Some books are hard to review so this is a short recommendation for the current Nobel literature prize winner’s magnus opus. And the first thing you need to know is that it ain’t half magnus. 900 large pages, some of which are in small type, tightly bound ie it cannot be laid flat. So only read this book if you have the thumbs for it.
Secondly, it’s about the life of Jacob Frank, a false messiah in 18th century Poland, whose followers – the true believers – were often drawn from sympathisers of an earlier false messiah, Sabbatai Tzvi from the previous century. Tsvi, in the Ottomon empire, was given the choice of converting to Islam or death, and he chose the former. Frank, on the other hand, led his followers into the Catholic Church, the second leg of the Trinity out of which the final true religion would come. I think. I think only because the detail of his religion was only revealed to close followers so it is never clear what they actually believed. Perhaps they did not know themselves. And there is a cast of thousands whose lives appear in short chapters, and whose names change steadily not least after they are baptised. The settings sprawl over several countries too.
The novel – this is a novel – includes an early follower of Frank who is dead but who is more like the living dead, watching over what happens. Bishops flit through the text and there are medieval disputations as the mainstream Jewish world and the Catholic Church works out what to do with these people.
Frank was charismatic, dicatorial, immoral and believed that the the rules had to be broken to set yourself free yet leaving the Jewish world allowed his followers to prosper in ways that were not open to them before. They were able to move from a squalid life of povery and exclusion, but lost the freedom to decide on their own sexual partner with Frank behaving like all cult leaders do when it comes to that issue. They also has to find the money to keep Frank’s court running.
The text is littered with Hebrew and Polish words. There is no continuous narrative. There is, perhaps, one likeable character, Moliwda, a Gentile who is drawn to the Frankists, works with them as a translator and who tries to smooth their way despite knowing of the deep faults within their leader.
Yet I would recommend the book, with fair warning that you have to give up a lot of reading time, you might not be able to remember who is who of the characters, you might have to dip into the history of false messiahs and the history of Poland and the Ottoman Empire but if you can cope with all of that – dive in.
I was pleased to see that in December this book “bubbled under” (as they used to say on Top of the Pops) our best-seller list. Somehow I doubt it was a Christmas present though.