Filed under: Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction | Tags: book reviews, books, david mitchell, historical fiction, japan, lit, literature, reading, the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet
David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is such a detailed and well-crafted novel that it’s hard, at times, not to feel you’re watching a movie. Mitchell follows the titular character, Jacob de Zoet, as he moves to a Japanese factory town as a clerk for a Dutch shipping company. De Zoet has landed this job in an attempt to better himself and his prospects, so that at the end of five years he can return home and marry his sweetheart, Anna. Whether Anna feels Jacob needs to better himself or not, her father does. Jacob’s work has, from the start, an air of the prison sentence to it – at least as far as his dealings with coworkers go.
Mitchell doesn’t just follow Jacob, though, and it’s his ability to move between characters and worlds that makes this novel such a remarkable one. Mitchell follows Jacob’s travails as the hated assistant to a man who vows to clean up the Dutch company’s work on Dejima (a factory town on an island off of Nagasaki) and get rid of employees seeking unfair profits; a Japanese midwife as she is forced to move to a shrine run by the Lord Enomoto, a fearsomely powerful man; and the attempts of a British naval captain, John Penhaligon, to rescue his career by taking over the Japanese trade controlled by the Dutch. Mitchell uses each of these characters, in turn, to look at types of power and how it is wielded. Penhaligon, for instance, hopes to both assert his own power over his crew and to declare himself a worthy captain when he arrives home. The longer Jacob is in Dejima, the more he realizes that his “power” is fleeting and dependent on a fickle superior. And the midwife, Orito Aibagawa, early appears to have an extraordinary amount of power and self-possession, though even this proves of slight value against Enomoto’s wishes and her own desire to do right for those she lives with in the shrine.
As Greg at The New Dork Review of Books pointed out in his review of The Thousand Autumns, Mitchell exhibits some stylistic quirks that can impede the flow of the reading. The interruptions – characters talking over one another, characters’ thoughts cutting into conversation, details of the world inserting themselves midway through a conversation – at times run on until it is hard to keep track of the original conversation. One meeting is broken up by numerous times:
‘But what Yoshida-san proposes,’ objects Dr Maeno, ‘would require…’
A radical new government, thinks Uzaemon, and a radical new Japan.
A chemist unknown to Uzaemon suggests, ‘A trade mission to Batavia?’
Yoshida shakes his head. ‘Batavia is a ditch, and whatever the Dutch tell us, Holland is a pawn. […]‘
Mitchell’s style does sometimes prove a distraction, but at other times it affords a tremendous energy to the novel. These characters seem to live and breath, in their inability to censor either their thoughts or words. At other times, the sort of rapid-fire description to which Mitchell is prone provides a gorgeous backdrop for the characters. When de Zoet walks around Dejima, early on, it is almost as though he moves before an (very active) movie set:
In the garden, the cream roses and red lilies are past their best.
Bread is being delivered by provedores at the Land-Gate.
In Flag Square, Peter Fischer sits on the Watchtower’s steps. ‘Lose an hour in the morning, Clerk de Zoet,’ the Prussian calls down, ‘and you search for it all day.’
In van Cleef’s upper window, the Deputy’s latest ‘wife’ combs her hair.
She smiles at Jacob; Melchior van Cleef, his chest hairy as a bear’s, appears.
‘“Thou Shalt Not”,’ he quotes, ‘“Dip thy Nib in Another Man’s Inkwell.”’
The Deputy Chief slides shut the shoji window before Jacob can protest his innocence.
Outside the Interpreters’ Guild, palanquin bearers squat in the shadows. Their eyes follow the red-haired foreigner as he passes.
Through scenes like this Mitchell gives us a view of the workings of the whole island, not just Jacob’s small part of that world. It’s these details, provided rapid fire, that make the story such an engrossing one. Whether or not you are interested in Jacob’s early concerns with the trade mission, these descriptive sentences, sprinkled liberally throughout, offer a view of Dejima that is hard to resist.
As the novel progresses, Jacob becomes less a moving figure in front of the backdrop of Dejima, and more a part of that backdrop itself. He becomes involved, too, in the lives of Dejima’s Japanese residents. Mitchell does this so carefully, so gradually, that you don’t realize how fully Jacob has become a part of the island’s life until long after he is.
Mitchell has so many parts of this story moving at once that some elements are left to the side after a brief moment as seemingly central elements to the plot. Even this seems carefully orchestrated; Mitchell may move away from certain storylines, most notably that of Orito and the shrine, but this has the feel, again, of real life. Some characters on missions we would expect to be vital elements of the plot are lost, killed, forgotten; but their missions and lives have ways of quietly reasserting themselves, later on, through different characters and at unexpected moments.
While it may seem at odds to say that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet reads like a movie, and that it reads very much like life, this is the only way I can think of it. In shifting between the vision of Dejima as a moving backdrop to the dull life of a shipping company clerk, and a vision of that same clerk as an integral part of life on Dejima, Mitchell makes clear the distinction between living somewhere and being a part of life somewhere. Mitchell has written a book that is at the same moment overflowing with intrigue (holy moly, is there a lot of that; and this review can’t pass without a mention of Enomoto, perhaps best described as “dastardly” – one of the most fully and irredeemably evil characters I’ve ever read) and with the attempt to answer questions of how and where and why we choose to make our lives.