In her novel “The Books of Jacob”, Olga Tokarczuk portrays the roughly identical fate of all exploited people, regardless of their language and culture—Ostap Slyvynsky

Ostap Slyvynsky

Part 2 of the conversation with the poet, writer, and translator about Olga Tokarczuk’s novel The Books of Jacob.

In 2020 the Tempora Publishing House issued Ostap Slyvynsky’s Ukrainian translation of this novel.

Iryna Slavinska: Does the topic of anti-Semitism appear in the novel The Books of Jacob?

Ostap Slyvynsky: Anti-Semitism exists there as a kind of constant fear, a kind of shadow, a kind of Jewish anxiety that hangs over all the Jewish heroes. It encompasses their lives, and they try to escape it somehow.

Ya’akov and his predecessors’ search for a place in the sun begins from their sense of extraordinary instability. They are always in fear of something: their neighbors, the government, the local authorities, and landowners. Landowners concluded various commercial agreements with Jews. It was profitable for them to trade and lease, but when it came time to repay their debts to Jews or pay for some provided services, they often simply did not fulfill their obligations to Jews. No Jew could be certain that his agreement with a non-Jew would be honored. Separate mention is made of the history of the Cossacks’ anti-Jewish pogroms that took place during the Khmelnytsky era (the historical period spanning the years from 1648 to 1657 and the uprising led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, during which the Rzeczpospolita lost control over the central part of the Ukrainian ethnographic lands from which sprang the Cossack state headed by a hetman—Ed.)

During the period in which the story takes place, the Jewish pogroms of the Khmelnytsky era are already a painful memory. This is a memory of the end of the world, after which the only chance for the world is the coming of the messiah. The world must shift to some kind of new level; things can no longer go on as they have. Some kind of strong personality, endowed with divine authority who is supposed to save the world, must appear. This is the consequence of deep and collective trauma.

Iryna Slavinska: How did you, working in contemporary Ukraine, manage to immerse yourself in the context of the novel?

Ostap Slyvynsky: This kind of book has to have a literary editor. What is intriguing is that my scholarly editor noticed several factual inconsistencies in the original novel. His comments proved particularly useful in rendering various names—not just Ukrainian ones, but also some that originate in southern Europe. Olga Tokarczuk does not always use contemporary names; sometimes they are historical names from the eighteenth century. Occasionally, she made use of sources that did not convey these names very accurately.

When we talk about the world of Podilia and Galicia of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the beginning of the twentieth as being multicultural, we picture this space a bit incorrectly. We imagine that the members of all these ethnic groups lived side by side, that somehow they became mutually enriched, met each other on the street and socialized; that some kind of wonderful multicultural conglomerate was created out of this and that all of us are its heirs.

In reality, in these multicultural areas located in the so-called kresy (the Polish term for the eastern borderlands, i.e., the territory of today’s western Ukraine, western Belarus, and Lithuania, which once belonged to the Polish Republic—Ed.) there was more misunderstanding than understanding.

Poles could not simply enter a Jew’s home, except in cases where it was necessary to purchase something or come to an agreement about something. There were very few points in common, and Jews were not fully aware of this. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many Jews from Galicia and Podilia did not speak Polish; this likely changed in the twentieth century. It goes without saying that Poles did not speak either Hebrew or Yiddish. What real multiculturalism can we talk about here? Eastern Europe at that time, was more a territory of misunderstanding than understanding.

Iryna Slavinska: Is there a storyline in the novel about the oppression of the Ukrainian and Jewish populations on the territory of Poland?

Ostap Slyvynsky: An especially important social aspect is raised; Olga Tokarczuk emphasized it many times in her commentaries. However, Olga paid for this to a certain extent through her comments pertaining to the colonial and exploitative role of the Rzeczpospolita as a state. Human and natural resources were used. To a great degree, the Khmelnytsky era was the result of these very unwise, short-sighted social and economic policies of Polish landowners in the eastern and southern parts of the Rzeczpospolita. This social motif in the novel is such that Olga portrays the roughly identical fate of everyone who is living in the situation of being exploited, regardless of language and culture.

Some Ukrainian readers may be a bit disenchanted or outraged that the Ukrainian theme is so muted in the novel. Essentially, there is one hero—Hrytsko—who can be clearly read as a Ukrainian. He converts to Judaism because he was an orphan who was adopted by Jews and raised in the Jewish spirit.

This is a novel of viewpoints. Ukrainians are present as those who experience hardships together with wealthy Jews. The theme of poor Poles is also present in the novel. This is a text that shows the lands of Ukraine from a point of view that is unusual for us: the Jewish one; how all this looked from the point of view of a certain group of Jews, which, from the standpoint of the Jewish majority, was also not so incorrect. It was as though they were doubly alienated, doubly marginalized.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization.  

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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