(translated by Jennifer Croft – if writing a novel of over 800 pages sounds like a undertaking, imagine the work that went into translating it… I am in awe)
This is something of a different order: it is gargantuan. It will be seen in time, as one of the great European novels shoulder to shoulder with The Magic Mountain or Karamazov.
With something this vast you need space (both temporal and physical) to step back from it, to consider and absorb. It is like trying to comprehend the Empire State Building or the Great Wall of China while standing up close to them. You need distance to see the context and appreciate the scale – not just of the thing itself, but to grasp the daring and the brilliance involved in its conception and delivery. It is a thing of wonder.
All that said, it is not unapproachable, the language is not overtly difficult or obscure, there are many passages when you can find that you have lost yourself deeply in the eighteenth century world of religious and social experimentation, in Poland, across decades, mainly in Jewish society – and then suddenly there you are delivered 50 pages later.
The bones of the story are based on real figures from Polish history: principally, one Jacob Frank – original name Jacob Leibowicz – described as a Jewish false messiah who claimed to be the reincarnation of Shabbetai Tzevi, he was the most notorious of the false messiahs, and the founder of the antirabbinical Frankist, or Zoharist, sect. The Brittanica continues its description of Frank as, “An uneducated visionary, he appealed to many who awaited the resurrection of Shabbetai. In about 1751 he proclaimed himself the messiah and four years later, in Poland, formed a sect that held that certain elect persons are exempt from the moral law. This sect abandoned Judaism for a “higher Torah” (Jewish Law) based on the Zohar, which was the most important work in the Kabbala, the Jewish mystical movement. Hence its members also called themselves Zoharists. Their practices, including orgiastic, sexually promiscuous rites, led the Jewish community to ban them as heretics in 1756. Protected by Roman Catholic authorities, who saw in them a means of converting the Jews, the Frankists debated with representatives of the rabbinate and claimed that the Talmud, the rabbinical compendium of law and commentary, should be discarded as blasphemous.”
This extraordinarily rich novel moves through decades, travels back and forth across the land of, and near to modern-day Poland, and in doing so introduces a cast of thousands – several of whom change their names part way through the book.
(I love that the pages are numbered backwards – ie. you count down as you progress…)
It is a thankless (and pointless) task to try and summarise the story, better simply to allow yourself to fall into it, get completely enveloped and eventually emerge changed by it. A once in a lifetime phenomena.