Monthly Letter

1st May 2024 by Geoffrey Marshall

This summer I’m taking two large groups of pilgrims to Poland. Why Poland?

It all started when I read the novel The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk. I came to reading late – when my then teenage children started to read modern novels for pleasure and wanted me to enjoy them too. They still know that I can always tell them what page I’m on in any book I’m reading and how many pages I’ve still got to read. This is why our Sarah gave me this enormous book for Christmas – it has more than 900 pages, which are numbered downwards – so I always knew how many pages I’d got left. Why?

The author explains: “The alternative numbering of the pages used in this book is a nod to books written in Hebrew, as well as a reminder that every order, every system, is simply a matter of what you’ve got used to.

”The Books of Jacob is a monumental historical and theological novel published in Polish in 2014. Set in the mid-18th century, it is about a charismatic mystic self-proclaimed messiah, Jacob Frank, a young Jew from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who travels through the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires from Warsaw to Athens and Vienna to Istanbul, attracting and repelling fervent followers and powerful enemies in equal numbers as he converts first to Islam and then to Catholicism.

It was only when I’d got fewer than 400 pages still to read that I discovered that this novel is about real people and real places. I googled an abbey in which Frank was imprisoned for 13 years and discovered that Częstochowa is a real city and its Jasna Góra Monastery attracts more than three million pilgrims every year. I wanted to join them. Now I shall – with others paying to take me!

The atheist (she claims, but I wonder) Nobel laureate’s epic takes on the biggest philosophical themes of the day: the purpose of life, the nature of religion and the possibility of redemption. But the awkward questions are asked quite simply. For example: “Who is this Saviour who allowed himself to be killed in such a cruel manner, and who sent him? And why must a world created by God be saved in the first place?”

My favourite quote is this: “He who is full of himself has no space left for God.”