really a genius. The image of the lone person who, with the aid of a modest board, soars on the summit of a wave across a furious ocean is very much justified here. The surfer is transported by the element, and he himself has only a limited influence on his trajectory – he relies on the energy and movement of the wave. Let us note that this sense of being merely the object of motion that does not depend on us, and thus in a certain way of being guided, dragged along by the force of some mysterious inertia, resurrects the old idea of fatum, which we now understand differently – as the network of dependencies on others, as inheriting patterns of behavior not only in the biological but also in the cultural sense, the result of which is a lively and likely still developing discussion of identities.
‘Fate’ is a dramatic but fairly accurate word, I think, for the feeling of scrolling for hours on an Instagram explore page that you’ve supposedly curated for yourself. I like the way Tokarczuk thinks about the internet, but I’m suspicious of what the ‘internet’ stands in for in her thought, and in her writing. My hackles are raised, for instance, by this vague gesture towards the Latourian notion of the ‘network’ as the basis of what we know as fate, because we might also think about ‘fatum’ as history. This ‘mysterious inertia’ is figuratively loaded, and there’s a sense that power, resistance, and structural forces risk being dissolved into the infinite complexity of the web in this kind of network-y account, which effectively occludes the possibility of challenging the status quo in any meaningful way.
In other words, the networked subjectivity of the web-surfer might not be sufficient as a model for the individual who is caught up in the forces of history, but it’s an accurate description of Yente. It helps me to make sense of Yente, which is a relief, because although I was aware as I read this book that Yente was supposed to be important, I didn’t really know what to do with her. My ambivalence towards Yente as a literary device was dispelled by my encounter with Tokarczuk’s essay on ognosia, which cheerfully restored Yente’s interpretability in time for me to write this review. Of course, isn’t it obvious? Yente is extremely online.
From the moment she swallows the scrap of paper around her neck, ‘Yente’s vision knows no borders.’ While her breathing slows and her body, stowed in the Korolówka Cave, gradually turns to crystal, Yente sees everything and goes everywhere. She is a ‘witness’, an ‘eye that travels through space and time’ at the speed of thought, whooshing around through the ‘flickering and ceaselessly transforming world’ before eventually pausing in curiosity above the illuminated figure furiously typing out her name, ‘YENTE YENTE YENTE’ on the little white screen.
Yente, the ‘one soul capable of seeing from above, and of following the tracks of all these restless beings’, observes the connections between seemingly disparate contexts, is able to comprehend the ‘bridges, hinges, gears and bolts, and all the minor instruments that link distinct, singular and unique events.’ It is these, Yente observes over and over again with a kind of mild, impersonal didacticism, that
form the underpinnings of the world, these that transport this or that word over into events in the vicinity, these that reproduce some gesture or facial expression many times in other contexts, rhythmically, these that bring into contact time after time the same objects or the same people, these that launch the phantom trains of thought between things that are naturally strangers.
Yente is pure ognosia, the textual embodiment of what Tokarczuk described in her Nobel Prize speech as her ‘dream of a new kind of narrator’, a ‘fourth-person’ perspective, ‘who is not merely a grammatical construct of course, but who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters, as well as having the capacity to step beyond the horizon of each of them, who sees more and has a wider view, and who is able to ignore time’ – who is able, in other words, to provide a ‘perspective from where everything can be seen’, allowing us to recognise ‘the ultimate fact that all things that exist are mutually connected into a single whole, even if the connections between them are not yet known to us.’ In Tokarczuk’s view, this kind of narrator is required to fulfil literature’s function, as she sees it: that is, to cure us of our ‘inability to perceive the world as an integral whole’.
Is such a cure possible? And is Yente fit for such a monumental task? Reading The Books of Jacob, it sometimes feels like the work of the reader – making connections, identifying patterns, engaging with the tension between individual details and the ‘world’ of the book as a whole – is being done ‘for us’ in a way that isn’t entirely satisfying. Sometimes it feels like Yente is more effective in conveying or foregrounding an anxiety about our capacity to comprehend the ‘unified whole’ of the novel than she is in conveying any actual ‘sense’ of that unity, or totality. Just like the internet, Tokarczuk’s fourth-person narrator only intensifies the disease that it claims to cure – this sense of our inability to access or comprehend the ‘integral whole’ of the world.
It’s this anxiety which underpins the narrator’s fretful reflection in The Books of Jacob, that it is ‘difficult’ to appreciate the connection between events ‘when you are seeing them from the stage on which they unfolding.’ From this perspective ‘Nothing is visible, there are too many sets, and they cover each other up and give the impression of chaos.’ And yet, in reality, as the narrator insists:
Over time, moments occur that are very similar to one another. The threads of time have their knots and tangles, and every so often there is a symmetry, every once in a while something repeats, as if refrains and motifs were controlling them, a troubling thing to notice. Such order tends to overburden the mind, which cannot know how to respond. Chaos has always seemed more familiar and safe, like the disarray in your own drawer.
This, apparently, is why we need Yente, who ‘watches all of this’ and appreciates the order within the chaos. Through Yente, Tokarczuk hopes to realise her vision for literature, as outlined in her essay on ognosia: ‘a network that connects and shows the enormity of the correspondence between all the participants of being.’ As this language suggests, Yente, as ‘literature’, is not only a response to the problem presented by the internet – she is also the answer to its prayers, a cyborg angel of infinity, the final form of the pansophic fantasies of centuries past.
In Sobchack’s words, what makes chaos theory so ‘compelling and ‘uncanny’ is ‘not only its hermetic vision of a world absolved of human existence, but also its ‘attempt at a Utopian projection or transmission’ into the ‘infinite datascape’ of chaos models, which constitute a kind of ‘terminal space’. Yente, too, is uncanny and compelling. ‘Disembodied at the computer terminal yet culturally en-framed by its technology,’ Yente is what Sobchack terms the ‘ghost in the machine’, haunting a ‘new arena of human action and control through the practice of a new, fictional vision’. Such a vision, Sobchack argues, must fundamentally be understood as ‘an attempt to respond to a feeling of discomfort’, a response to ‘a loss of personal control and value in a world of incomprehensible complexity and random information’. It is a kind of ‘yearning’ for a ‘technological sublime’ – ‘an available, managed, and enframed world where total order grants us absolute disclosure and moral absolution.’ Surfing around with Yente for close on a thousand pages, being prompted to observe synchronicities with a kind of pious, all-knowing detachment, it’s hard not to feel that she is an expression of a similar kind of yearning on Tokarczuk’s part.
That’s not to mention the discomfort one might feel upon remembering that the internet is itself ‘a fundamentally nauseating and overwhelming ex-American military technology of mass surveillance,’ to borrow Jeremy George’s terms. An even longer and more conspiratorial review might address the discomfort we can feel noticing that Yente, the enormous floating eye, is able by virtue of her disembodiment to experience the hyper-chaos of data in its unfiltered form while we, the readers, require our own data to be fed back to us in a modulated form. The work of Justin Clemens and Adam Nash could assist us here, particularly in their discussion of our relationship to our own data in the age of Web 2.0, ‘an entirely technical global system, linked in real time’, in which our ‘our identity is now established, delivered, maintained, and transformed by an entirely unnatural, inhuman, and constantly mutating technological system without centre or periphery, lacking any aim or end, beyond the control of any single agency.’ The internet in itself is not infinite, but our data might be – how might we harness this fact in the name of a ‘novel of a collective’?
CHMIELOWSKI, FATHER BENEDICT
If The Books of Jacob is Tokarczuk’s case study in the art of ognosia, in the capacity for literature to confront us with totality, the character Father Benedict Chmielowski serves as a case study in the impossibility of realising such a totalising project in the past. Like many of the characters in The Books of Jacob, he is based on a historical figure, the author of The New Athens, the first Polish encyclopaedia. In assembling and distributing The New Athens,Tokarczuk’s Chmielowski intends to convey to the Polish people ‘at least the Rudiments of every indispensable Subject – Medicine, Geography, Natural Magic’ as well as at least ‘a Smattering of Facts about foreign Religions and Nations.’
A kind of foolish, pitiable figure reminiscent of George Eliot’s Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch, searching in vain for the ‘Key to All Mythologies’, Chmielowski is also the figure I find most compelling in The Books of Jacob – I’m moved by him in a way I’m not moved by Yente. His endeavour is imbued with an Enlightenment faith in the power of science, a kind of breathless desire to have ‘All of mankind’s knowledge collected in one place’, and yet his project is equally delimited by its folksy provincialism.
Tokarczuk’s obsession with encyclopaedias has come up in a number of interviews and essays, as well as in her speech accepting the Nobel Prize – which, incidentally, was bestowed in recognition of what the judges termed her ‘encyclopaedic passion’. Unsurprisingly, ‘encyclopaedic’ is a term thrown around with some frequency in critical responses to The Books of Jacob. Like an encyclopaedia, it is an assemblage of images, facts, diagrams and quotations. Like an encyclopaedia, it draws on collectively assembled knowledge. Like an encyclopaedia, it is cyclical, culturally educative and is too long to read in one sitting. This makes the eloquent, dust-jacket praise heaped on Chmielowski’s encyclopaedia by another one of Tokarczuk’s historical personages, the poet Elżbieta Drużbacka, feel like an elaborate wink to the camera; surely Tokarczuk knows as she writes these lines that few reviewers will be able to resist drawing a parallel between the ‘strange magic’, ‘true genius’ and ‘enormous courage’ of Chmielowski’s ‘compendium of all that we know’, and the book that encloses New Athens, establishing itself in this very process of enclosure as more totalising, more courageous, and certainly more complete than Chmielowski’s book could ever be.
Tokarczuk’s advantage over Chmielowski is bolstered by the figure of Elżbieta, the poet, who serves as a spokesperson in The Books of Jacob for everything that falls outside of the parameters of Chmielowski’s encyclopedia: that which cannot be catalogued, or which rarely makes it into the archive, all the tasks that keep her from her own writing. She writes to Chmielowski:
Women are the ones who operate the querns, the spinning wheels, the looms. It is on their watch that the smokehouses smoke, that dough rises in the kneading troughs, bread bakes in the ovens, candles are pressed into shape … As I write, the doors have crashed open, and the little girls are racing in, chasing Firlejka, who came inside with muddied paws that need to be wiped off, but the dog keeps escaping between the legs of the tables and chairs and everywhere leaves filthy tracks, mud seals, as it were.
These mud seals, like the spinning of looms and the kneading of dough, are a kind of language that can’t be transcribed or sealed in a historical document. Drużbacka is constantly reminding us, or rather reminding Father Chmielowski, that the paperwork claiming to record history is always incomplete – incapable of containing the poetic ‘perfection of imprecise forms’, and yet testifying to it endlessly in its gaps and absences.
The main difference between Chmielowski and Tokarczuk, though, is that the latter has Yente, which is another way of saying that she has the internet. Chmielowski and Casaubon have books, and Tokarczuk has infinity – it’s hardly a fair fight.
The phenomenon that blazes across the lives of Tokarczuk’s characters, visible ‘the planet over’ between 1758 and 1759, is known today as Halley’s Comet. Halley’s Comet in The Books of Jacob is a figure of history, of collective experience, and also a ‘pure but transient vision’, an ‘aesthetic or timeless moment’.
The back-cover blurb promises that Tokarczuk’s book ‘follows the comet-like rise and fall of a messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe’. The comet, in turn, follows Jacob, ‘as if he were the comet’s son, a spark of light fallen from the sky’. But Tokarczuk, like Yente, is more interested in the people spread out below, craning their necks to stare up at this ‘scythe aimed at humanity, a naked glistening blade’, than she is in the comet itself. The comet, like the rise and fall of the prophet Jacob Frank, is an historical event around which many overlapping narratives coalesce. Tokarczuk is concerned with the synchronicities between these narratives, and their capacity to offer shared or collective experience.
This concern is caught up with the broader question that The Books of Jacob seems implicitly to respond to: How do you write the novel of the collective? In Tokarczuk’s words, how do you ‘tell a story that makes it clear that everyone and everything is steeped in one common notion, which we painstakingly produce in our minds with every turn of the planet’ – a story ‘capable of raising this great, constellation form of the world?’ She ventures an answer in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech: ‘[I]t could be best to tell stories honestly in a way that activates a sense of the whole in the reader’s mind, that sets off the reader’s capacity to unite fragments into a single design, and to discover entire constellations in the small particles of events …’
Jacob, then, appears as a configuration of perspectives, a constellation of many comets blazing like stars in the upturned eyes of his beholders. Jacob appears as stories about Jacob, rumours and gossip and desires and suspicions, glimmers of which we can make out in the upturned eyes of his beholders, strains of which pass through their bodies like music or moisture in the air.
This is the other side to ognosia, and the one that I find most compelling. In her essay published this year, Tokarczuk argues that the new realism needs to take ‘inspiration’ not only ‘from new scientific theories’ like chaos theory, but also from mythology, and from ‘the entire human imaginarium’. Myths, or collective narratives, bear a suspicious resemblance to Jungian archetypes for the psychoanalytically trained Tokarczuk – ‘the building material for our psyche’ – but the notion of ‘myth’ serves a broader function in her writing that could also be seen as compatible with the project of Marxism.
This could help us understand Jameson’s claim that Tokarczuk, in The Books of Jacob, has learned to do the impossible – she has ‘written the novel of the collective’. As Jameson writes, the ‘regrouping around the person of Jacob of the ‘true believers’, their ‘return to Poland, the imprisonment of Jacob, his arrival in Vienna’ – these are ‘truly historical and collective convulsions’. The fact that these events are ‘imaginary’, that ‘world history is itself imaginary’, does not discount their significance. The Messiah is a myth, a ‘great’ and ‘collective’ story. This isn’t to say that Jacob Frank is a good man, or even that his story is particularly ‘good’, but rather that it contains certain Utopian or totalising capacities. The Utopian valence of Jameson’s so-called ‘collective’ narrative may be flawed and dangerously universalising, but it also presents certain advantages compared with the notion of the ‘network’ when it comes to thinking about collective action and the forces of history. On one hand, then, we have Yente and the internet, and on the other, Jacob and the comet – two ways of thinking totality, each with their own limitations and tendencies towards erasure, and each presenting unique challenges in terms of their representability in the form of the novel. No wonder the book is solong.
Jacob’s story, like all myths, arrives in translation. In the world of the novel itself, translation is embodied in the ambiguous figure of Moliwda, also known as Antoni Kossakowski, a Polish Christian with a troubled past who serves as an interpreter for Jacob and his followers at various points in their journey. He is not only their translator but also a diplomat, a chaperone, and at times something more intimate and personal – ‘you are like one of us now’, one of Jacob’s followers tells Moliwda at one point. Jacob speaks ‘through Moliwda’s lips’; there are times in which wisely, he ‘says very little, stays mysterious’, allowing Moliwda to ‘embellish’ what he has said ‘so that he seems like a naturally wise and serious man’. At other times, Jacob will tell an anecdote, and ‘Moliwda rounds out the details’, or alters Jacob’s tone to make him more likeable. Translation, for Moliwda, is never neutral. It is an intimate, terrifying and embodied event. Throughout more than one of the interrogations he receives he finds himself ‘sopping at the armpits’, feeling moisture gathering beneath his heavy garments.
Outside the world of the novel, its translation is performed by the American author and critic, Jennifer Croft. In the essay I mentioned above, Croft explains her approach to translation as one in which every word is treated as a person in its own right, with a narrative identity (its etymology, or the ‘origins and evolution over time’ of its usage and signification), as well as a capacity to form ethical and intersubjective relationships (its syntax, or how a word ‘behaves in a phrase’ and ‘interacts with its neighbours’). According to this metaphor, ‘it is the translator who is responsible, from start to finish, for building a flourishing lexical community that is both self-contained and in profound relation with its model.’ The way in which Croft takes seriously the fundamental multiplicity, suggestiveness and ambiguity of each member of this community parallels Tokarczuk’s approach to the personhood of her characters, who are never reduced to or calcified into types or plot devices. As Jameson writes, Tokarczuk’s characters ‘think all the time; stubbornly they all have their opinions on everything and anything, and are prepared to argue them vociferously at a moment’s notice.’
In her essay Croft not only emphasises the ethical dimensions of syntax in translation, but highlights the resonance of her approach with Walter Benjamin’s famous comments on the subject:
I don’t share Benjamin’s faith in a pure language to come. But I do think he’s right that it is syntax that ushers the original work into its ‘afterlife,’ as he calls it … The words of the text are the embodiment of its past. Its sentences, on the other hand, lead the way into its future, and in so doing, they also pass through the vast, dynamic labyrinth of the translator’s imagination.
The image of the internal labyrinthine cave here is interesting, conjuring a vision of disassembled sentences passing through the translator’s lungs, bloodstream, digestive system. Elsewhere in the same essay, Croft refers to her process of translation as akin to immersing herself in a warm body of water, a kind of amniotic fluid in which she can ‘feel weightless’ and allow the language and imagery of the ‘original’ text to ‘wash over’ her, before clambering out of the water, ‘striving to maintain all the moisture on [her] skin as the sun lifts it away from [her] drop by drop’. This experience of immersion, the weightlessness of water, recalls Tokarczuk surfing the web, ‘swimming in a vast ocean of data that [is] furthermore constantly in the process of self-formation and self-comment.’ The lexical community of the novel becomes a figure for the total system of the internet, words-as-subjects networked into ‘dependencies on others’, giving rise to a certain kind of experience in the ghostly body navigating these infinite currents.
On the other hand, the image of the evaporating droplets on the translator’s skin recalls the experience of Moliwda, always acutely aware of his perspiration, the moisture forming and moving under the fabric of his clothing as he is plunged into the process of translating the Frankist words, as well as the questions of their myriad interrogators. This emphasis on the embodiment of the translator might be seen to belie an anxiety regarding the rise of machine translation, the increasingly obsolete function of the body who translates when confronted with the infinity of the internet, unless their body-ness is somehow made crucial to the process. A contrast is set up, then, between disembodied cyborg-ghost and a comparatively limited, ‘human’ subject – a juxtaposition that is then undermined by the emphasis on the latter’s secretions, the body as leaky, porous, bacterial being.
As Sobchack points out, citing Jameson, the ‘hyperspace’ of chaos theory is ‘radically anti-anthropomorphic’ and ‘incompatible with the representation of the body’. One facet of this is that, as Tokarczuk puts it, we can ‘perceive ourselves as complex and varied organisms – this is what the discovery of the ideas of microbiota and the holobiont has led to, along with the discovery of their stunningly powerful influence on our body and psyche – on the whole of what we term human.’
Menstrual blood, sweat, semen and germs are the principal agents of chaos in The Books of Jacob, constantly reminding us of the porosity and fragility of the human organism. This is the Enlightenment, after all: ‘a time of great contamination and diversity – of ideas, people, religions’ but also of ‘a host of nefarious viruses’, which cannot be contained or ignored. In the early days of one of the many plagues which that descend upon the novel, a doctor, Asher Rubin, ‘tries to picture how the illness passes from one person into another; it must be that it takes the form of some dense, vague fog, a fug, or a virulent vapour. These miasmas, getting into the bloodstream from inhaled air, infect and inflame it.’ Again, there are echoes of chaos theory: ‘a discourse that shows and tells us that ‘an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a facade of order – and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order’, as Sobchack puts it. Reading this passage at the local pool, my face tight and warm in the sun, I become intensely aware of the breath leaving my body, moving through the still air of the late afternoon. The book gets wet and falls apart in my hands, and I ride home and take a rapid test, just in case.
Where other characters, like Father Chmielowski, toe the line between Enlightenment and superstition, Rubin is firmly rooted in the former. ‘Not so long ago, people believed that the plague was brought about by an unfortunate constellation of the planets,’ he thinks, stripping naked and wondering what to do with his clothes – ‘Throw them out?’ – to avoid bringing the plague into his household. Even while recognising the wisdom in his actions – Rubin and his family will survive the plague – Tokarczuk also remains loyal to this old-world thinking, to what she calls in her essay on ognosia the lost ‘scholars of true erudition’ who were ‘capable of grasping the affinities of knowledge in areas seemingly distant from one another’. Planets and plagues, bugs and constellations, bodies and stars: as above, so below. Yente, ever-present, can observe Rubin from a vantage point near his ceiling as he conscientiously peels off his clothes, and he cannot explain her at all.
Yente’s role is to remind us that stories, like viruses, fluids, and fog, pass through the porous borders of the human form. She teaches us that ‘The Messiah is something more than a figure and a person – it is something that flows in your blood, resides in your breath, it is the dearest and most precious human thought; that salvation exists.’ Story, for Tokarczuk, is ‘the fifth element that makes us see the world in this, rather than in any other, way, makes us understand its infinite diversity and complexity, as well as organize our experience and pass it on from generation to generation, from one life to the next.’ The novel as collective story-telling performs an analogous role to the internet, enacting a transmission of our own deracinated data, which must then be modulated in particular ways. We might understand this as a kind of recuperative mimesis, the novel appropriating the radical but dangerous capabilities of the internet, or we might be more suspicious – what does it mean to redeem the operations of private tech via the genre of historical fiction? Herein lies Tokarczuk’s somewhat head-spinning accomplishment, the production of a postmodern novel of the collective: a big fat book about being online.
Jennifer Croft, ‘The Order of Things: Jennifer Croft on Translating Olga Tokarczuk’, Literary Hub, 2022.
Justin Clemens and Adam Nash, ‘Your privacy is important to us: autoscopic collaborationin post-convergent media’, paper presented at Imaging Identity: Media, Memory and Visions of Humanity in the Digital Present. Australian National University, Humanities Research Centre and National Portrait Gallery Canberra, Australia, July 2010.
Jeremy George, ‘Review: Toby Fitch, Where Only the Sky had Hung Before’, Mascara Literary Review, 2020.
Fredric Jameson, ‘The Fog of History’, London Review of Books, 2022.
Olga Tokarczuk, ‘Ognosia’, translated by Jennifer Croft, Words Without Borders, 2022.
–––, ‘The Tender Narrator’, translated by Jennifer Croft and Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Nobel Lecture in Literature 7, 2019.
Vivian Sobchak, ‘A Theory of Everything: Meditations On Total Chaos’, Artforum 29.2, 1990.