Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

by David Mitchell

It was through reading reviews of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel when it was first released in hardcover that I learned of David Mitchell and his work, which lead to my reading two of his other books (Black Swan Green and the brilliant Cloud Atlas) before tackling this rich and impressive novel.

Jacob De Zoet is a young Dutch man, working for the Dutch East India Company at the turn of the 19th century.  He has been sent to Dejima, the small island trading factory in Nagasaki Bay, at a time when Japan was kept strictly off-limits to foreigners.  The Dutchmen of the Company, with their various slaves and servants from other parts of the world, are practically kept prisoner, but are also the source of much lucrative trade, and the power that comes with it, and so are accorded a level of respect and deference.

De Zoet has arrived on Dejima with a new manager, the previous one having been revealed as a thief and scoundrel.  De Zoet's job is to perform some forensic accounting on the Company's books, and to determine how bad the damage is.  His goal is to raise enough money for himself through his honest work that he can return to Denmark and be with the girl he wants to marry.  Of course, it's not long before he meets the mysterious Orito Aibagawa, and he falls for her.

To all intents and purposes, the first third of this book gives the impression that the whole novel is a historical romance of manners and status, kind of like a historical multicultural Remains of the Day, but anyone who has read Cloud Atlas should know better than to expect that kind of adherence to conventions from a writer like Mitchell.

Soon enough, the book becomes more concerned with the goings on at a mountaintop shrine owned by a powerful Lord.  At this place, women are systematically 'engifted' with the seed of the monks at the shrine, although the purpose of this ritualized rape is unknown to just about everyone.  At this point, the book becomes a little more adventurous in nature, reminding me of a Kurosawa samurai movie.

Later still, a British frigate appears in the harbour, looking to take over Dejima and the trade that takes place there, and the novel tacks in yet another direction.

What makes all of this work is the steady hand of Mitchell's writing, and his strong sense of character.  As the story progresses, the characters, especially De Zoet, and his favourite Japanese interpreter, undergo a number of changes, and hold the reader's attention.

Mitchell does an excellent job of breathing life into such a foreign and distant point in History.  His description in the book is phenomenal, often using short declarative, almost haiku-like sentences to paint the scene for each new chapter or setting.

I really enjoyed this novel.

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